Legal Heroes: Mountaintop Removal Legal Heroes
Mountaintop removal mining has been described as the "government-sanctioned bombing of Appalachia". At this very moment, throughout southern Virginia, West Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee, the tops of mountains are literally being blasted off to expose the seams of coal underneath. After the coal is stripped away and shipped off, all that is left of a once vibrant, diverse mountain eco-system is a flattened and lifeless moonscape. Unequivocally, this practice deprives future generations of magnificence that was millions of years in the making. However, mountaintop removal mining doesn't only destroy mountains, it destroys lives. Residents of Appalachia have been forced to leave their homes and communities to escape the rubble, debris and endless noise pollution. Their streams and local water sources have been filled with displaced dirt, their air contaminated by heavy coal dust, and their rights ignored for the sake of profit.
Photo: Thunder Ridge Mine, courtesy Teri Blanton. Used with permission.
However, across the region, growing numbers of local activists are standing up for their communities and demanding that this practice stop. Teri Blanton, Maria Gunnoe, Ann League, and Pete Ramey are four such activists, each working tirelessly to win this decidedly uphill battle. Going against a formidable foe, these remarkable individuals spend their days reaching out to their communities, talking to the media, and demanding action from their legislators- truly doing all that they can to save the mountains, and the people, that they love.
The Sierra Club's Environmental Justice organizers, Bill McCabe and Bill Price, are on the ground in Appalachia working with Teri, Maria, Ann, Pete, and a growing number of activists and concerned community members to put an end to this incredibly destructive practice and bring new, green jobs to this area. The Environmental Law Program is actively working to support their efforts, and will continue to do so until this fight is won.
"When you blow up the most ancient mountains on earth, and call it cheap energy what does that say for us as a people?" In the hills of Kentucky coal country, Teri Blanton is a voice of change. An active member of Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, Teri's personal mission is to reach out to her community about the issue of mountaintop removal mining, "My goal is to help the people to find their own voice, and to let them know that they are not alone." Teri has most certainly done that, empowering citizens across the region to protect their health, safety, and property.
Teri came into the battle against mountaintop removal coal mining after already having spent years fighting for the rights of her community. A seasoned activist, Teri successfully fought to expose dangerous water contamination in her hometown of Dayhoit. Situated on top a federal Superfund site, toxic waste (the result of a mine machinery manufacturing plant using the land as their dumping site for 25 years) was leaching into the town's groundwater supply; though the well water in the town was toxic, no one had taken the time to educate residents about all the dangers and health effects that came from using it. Teri learned of the contamination, and began educating her family and community members. As part of the Superfund remediation efforts, clean water was pumped into the town, but residents were still using well water in their gardens and to fill their pools. If not for Teri, they would have had no idea that the well water was so contaminated that even using it for non-drinking purposes posed cancer and other health risks.
In another instance of protecting the health of Dayhoit residents, Teri led a campaign to hold a massive coal company responsible for widespread land and water contamination. Through her efforts, the company's illegal scheme to dump their waste and then declare bankruptcy to avoid clean-up was exposed, resulting in the company executives themselves having to pay for the damage they caused. Teri's hard work, dedication, and penchant for going against the odds and securing meaningful victories has carried over into her work on mountaintop removal. Through Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, she has worked to help save one community's last remaining clean stream. In mountaintop removal mining, after the mountain is destroyed, all of the dislodged earth and heavy metals are dumped into waterways and valleys, turning pristine streams to toxic sludge. Teri worked with the largely elderly residents of one Kentucky community that has been ravaged by destructive mining to protect their one unpolluted stream from this tragic fate. Against the odds, the stream was saved, but the larger battle still looms, "The industry has a real pull in this region. They spin what they're doing, and spend their money on public relations campaigns instead of on doing the right thing." However, despite the difficulties Teri is optimistic, "There is a movement building, especially in our youth. Seeing them standing up, it just gives you hope."
Maria Gunnoe is living in the heart of the mountaintop removal mining crisis. As a child, she spent her afternoons playing in the mountains that surrounded her family's land on all sides. In her lifetime, Maria has watched three mountains disappear from her horizon.
