Mountaintop removal coal mining is obliterating vast swaths of Appalachia in Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia and West Virginia. PHOTO: FLICKR.COM
The weekend of May 29-31 will mark the second annual NY Loves Mountains Festival, consisting of a reading of Sarah Moon’s new play Light Comes, a rally in
NY Loves Mountains, an all-volunteer environmental advocacy New York-based organization committed to raising awareness about the devastation of mountaintop removal coal mining, bills the festival as, “A weekend full of theatre, music, and activism promoting an end to mountaintop removal mining in Appalachia and natural gas drilling in the Catskills.”
Mountaintop removal is a new and especially invasive form of strip mining in which explosives are used to blast away the tops of mountains to uncover coal seams in
This mining practice is threatening the watershed of the southeastern
Sarah Moon is a cofounder of the festival, along with Stephanie Pistello. Moon’s play Light Comes connects the dots of our modern-day coal-fired electrical empire, from
The Indypendent spoke with Moon on May 11th about mining, theatre and everything in between.
KATRIN REDFERN: First off, let’s talk about what mountaintop removal coal mining is, and its effects.
SARAH MOON: The Appalachian forest is one of the most biodiverse regions in the entire world, so you’ve got this wealth of life there. That forest persisted during the Ice Age so it was the seedbed for all of
When I started researching for the play in 2007, I did a flyover tour of
Once the coal is extracted it’s washed with a mix of water and thousands of chemicals, creating coal slurry. There are currently 330 known coal sludge impoundments throughout
I was on a reclamation site just north of Hazard
KATRIN REDFERN: How is it different from underground mining?
SARAH MOON: They’re working from the top down so first they clear-cut then they plant the heavy explosives to loosen up the top of the mountain. That debris is then loaded up into trucks and dumped into valley fills, which is how streams get buried. You have the whole top of a mountain blown up and trucked away to expose the coal seams. Then they use these massive machines called draglines to get the coal and dump it into trucks to go to the railroads. So it’s this massive scale operation that’s only possible with heavy machinery powered by fossil fuels so just the extraction itself is putting carbon monoxide into the air.
KATRIN REDFERN: There used to be over 150,000 coal-mining jobs in
SARAH MOON: I think it’s a testament to the shadow that coal casts over that region — it has been the primary industry for as long as anyone can remember. Their lives, their parents’ lives their grandparents’ lives, and psychologically, even though the number of actual jobs that exist now aren’t as great as they were then, coal still maintains the same power it always had. Also those figures are important but it’s not entirely accurate in reflecting how many people are connected in some way financially to the coal industry. Because you might work for a company that makes chemicals that are used in coal processing, or you might work for a company that provides maintenance for a coal processing plant or leases machinery to a plant.
KATRIN REDFERN: What’s appealing about this method for the coal companies?
SARAH MOON: It’s cheaper than underground mining because you’re able to remove more coal at a faster rate, not dealing with a small space and human beings taking that coal out. It’s a bigger scale.
Strip mining, the precedent, started in the 1970s and mountain top removal started in the 1980s and picked up during the Bush administration because of a change in the Clean Water Act. They changed the definition of the word ‘fill’ in 2001 and that allowed mountain top mines to have the freedom to dump pretty much everything into the valleys. Prior there had been stricter regulation. This meant that mountaintop mining increased in the early 2000s, which is when the movement started to pick up steam as well. Now that we have an administration that seems to be more favourable to restoring the regulations that existed prior to Bush the movement is starting to see bigger progress.
It’s no surprise because the coal industry gave a great deal of money to the Bush administration and winning West Virginia was a huge boon for him, it allowed him to get past the Florida recount — he had the stability of these folks from West Virginia. It was a gift to the coal industry, to allow the practice of mountain top removal to amp up.
KATRIN REDFERN: It’s great that the Obama administration is challenging some of these 11th hour changes made by Bush in relation to coal, but it’s important to note that they’re just that, a return to the oversight that had originally been intended with the Clean Water Act, and not a ban on mountain top removal mining.
SARAH MOON: It’s a positive thing that we’re going back to the oversight of the Clean Water Act but we need something more aggressive. I don’t think the Obama administration absolutely opposes mountain top removal, they oppose it as it exists right now which is a great place to start. But the movement has a lot of work to do to convince them that it shouldn’t exist under any circumstances.
We live in this time where we’re getting more and more reliant on electricity so more reliant on coal. We’re also becoming more aware of climate change so that is starting to filter into the government but nothing’s really happening yet in a big way. We just have this fight over cap and trade versus a carbon tax but neither has been implemented and meanwhile coal burning continues apace.
KATRIN REDFERN: What about the bill the
KATRIN REDFERN: Tell us about your play.
The play intertwines the life of an Appalachian family whose land is threatened by mountaintop removal with the history of electricity that precipitated the destructive practice that now threatens an entire land and culture.
