Appalachia Should Abide

Painterly photo by my friend Wendy Johnston of Athens, WV,  shows Larry Gibson of Kayford, WV (the only time I have seen him without his cap, other than in this photo by Antrim Caskey) as he gazes out the window of the Metro bus police used to transport arrestees to  Anacostia for booking.  To the immediate left, ahead of the window frame,  is Dustin White,  of Charleston, WV, who grew up in the  endangered community of James Creek on Cook Mountain.


I've always loved the song Peter and Gordon recorded in the 60s, "Land of Oden", about a mountain 10,000 miles high and square:
Once every million years
A little bird comes winging,
Sharpens his beak
And quickly disappears.

And when that mountain,
it wears away
Then, to eternity
will be one single day.
On  September 25  in Washington, DC, I read to folks preparing to rally, march and sit in during the Appalachia Rising protest the following Monday. My poem "Looking Out Over An Abyss in Boone County" includes the line "mountains should abide."

Big Coal has decided against almost-eternity for Central Appalachia. Ours is a war zone. To get at thin seams of coal, Massey and others detonate fertilizer and diesel fuel – the same materials used to build truck bombs. They destroy up to 1,000 vertical feet, dump the resulting rubble into valleys: hauling it away would cut into profits. And while solid mountains are practically inert, pulverised, their rock poisons air; poisons headwater streams flowing through valleys, down to the Mississippi, into the Gulf of Mexico.Top soil and hardwoods? Companies often shun these gifts from nature, bury them as "overburden", standing in the way of getting at coal.

Companies that destroy the world for privatized profits and socialized harm are amoral or immoral. A government that won't protect us from such rogues is complicit. How are we supposed to live without air, without water?

After years, I'm still surprised by the lies. Take Massey spokesman Jeff Gllenwater, who told Peter Slavin, "There's no credible evidence of coal causing cancer." That depends on whom you find credible. I asked Michael Hendryx, at West Virginia University, about Gillenwater's claim. He wrote back:

No credible evidence of coal causing cancer"?  Nonsense.  There is abundant evidence.
Coal contains trace elements of a number of known carcinogens including arsenic, cadmium, chromium, nickel, beryllium, and others.  When coal is processed at local facilities after extraction, these elements enter the local environments in the air and in the water.  Furthermore, particulate matter from air pollution such as that caused by coal mining and processing is a well known cancer risk.  Water and air pollution from coal mining and processing are well established. This is to say nothing of coal combustion, which kills over 20,000 Americans every year from a variety of causes including cancer.

There is also solid epidemiological evidence that cancer death rates are higher in Appalachian mining environments compared to non-mining environments in ways that are NOT explained by smoking, diet, age, or other factors.

In short, there is credible evidence.

Big Coal, though, has money to spread lies, influence policy. Citizens sued to protect our mountains and won under the Clean Water Act, only to have the Bush EPA and Army Corps of Engineers reclassify mining waste as "fill", in 2002 – as if rubble were gravel being used to build bridges across streams.

Since then, we have sued some more, signed petitions, made phone calls, testified at hearings, written letters, travelled hours to meet with officials, appointed and elected – all to stop this stripmining on steroids. Still, the coal industry goes virtually unchecked.

So, yes, thousands went to Washington and marched on 27 September to tell the EPA to do its job. Yes, we continued on to PNC Bank to say stop funding this obliteration. Then, 115 folks sat down in front of the White House, in an act of civil disobedience, accepting arrest, to tell President Obama that, yes, he can do something, if he only will.

Appalachia and its people predate Big Coal. There's still a remnant of "almost heaven" and we're willing to share it. Come visit, educate yourself, join your voice with ours. Otherwise, these mountains will be squandered – not at the end of time, but in less than 20 years.

Note:  thanks to Bo Webb, who encouraged Matt Seaton of the Guardian to solicit a piece from me.  This originally appeared (with British spellings and dating conventions) on October 7 as "Appalachia rises as mining razes mountains."  I've restored Michael Hendrxy's quote in full, as I have no word limit here and I find the ellipses distracting.