Mountaintop removal has devastated both the landscape and the very culture of Maria's home of southern West Virginia, "We used to have family reunions on the peak of one of these mountains, and now we don't have them anymore." Though Maria has remained, many residents have been forced to leave the area as their valleys are filled with the millions of tons of land that once was a mountaintop. Some of these towns have been the homes to families for generations. People are torn from their roots, left unable to revisit the places they went as children because those places no longer exist. "At 45 years old I can think of 10 communities in Boone County [West Virginia] that have literally been destroyed. I've seen the elders with tears running down their faces, knowing their homes are gone".
As an activist and employee of the Ohio Valley Environmental Council, Maria frequently attends public hearings on mountaintop removal coal mining permits. At one hearing, close to 60 coal industry employees came as an intimidation tactic. Maria has been threatened for her work, but blames the industry and not the individuals, "Citizens are standing up against the industry, who wants to turn around and label them things like 'tree-huggers'. They are trying to divide us- destroy us -from the inside out." But Maria refuses to back down, "I'm here to stay. You don't leave people alone to fight a battle for themselves, if you care about them and about who you are, you organize and fight together."
Ann League's connection with mountaintop removal mining began while she was in the woods exploring 25 acres of land she purchased in Campbell County, Tennessee. Taking a quiet walk in the area where she planned to build her dream house, she ran into a group of her neighbors. After asking them why they were all gathered there, Ann learned that the land they were standing on was the site of a proposed mining operation, and the mountain they called home would soon be cleared of trees, filled with explosives, and leveled. Outraged by the glaring injustice happening in her own backyard, Ann felt she "had no choice but to do something about it."
Today, Ann is an active opponent of mountaintop removal mining and the Vice President of Save Our Cumberland Mountains. She describes how she often encounters the perception that coal companies are a positive force in communities, and works to bring to light the reality that "coal companies of today are a whole different breed, much different from what people remember." Many people cling to the iconic image of the underground miner, however the explosive coal extraction that is going on in Appalachia right now is largely mechanized, creating much fewer jobs than traditional mining. "These companies come in and blow apart our land for profit, and meanwhile Kentucky communities are torn apart by poverty and unemployment. The people here are treated like their land doesn't matter, like their lives don't matter."
Ann's dedication to this cause is inspiring. Though she often feels like "a salmon swimming upstream", despite the obstacles she keeps on and holds true to her beliefs. "When I'm wandering through these hills, it's like I'm in a cathedral. I do this because it's what's right."
Pete Ramey has lived in Southwest Virginia his entire life. He grew up spending time in the woods near his home, hunting, fishing, and getting his drinking water from local streams. The scenic, bountiful area Pete Ramey knew is now gone, destroyed by mountaintop removal mining; "I love nature, I always have. I can't quote scientific figures, but I know what I saw when I was growing up here. I know that our air and water, the two most important resources we have, are being destroyed by greedy people."
Pete Ramey was a coal miner for 37 years. The son and grandson of coal miners, Pete understands the motivation of his friends and neighbors who work for coal companies in Southwest Virginia. He gets their need to provide for their families, and does not judge or blame them for what is being perpetrated in his state, "If my neighbor put down his tools and quit his job blowing up the mountains, then someone else would be there behind him to pick up where he left off. It is not about the people, it is about the situation. We need to change what this industry is doing, and bring new, sustainable jobs to Virginia."
Pete's ability to see the larger picture is part of what makes him such an effective and inspiring activist and leader. A Sierra Club member and President of Southern Appalachian Mountain Stewards, a group dedicated to putting an end to the destructive cycle of mountaintop removal mining, Pete spends his days organizing people to speak out about this issue. Early on in his fight, a coal company attempted to silence Pete using a Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation, or SLAPP suit. Rather than deter him, this unjust and underhanded tactic simply spurred him forward. Drawing wisdom and guidance from his strong religious connection, Pete points to a Biblical passage "God tells his people, do not pollute the land. Do not defile the place where you live and where I dwell. Some young people said that this environmental debate just started, and I told them that this debate began many years ago." Each day, Pete works with community members, churches, and local and national groups to raise awareness and promote sustainable energy for Virginia. Though he knows the road is long, Pete's unwavering dedication and belief keep him going, "It's not near as simple as I thought it was. But there is a better way, there has to be a better way, and I firmly believe that there is."