Willie Nelson Joins the Fight Against Mountaintop Removal

I originally published this post on 3/24/14 at 11:59 PM and updated it on 3/25 at 8:59 PM after having time to find links to various court documents.


Mountaintop removal affects an estimated 12 million acres located in the Appalachian Mountains of Kentucky, West Virginia, Virginia, Tennessee, Pennsylvania, and Ohio.

 In the latest episode of the coal wars, as the House prepares to vote on HR 2824 which would shackle the Obama administration from any effort to save the mountains and water in those states, Willie Nelson has joined the effort, Music Saves Mountains. The Natural Resources Defense Council-produced YouTube video ironically juxtaposes Nelson's rendition of America the Beautiful with scenes of the destructive mining practice. Other artists involved in this project against mountaintop removal include Emmylou Harris, Dave Matthews, Sheryl Crow, Kathy Mattea, Naomi Judd, Justin Townes Earl, and Ben Sollee.

 The so-called "Preventing Government Waste and Protecting Coal Mining Jobs in America"  would amend the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act of 1977 to implement President Bush's 2008 parting gift to the coal industry: repeal of a 100-foot buffer rule in the Clean Water Act, thus allowing companies to dump mining waste directly into streams.

The Bush administration’s failure to enforce the buffer zone law destroyed 535 miles of stream between 2001 and 2005, when he stopped keeping count. The repeal of the buffer zone rule would allow more than 1,000 miles of streams to be destroyed each decade while the "further study" is conducted.

The House vote comes after a February 2014 court decision to invalidate the Bush measure because Bush's Office of Surface Mining had failed in an "arbitrary and capricious" fashion to consult with the Fish and Wildlife Service before issuing the new standards and relied instead on an outdated 1996 biological opinion which did not include current information about the effects of strip mining, especially when it came to informing a rule issued more than a decade later.  The suit was brought by the Southern Environmental Law Center on behalf of the National Parks Conservation in 2009.  The Judge allowed the suit to go forward despite the Obama administration's contention that there was no longer a case or controversy. Earlier suits on behalf of other environmental groups were settled by a consent decree in March 2010 after the Department of Interior agreed to promulgate a new rule.

U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia Senior Judge Barbara Rothstein wrote in her opinion: "Faced with clear evidence that habitats within stream buffer zones are home to threatened and endangered species and that mining operations affect the environment, water quality and all living biota, OSM's determination that the revisions to the stream protection rule encompassed by the 2008 Rule would have no effect on threatened and endangered species or critical habitat was not a rational conclusion."

 In a March 5 floor speech, Daniel Webster (R-FL) was pretty disingenuous: "H.R. 2824 is simple. It tells OSM to put in place the 2008 rule, study the results, and report to Congress. If the study reveals a need to draft a new rule, then a new rule should be drafted. By putting in place the already finalized 2008 rule, H.R. 2824 ensures that our streams are safe while further study is conducted.

How exactly does the rule ensure our streams are safe? The Reagan-era buffer was to have applied unless water quality and quantity would not will not be adversely impacted---a pretty tall order for mountain top removal mines which in the name of sometimes 1,000 feet wide and mile-long "valley-fills" dump the pulverized (and toxic) remains of mountains on top of headwater stream beds. If the interest were in saving government waste, rather than prohibit the reversal of Bush's 11th hour stealth attack, why not just reinstate the the 1983 rule? And as far as protecting coal mining jobs, that's not exactly a slam dunk either, as mountaintop removal requires far fewer miners than deep mining.


Mountain Justice Holds UBS Accountable for Funding Mountaintop Removal in Series of Protests

Graphic adapted from the tour flyer for Hands Off Appalachia and Mountain Justice- sponsored February 2013 speakers tour for the 15 arrested in Stamford CT on November 25.


Today I received a guest post from Ricki Draper on Mountain Justice sit-ins at UBS branches  in Asheville, NC; Johnson City, TN; Kingsport, TN; and Roanoke, VA in an attempt to meet with UBS branch managers.  The actions were part of Mountain Justice Spring Break in Virginia, which has been taking place March 1 - 9 in the Town of Appalachia, VA, co-hosted by the RReNEW Collective and Southern Appalachian Mountain Stewards.   I'll be posting photographs from the action after I receive captions from Draper.  