The play talks about the inception of electricity and how it was turned into a business, driven by Samuel Insull who started as Edison’s financial person, and ended up becoming the leader of the electrical empire in
It’s about how electricity was built into an empire, how it became this thing that was in its inception a novelty but became this huge monopoly that has created one of the most egregious environmental catastrophes. It’s because electricity was developed as private industry with a few people controlling it that we’re still so dependent on coal today.
Things changed in the electricity industry in the early 1990s because of deregulation. Any company could come in and produce electricity and use the existing wires or a company could be a middleman and buy electricity from
KATRIN REDFERN: Your partner at Headwater Productions, Stephanie Pistello, describes your vision of theatre as being inspired by the traditions of Bertolt Brecht and Augusto Boal — theatre that builds political consciousness.
SARAH MOON: I was most inspired as a theatre student by Brecht and his bravery in addressing social issues in 1930s
KATRIN REDFERN: So audiences come seeking resolution and experience it without upsetting the social fabric. What about Brecht?
SARAH MOON: Brecht obviously was not following the Aristotelian model. He created what he called Epic Dramas, with these episodic experiences and heroes that were going against whatever the mainstream power was and often succeeded. In The Caucasian Chalk Circle Grusha ends up winning the child at the end of the play from the king’s wife. She’s totally an autonomous person not under the control of the government and yet she succeeds. Whereas a character like Oedipus, who ends up being punished for his fatal flaw, that creates a catharsis that purges people of their oppositional traits. ‘Oedipus was too proud, he disregarded the Oracle and continued on his path.’ When the main character suffers a downfall because of their headstrong behaviours, someone who sees that who thinks they can accomplish whatever they really want is put in check by that. ‘Oh Icarus flew too close to the sun I need to remember my place and be humble’.
You see it today in storytelling all the time as well. It’s enforced impotence. It’s interesting when you start looking at film and TV that way — what kinds of behaviours are being encouraged and discouraged — in what context is it okay to succeed and in what context do we need to shove someone back in their place. Look at a film like Flashdancer, a really popular film for example. It’s emotionally satisfying, you get so swept up but if you sit back and look at it critically it’s interesting to consider the social implications of the film. But you’re not going to because you’re emotionally attached to this character and following her on her journey.
So Brecht having heroes that were opposed to the powers that be provided a template for spectators to see that this was possible. He liked creating that distance to interfere with that emotional attachment and encourage critical faculties. Also he saw having an emotional catharsis [from storytelling] as diluting activist tendencies or tendencies towards autonomy.
KATRIN REDFERN: He kept his audience from going on an emotional journey.
SARAH MOON: He wanted to have this very presentational theatre. He encouraged people to smoke a cigar while they were watching and he had signs that would give the titles of scenes and have characters dressed really over the top, everything really presentational to distance people emotionally from what they were seeing on the stage so they could view it critically and intellectually and be processing what the message was instead of getting so swept up emotionally that their intellectual faculties go away.
KATRIN REDFERN: And Boal pushed it a step further.
SARAH MOON: Stemming from the same observation he took a different tack, a really radical tack, saying lets bring the spectator into the action, really asking people to engage their brains to problem solve.
KATRIN REDFERN: By having the spectator become the protagonist.
SARAH MOON: Right, let’s take situations where a person comes up against the dominant power structure and fails and let’s have the spectator change the story in whatever way they believe will make the protagonist succeed in challenging that power structure. So people witness and experience what it is to overcome oppression, what it is to gain autonomy. Boal’s thing is having the ability to perceive the potential for alternate outcomes and that being a really radical thing. You know, ‘man beats his wife, woman stays submissive.’ Let’s bring this situation into the rehearsal room and have this woman who gets beaten and is submissive, let’s have her act out her story and show us that moment when the husband decides to hit her. And let’s have a ‘spect-actor’ as he called them step in and say okay this is how I see this story going differently. And the director saying okay get up and try it out. And the actor playing the husband has to do everything the same until that moment of change and then they react and we see what happens. Can you change this outcome, how do you stop perpetuating the victim-oppressor paradigm. So many of us are locked into that.
It’s immensely idealistic and Boal admits that he doesn’t know if this can work but he wants to try, and there’s no reason not to imagine that through theatre we can give people the tools to envision different outcomes and break that pattern of disconnect, of victim-oppressor, of tragedy — that certain people are doomed. Lots of stories of
KATRIN REDFERN: You teach writing at Baruch, freshman composition.
SARAH MOON: I find myself thinking so much about how writing is such an important tool for being a complete, democratic citizen, being able to articulate what you believe and having the confidence to do that. It allows you to have a voice, it gives you power. Especially being able to craft arguments and especially with evolving media where everybody has a blog, where you can post responses on the New York Times website in response to articles, having the ability to articulate your belief in the written word is in a way getting more important because there are more opportunities to have that in public now. Once you can do that you can have a discourse, and learn from that discourse. But until you can articulate what you think you can’t really have a legitimate discussion.
KATRIN REDFERN: How well do your students navigate the media landscape?
