Appalachians push for clean water and climate justice with week of action

    Groups across Appalachia are organizing to give community a voice in deciding the future of their region.
    Activists with Appalachian Rising protest outside the EPA last year. (Flickr / The Alliance for Appalachia)
    Activists with the Alliance for Appalachia delivered hundreds of gallons of poisoned water to the EPA headquarters in Washington, D.C. last year. (Flickr / The Alliance for Appalachia)

    While much of the national climate movement has focused on gearing up towards the People’s Climate March in New York City later this month, frontline communities in Appalachia have been working hard at the local and regional level to address climate justice issues at the source.

    “Our people have been producing energy for this nation for over 100 years. We are proud of our heritage. But we can’t stay stuck in time,” said Teri Blanton, a long time organizer with Kentuckians For The Commonwealth and The Alliance for Appalachia. “In Appalachia we’ve already seen what climate change can do — denuded and destroyed landscapes, poisoned water and a corrupt political system — it’s all together and it’s all connected. We have seen first hand that what they do to the land, they do to the people.”

    One of the key issues Appalachian leaders are organizing communities around is water pollution; lack of access to safe water has been an issue for decades in the region, a grim irony considering the area is a temperate rainforest. Recent spills, such as the West Virginia coal-washing chemical spill that left 300,000 people without access to safe water, as well as coal ash and coal slurry spills in West Virginia, Virginia and North Carolina have elevated the issue of coal industry contamination of water to the national news.

    This series of toxic spills was part of the inspiration behind the Our Water, Our Future event planned for September 9, in Washington, D.C. The week of action is being hosted by the Alliance for Appalachia, a coalition of 15 groups from across the region that is making the link between environment and health, in order to build a healthy Appalachian future that can weather the storms of climate change. The group hopes to hold the Obama administration accountable to promises made to protect Appalachia.

    Five years ago the administration put forth a memorandum of understanding among federal agencies responsible for regulating mountaintop removal coal mining. At a scheduled inter-agency meeting with administration officials, Appalachian residents will discuss where the administration has fallen short and provide concrete solutions needed to protect their communities.

    Chief among community concerns are region-wide lapses in the regulation, enforcement and oversight of mountaintop removal operations, leaving communities vulnerable to dangerous mining pollution. Community members are requesting that federal agencies step in where state agencies are flagrantly violating laws such as the Clean Water Act.

    Two of the Appalachian residents traveling to Washington, D.C., are Daile Boulis, of Loudendale, W.Va., and Ginger Halbert, of eastern Kentucky. Both women have only recently become involved in activism for clean water and are planning to share their own struggles for safe water with the administration.

    Boulis got engaged when she saw the impacts of the January 2014 West Virginia coal washing chemical spill firsthand. She had safe well water, so her home became a hub for those without access to clean water. However, her once safe well is now threatened by a mountaintop removal sight.

    “There is this fear that if you speak out against coal you could lose your life, or at least have your family threatened,” she said. “But water pollution is already threatening my family, and I don’t want to roll over and take it.”

    Boulis lives near the Kanawha State Forest, a popular hiking area near Charleston, W.Va., that is threatened by a mountaintop removal mine. Due to the impacts of the chemical spill and now a mountaintop removal mine near her house, she has become active in the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition and other groups.

    “I’d like to take Charleston city tap water to Washington, D.C., and see if they are willing to drink our city water — because I still won’t,” Boulis said. “The rest of the nation needs to know what West Virginia goes through to keep America’s lights on.”

    Ginger Halbert has already had her well in eastern Kentucky ruined by nearby mining activity, and her family’s story is similar to many in the region.

    “Growing up, if we were out in the mountains and we got thirsty, we’d just drink out of the stream,” Halbert said. However, her family began getting rashes and suffering joint issues shortly after a coal company began mining near her house. Tests eventually showed dangerous toxic levels of beryllium in her well.

    Halbert has been struggling with state and federal agencies to receive justice for her family and her community, where she has noted elevated rates of cancer and other illnesses.

    “I had to forbid my son from washing his hands, and collect rain water to mop the floor,” said Halbert. “It’s a constant struggle. Water is a treasure you can’t appreciate until it’s gone. The government needs to know they are just as responsible as the coal company.”

    Lack of oversight and enforcement of the coal industry is one of the driving forces behind another campaign in Appalachia, the Justice to Justice campaign, which is led by Southern Appalachian Mountain Stewards, or SAMS, and supported by many of the groups working to plan the Our Water, Our Future event in Washington, D.C.