Our mountains in Appalachia continue to be destroyed for coal with the help of big banks such as UBS.  I wrote about Hands Off Appalachia and its occupation of UBS banks back on labor day in 2012 and I have written about Mountain Justice since at least 2008  and published  guest pieces by authors including  Ash-Lee Woodard Henderson of TN, Sarah Vekasi of NC and Rachel Parsons of WV. 

Draper's piece didn't include links, so let me provide some in this introduction.  Draper, of Knoxville, TN, was part of the November 25 occupation of UBS in Stamford Connecticut, following the bank's Parade Spectacular the previous day.

If you want to read further about the January 9, 2013 WV Chemical Spill and its aftermath, my piece is here and there's an excellent archive of new articles at the Charleston Gazette.  If you want to read about the health effects of mountaintop removal, Vivian Stockman of the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition in Huntington WV, has compiled this archive.


Ricki Draper writes,

Early this afternoon, dozens of activists demonstrated at UBS offices throughout the southeast. They attempted to meet with UBS branch managers in Asheville, NC; Johnson City, TN; Kingsport, TN; and Roanoke, VA, and staged a sit-in in each office to demand a meeting.  The protests are a part of Mountain Justice Spring Break, which is an alternative spring break trip where college students learn about the biodiversity, culture, and history of resistance in Appalachia.

Today, activists are asking regional UBS offices to act as witnesses to the harm that mountaintop removal coal mining causes Appalachian communities. They are asking regional managers to contact UBS Americas and urge an end to UBS’s funding of mountaintop removal.

For 10 years, Mountain Justice has worked to end mountaintop removal and support the people at the frontlines of the struggle.

Jane Branham, of Norton, VA says, “Mountaintop removal is killing people  and poisoning our future in Wise County. VA. Banks like UBS are making this tragedy possible through their investments in criminal coal companies. We demand that UBS get out of this outlaw enterprise, and stop investing in the destruction of our Appalachian mountains”.

Mountaintop removal is an extreme form of strip-mining in which coal companies blast up to a thousand feet off the top of a mountain to extract thin seams of coal.  The resulting rubble is often placed in the valley below burying headwater streams.  Over 1 million acres of forest in Central Appalachia have been destroyed and over 2,000 miles of streams have been buried by this practice.  Recent research has linked mountaintop removal to increased rates of cancer, birth defects and cardiovascular disease in communities near these mining operations.  Additionally, mountaintop removal and the process of cleaning coal from MTR sites in Appalachia has lead to catastrophic events. Most recently, a chemical used to process coal, MCHM, leaked into the Elk River and poisoned the drinking water of nine counties in West Virginia on January 9. Since that time, residents continue to have limited access to clean drinking water and suffer health impacts from the use of the tainted water.

UBS is a top funder of companies that conduct mountaintop removal such as Alpha Natural Resources, Patriot Coal, and Arch Coal.

Tyler Cannon, of Logan West Virginia delivered a letter to the Johnson City UBS office today and asked to meet with the regional manager. He said, “In communities around MTR mines, like the one I was raised in, there are increased rates of heart disease, respiratory disease, developmental diseases, over 50 percent greater likelihood of having a deadly cancer, and the life expectancy is 24 years below the national average, and if that doesn't qualify as a human rights violation, then I'm not really sure what does. So we're here to demand that this be stopped”.

UBS’s existing policy claims to “recognize the potential environmental, social, and human rights impacts of this industry sector” and take into consideration “concerns of stakeholder groups”, but UBS officials have never travelled to Appalachia to witness the impacts or met with impacted community members until Hands Off Appalachia met with UBS in November.  The policy also claims to take into account regulatory compliance, but UBS financed Massey Energy and oversaw their merger with Alpha Natural Resources even after Massey was fined $20 million by the EPA for over 4,600 violations of the Clean Water Act...