SARAH MOON: A lot of them come into class totally overwhelmed by the media — ‘It lies, it’s over the top, I don’t trust it’ — and because of that they’re also politically disengaged, because they get most of their politics from mainstream media. They spend a lot of time on social networking sites. I know they don’t watch the news. A lot comes from what their parents say, or catching snippets on some rock radio station. They get these ideas in their heads and don’t question them.
KATRIN REDFERN: How do you steer them to better sources?
SARAH MOON: They’re not confident about where to find good sources for info. Teaching them that there’s a really wide diversity of sources, NBC and CNN and the Times are not the end all be all. So having them do research empowers them in where they get their information and having them learn to write well gives them confidence in forming their own ideas. A lot of them don’t trust their own ideas. They’re learning tools that will help them being politically engaged.
KATRIN REDFERN: Where do you see the solution to our energy predicament?
SARAH MOON: We really have a responsibility as a society to decide collectively where our energy comes from and make that a responsible decision. The responsible decision is not coal. I think the solution is really diverse, there isn’t one energy source that’s going to replace fossil fuels. We have to embrace all the options. I don’t support nuclear as it exists right now, anything that produces toxic waste isn’t a good option. The problem is that there are these entrenched interests that see energy and see dollar signs. If you give an inch they’ll take a mile. It’s true of oil and also true of nuclear.
KATRIN REDFERN: What are your thoughts on so called “clean coal?”
SARAH MOON: It’s silly. It’s cleaner, the carbon dioxide and heavy metals that get sent out when coal is burned are sequestered and put in the ground so it’s still there. You’re using fossil fuel to dig out the coal, to ship the coal, to ship the sequestered carbon to its deposit site, and then taking the risk of having the sequestered carbon released — seeping up from a broken pipeline. It’s labor intensive, fossil fuel intensive, and not sustainable.
KATRIN REDFERN: In New York state, there are currently 13 power plants in 11 counties burning coal from Appalachian mountaintop removal coalmines. Over 240,000 tons of coal strip-mined through mountaintop removal operations are consumed by New Yorkers every year, requiring over three million pounds of ammonium nitrate and fuel-oil explosives detonated to blow off the tops of mountains. According to the
I read today in The Economist about this contingent in California that wants the western portion of the state to secede and become the 51st state, partly because of gay rights and partly because of the food issue. You have people in
KATRIN REDFERN: What about countries like China where every week to 10 days, another coal-fired power plant opens that is big enough to serve all the households in
KATRIN REDFERN: The first electric power plant was built by Thomas Edison, in
Lower Manhattan wasn’t it?
KATRIN REDFERN: So this year the festival will also focus on natural gas and its affect on the city’s drinking water. Why are you expanding to include natural gas as a focus?
We’re bringing in an awareness about natural gas drilling upstate [
KATRIN REDFERN: Water is the big issue of our time it seems.
The good thing is that new coal plants aren’t getting built. There’s a nexus now between nuclear and coal and water. Both coal and nuclear plants need massive amounts of water to produce energy. So in regions like the Southwest or the Southeast now where they’re facing drought situations, where water is tight, they’re not going to look to coal and nuclear plants, they’re going to look to solar and wind. There are activist efforts to shut down existing coal plants as well. But we don’t have anything ready to switch over to so there has to be a transition. They can’t acknowledge that in the coal industry, that we need to start making that transition.
It’s interesting that because water is becoming such a big issue, that’s threatening the fossil fuel industry on the extraction and burning level. A plant in
We’re at a potentially exciting place because people are seeing that fossil fuels aren’t the answer for so many reasons and that’s energizing our great thinkers, our scientific thinkers. Our system has been so clamped down and remained so static because the powers that fuel electricity haven’t wanted the source or method to change. But now you’re getting this infusion of scientific thought. The challenge is to prevent us from moving into another monopoly situation, this grab for power and the biggest chunk of the pie. My ideal vision is municipally owned power generators, whether that be wind farms or solar panels, a network of all of those things regulated through net metering so that people are generating electricity, sending it back to the grid. Doing that locally is the first thing that people can do who really want to make a change. Transition communities are springing up all over the country that are working to get off the grid both for their energy and their food. People don’t want to wait for the federal government to make it happen. That’s the human instinct for survival, at the fundamental level. It encourages cooperation among individuals and communities because you’re relying on each other for your power source. Community is a real issue in our culture. People are isolated. To me it’s everything — all the issues we face in society today can be solved by changing our attitude about where we get and how we use our resources. More and more people are seeing it that way as opposed to something scary. There’s always a fear of change that we have to deal with.
KATRIN REDFERN: What got you into environmental issues?
I didn’t get involved in environmental issues until working on this play. My previous play, Blue Ground, was about a fictional place where mining interests take over the government, but it was more political. The play before that was about women’s rights and the evolution of the female identity in American society.
KATRIN REDFERN: What are you working on now?
Finishing this play, I’ll do more refining after the reading for a production in August we’re planning to do at Actor’s Theatre of Louisville.