    The campaign was launched in part to honor the tragic 10-year anniversary of when a boulder, dislodged from a mountaintop removal site rolled down a hill and killed three-year-old Jeremy Davidson while he was sleeping in his bed. The surface mine is still in operation in the town of Appalachia, Va., though it is out of compliance with federal law.

    The group is calling for billionaire coal baron Jim Justice — the man whose company was responsible for the accident — to “clean up his mess, pay off his debts and stop poisoning our water.”

    Justice is popular in his home state of West Virginia for purchasing the historic Greenbrier Resort and for coaching the local high school basketball team. However, Justice’s record in the region provides an illustrative example of the legacy of corruption, economic injustice and extreme pollution that organizers are fighting against. Justice operates mines in West Virginia, Kentucky, Virginia and Tennessee, and has recently caught the attention of federal and state agencies for failure to report pollution discharges, bond forfeiture for failure to properly reclaim strip mine operations, and violations for dangerous fly rock in West Virginia. In addition, at least nine lawsuits have been filed by unpaid mine workers in the last year alone.

    “We’ve been door knocking in the coal camps near the mines Justice runs, and nobody likes the guy,” said Jane Branham, a volunteer with the Justice to Justice campaign and SAMS.  “It seems like every day we hear from another business owner who has been ripped off by Justice and wants to sign our petition. They want to see Justice held responsible for his actions.”

    However, Justice’s generous contributions to politicians, including over $400,000 to Kentucky Governor Steve Beshear, make residents dubious about state agencies’ interest in holding Justice accountable to his debts. Last month, Kentucky state regulators made a deal with Justice to reduce the fines he owed from $4.5 million to $1.5 million, as well as allowing Justice to resume mining operations that had been stopped due to environmental problems.

    “Most people know that the state of Kentucky lets coal operators get away with anything that they want,” stated Stanley Sturgill, a former mine inspector and retired coal miner from Lynch, Ky., now active with Kentuckians For The Commonwealth. “If the state can’t do their job to protect Kentucky, the federal government needs to step in and do it for them. I have told the EPA: The people where I live are dying — and they’re dying with your help. It’s really hurting us here.”

    Branham points out that the impacts of outlaw mine companies aren’t just affecting day-to-day life and health, but the region’s ability to create a future.

    “Our water is polluted, our people are sick and it’s past time to clean up this mess coal companies have left behind,” she explained. “There’s enormous potential for jobs in healing the land. Justice wants more permits to expand the mountaintop removal in our community, and we need it to stop while we still have a chance to transition away from coal to something more sustainable.”

    An ambitious project working in the region to create a more sustainable future for Appalachia is the Appalachian Transition Fellowship project, spearheaded by the Highlander Research and Education Center, the civil rights stalwart located in eastern Tennessee. This project places year-long fellows at innovative sites across the region working to create an economically just and thriving future.

    This program, along with many partners throughout the region, sees the economic decline of coal in the region as an opportunity to focus on creating a truly just and sustainable economic system for Appalachia.

    “One of the most exciting aspects of this program is that youth are creating the opportunities,” said Kendall Bilbrey, an Appalachian Fellow through The Alliance for Appalachia. “We don’t know yet what Appalachian transition looks like for the whole region. We do know there isn’t just one way, but many ways we will come together — it’s multifaceted and has to be done by many people at different levels.”

    According to Blanton, who has worked on the dual issues of stopping destructive coal mining and diversifying the economy for over a decade, “We need to re-frame the changes ahead as reinvestment because it is a positive opportunity for Appalachia. We could employ 10 times the amount of workers just fixing the messes coal companies have left behind.”

    Indeed, a 2010 study by West Virginia-based Downstream Strategies showed potential for up to 35,000 new jobs in the Central Appalachian region through the remediation of bond forfeiture sites, abandoned mine lands and acid mine drainage sites.

    Bilbrey’s fellowship is focused on the issue of land reclamation. Some communities have seen up to 25 percent of their land destroyed by coal mining; unreclaimed land is a serious impediment to rebuilding the region. Through the program, Bilbrey is working with another fellow, Eric Dixon based at the Appalachian Citizens’ Law Center to create a community-led campaign to use Abandoned Mine Land Funds for the benefit of Appalachia.

    “I’d love to see the Abandoned Mine Land fund actually reclaiming land and helping communities that have lost so much from coal impacts,” Bilbrey said. “But in addition to being able to clean up the water, to grow food again, or install solar panels, Appalachian people need to have a voice in the future of our region.”

    The Our Water, Our Future event in Washington, D.C., this week, as well as the other ambitious projects outlined above, aim to do just that: give those most impacted by mountaintop removal and the toxic legacy of coal a seat at the table to decide the next steps for Appalachia.

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