Frank X Walker: Even More than a Griot

Cropped screen shot from the Kentucky Educational TV video "Frank X Walker: I Dedicate This Ride" for the Kentucky Muse Series.  I published this post on 3/3/13/14 at 8:57 PM and last updated it on 3/5/2014 at 8:30 PM.


Frank X Walker's play I Dedicate This Ride, about Black Kentucky  jockey Isaac Murphy (1861-1896), is showing today through March 9 in Lexington KY with the Message Theatre troupeMurphy  became the subject of Walker's 2010 poetry collection of the same name when Frank X was commissioned to write a play that year at the Lexington Children's Theater.  The photo below of that production is by Rich Copely for the Lexington Herald-Leader.  

Walker's fellow Affrilachian poet Kelly Norman Ellis, has compared him to the griots: West African historians, storytellers, praise singers, poets and keepers of the oral tradition.  To me, Frank X is even more: with the oral tradition often vanished, he sifts through what remains in a variety written and sometimes video records and re-imagines and creates those praise songs.

Such was the case with  his wonderful poetry collection, Turn Me Loose, The Unghosting of Medgar Evers for which he won an NAACP Image Award last month.  (I was thrilled--Virginia Tech Library ordered the book  at my request, when it was first published.)

As in Turn Me Loose, Frank X  makes us feel history through imagining the voices of his protagonist  and those who surround him.  In I Dedicate This Ride, the speakers include Burn's wife Lucy, his mentor African-American trainer Eli Jordan, and his parents James and America Burns.  As Walker recounts in the KET video about his research:

It wasn't even the Isaac poems.  It was the research that revealed the poems that I wrote about Lucy and Eli Jordan and his parents that really made it a story to me.  Because I think Isaac just telling his own story would have been pretty flat and uninspiring.  But when you appreciate it in the context of a really good student who rose from nothing to become the greatest rider in the world.  The thing about the research that amazed me about the research is they spent more time talking about his character and his high values and how he conducted his life than they did talking about his success as a jockey.

Message Theatre started in the 1980s and produced plays through about 1994.  It relaunched in January with a performance of The Meeting, a two-man play about a fictional meeting between Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X.

Here's the title poem, spoken by Isaac Murphy.  You can listen to Frank X read "I Dedicate This Ride" starting at minute 2:06  in the KET video.

When I come barreling down the stretch
I always think about my daddy, James Burns,
a runaway slave turned soldier.

At the start of every race I pretend
he's in the crowd, standing at attention
watching me ride for the first time,
his brass belt buckle gleaming
like his proud mouth.

I tell myself I don't dare lose,
that this race is for the Union.
For all ex-slaves who joined up,
who stole away with their families.
They taught us about sacrifice,
dug trenches, carried supplies
and ate a whole lot of rebel bullets

just so they could keep the freedom
they hungered so much for.
Just so their children could dream.

So I could ride horses and enjoy true quiet
and these visits with him
in the middle of all this noise.
The video includes other poems, excerpts from the play and interviews with Walker and others  about his creation of the work. It also includes footage the March 2011  Symposium on Affrilachia which Walker convened in Lexington at the University of KY, where he's on faculty. (That's where I got to meet him after knowing about his work for years and you can see me a couple of times when the camera pans to the audience.)

The video also captures Frank X talking about how he coined the word "Affrilachian."

I looked up the dictionary definition of Appalachian and it saw that it said white residents of Appalachian region and this disturbed me a little bit because I'd already accepted that the best writers in the State of KY at the time were Appalachian writers, but if that definition was correct, it meant that I coudl never be an Appalachian writer. I coudl never be one of the best writers in the state.


Yesterday, as the Academy awards were being shown, I learned via facebook from Washington Post environmental journalist Darryl Fears (article archive, twitter, facebook)  that Lupita Nyong'o had won an Oscar for what we both regard as a spectacular performance as Patsey in Twelve Years a Slave.   Darryl pointed me to Katie Calautti's (twitter) essay on Patsey, "What Will Become of Me.?" I told him that's the same question which  has haunted me since viewing the film.  And although I'm not one to give assignments, I'd bet that Frank X Walker would be up to the task of answering that question.

