By Jessica Lee
The electricity that illuminates homes and fuels industry is bright and silent. Communities fighting devastating coal mining practices, however, are not. With the price of oil skyrocketing, and new technologies making extraction cheaper and more efficient, coal mining is in a boom. But from explosions, floods of toxic sludge, coal dust pollution and an increase in car accidents related to overloaded coal trucks, the mining of coal is taking a disastrous toll on the environment and life in local communities.
In Appalachia, where nearly four hundred million tons of coal were mined in 2005, Mountain Justice Summer, a network of environmental and community activist groups focused in Kentucky, West Virginia, Virginia and Tennessee, is organizing to stop mountaintop removal mining, which destroys entire mountain ranges to unearth coal seams below the surface. Forests are razed, explosives blast the tops off mountains, and adjacent valleys and rivers are buried under mining waste.
Concerned residents began speaking up following the 2002 u.S. Court of Appeals ruling that declared that mining waste could be considered “fill” under the Clean Water Act. The decision allowed for the depositing of mining waste into waterways. More than 1,200 miles of streams have already been buried by mining waste in Appalachia.
Mountain Justice Summer has organized groups to monitor coal permits and mining practices. They have conducted water and vegetation surveys and have engaged in local listening projects. The group has also called political rallies and engaged in civil disobedience with the hope to pressure government to pass laws prohibiting the practice of mountain top removal mining.
A recent action brought the movement to the heart of West Virginia state government. Thirteen parents, community leaders and student activists were arrested March 21, 2007, during a sit-in at the office of Governor Joe Mancin. They were protesting the recent decision by the West Virginia State Mine Board to approve a second coal silo near March Fork elementary School in the town of Sundial, home to a 1,849-acre mountain top removal mine. At the current silo, which is150 feet from the school, coal is loaded onto trains and then sprayed with a chemical binding agent. The operation has led to coal dust contamination within the school.
More frightening for residents is that 400 yards directly above the school is a 385-foot earthen dam holding back 2.8 billion gallons of toxic coal sludge waste, a by-product of coal processing. Parents and local residents fear that a repeat of the 1972 sludge dam disaster in Buffalo Creek, West Virginia, in which a dam containing coal sludge broke. The breach released millions of gallons of toxic sludge, killing 125 people, and leaving 80 percent of the community homeless.
Mountain Justice Summer is looking for volunteers to help defend the mountains. You can also help from home. More information at: mountainjusticesummer.org