Of course, the records were probably more easily available on the folks Walker has chosen in the book's I've mentioned here. Medgar Edgars tragic death and the long battle to convict his murderer have been a topic much written and spoken about during my lifetime.  And Isaac Murphy was first to win the Kentucky Derby three times (1884, 1890, 1891). Part of the lore is that rather than use a whip or spurs, Isaac would simply talk to his horses.

I didn't realize until I read this collections the mostly lost history of Blacks in horse racing.  In the very first Kentucky Derby winners, thirteen of the fifteen jockeys were Black and of the first twenty-eight Derbies through 1902, fifteen of the winning riders were Blacks....before such jockeys began to disappear from the sport throughout the 20th century.

And even when history is "preserved" it can be dismaying:  Murphy's disinterment from what his family thought would be his final resting place gets told with a straight face by the Kentucky racing industry. 

For years, Murphy's grave was left untouched and nearly forgotten in an abandoned cemetery in Lexington, Ky. Finally in 1967, after a long search, his remains were found, exhumed and reburied at the old Man o' War burial site, and then were moved again, along with Man o' War, to the Kentucky Horse Park prior to its opening in 1978. Today, Murphy rests near Man o' War and some of his illustrious descendants, a champion among champions. 
As if getting re-buried with a horse and its descendent as his fellow champions were some kind of honor...maybe one only members of PETA could love.  What, if, instead, the racing industry had help restore the original cemetery?

What happened brings to my mind Traveler getting buried with Robert E. Lee.  Should we take comfort in the fact that Kentuckians didn't put Murphy's bones on display after disinterment, as Virginians did with Traveler for a time. Sadly, as the KET video points out, Murphy's beloved Lucy got left behind.

Kind of like Patsey.  Frank X Walker brings both Issac amd Lucy Murphy  back to us--along with  James and America Burns and Eli Jordan--and it is a great gift, and like them, worthy of praise.


UPDATE  3/5/2014

I contacted Dave Zirin, a  political sportswriter and sports editor for The Nation via titter and he kindly"favorited" my tweet. 

Jennifer Nardine, who handles acquisitions for the English Department for Newman Library at Virginia Tech, wrote me this morning to say she was ordering I Dedicate This Ride for the collection.

In doing a little more reading, I learned the reason for the disappearance Black jockeys from racing is truly ugly, as recounted by Christopher Klein (twitter) last year when Kevin Krigger from San Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands, was only the second Black jockey to race in the Derby after 1921.
The rising tide of institutional racism that swept across Gilded Age America finally seeped into the world of horse racing. Jim Crow was on the ascent, and the U.S. Supreme Court itself blessed segregation in the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson decision. Emboldened by the societal changes, resentful white jockeys at northern raceways conspired to force blacks off the track, in some cases literally. During the 1900 racing season, white jockeys in New York warned trainers and owners not to mount any black riders if they expected to win. They carried out their threats by boxing in black jockeys and riding them into—and sometimes over—the rails. In a cruel irony, free sons of former slaves felt the sting of whips directed their ways during races. Race officials looked the other way. Owners realized that black riders had little chance of winning given the interference. Even Willie Simms, the only African-American jockey to win all three of the Triple Crown events, had to beg for a mount.

By 1904, black riders had been virtually banned from the major racetracks, including Churchill Downs, and the complexion of the Kentucky Derby had been changed forever. Black participation dwindled, and no African-American rode the race between 1921 and 2000, when Marlon St. Julien guided Curule to a seventh-place finish.

Barred from the United States, African-American jockeys took their talents to Europe. Winkfield, [Jimmy Winkfield matched Murphy's back-to-back Derby win the 1902 Kentucky Derby] for instance, starred in Czarist Russia, and after the Russian Revolution he raced in Poland, Germany, and France before retiring with some 2,600 wins in an incredible career. No black man has won the Run for the Roses since Winkfield’s 1902 triumph.