‘Roadmaps to New Power’: Interview with Coalfields Leader Lorelei Scarbro

Jeff Biggers Dec 3, 2010

Living on the frontlines of arguably the nation’s most important coal mining battle–the battle of mountaintop removal vs. wind energy on Coal River Mountain in West Virginia–Lorelei Scarbro has played a unique role in the clean energy movement. A coal miner’s widow–her husband died of black lung disease–Scarbro has publicly dressed down former WV Gov. (and now US Sen.) Joe Manchin that she lives in the “mountain state, not the extraction state,” lobbied legislators in Washington, DC to end mountaintop removal, met with the Obama administration and EPA officials, and been arrested in nonviolent vigils.

One of the most compelling witnesses to emerge out of the Appalachian coalfields, Scarbro has reminded her audiences around the country: “We don’t live where they mine. They mine where we live.”

Now with the coalfields reaching a tipping point of polarization, and her community languishing in economic uncertainty, Scarbro has joined with her neighbors in the Coal River Valley to establish the Boone-Raleigh Community Center in Whitesville, West Virginia, a breakthrough venture to provide a “third space” for sustainable development in the coalfields. Drawing on her experience as an artisan and community organizer, Scarbro sees the Community Center as a “neutral” place to bridge the divide between coal mining families, and provide opportunities for cottage industries, music and adult education, internet access, food and socialization, and most importantly—common ground to reclaim local traditions and initiative, and serve as a percolator for new ideas.

Like the famous Highlander Folk Center, which was founded in 1932 in a mined-out, deforested and impoverished area of eastern Tennessee, the Community Center seeks to serve as a catalyst for sustainable economic development in the coalfields.

I did an interview with Scarbro recently on the Center’s progress, and the possibilities of a just transition to new power in Appalachian coal communities.

JB: How did your community center emerge in a community often divided over the question of mountaintop removal?

LS: I have attended many protests, done public speaking and even been arrested in my own community to oppose MTR. When I have been involved in protests I have looked over the crowd and saw many of my family and neighbors. My son-in-law works for Massey Energy and I have a brother on a MTR site. I realized that if we are divided the industry wins and as long as we are screaming at each other we cannot communicate.

Our center was created to be a “Third Place” in this war zone where we all live. I believe one of the many ways to stop MTR is to find common ground. To find common ground we must have a neutral space. A space where we can park our demons at the door and work together to make the place that we all love a better place.

JB: How many miners in your area are employed in mountaintop removal operations, more or less, versus miners at other strip mining and underground operations?

LS: About 1/3 of the miners in the area do MTR compared to the other miners in the area.

JB: What sort of actual jobs do mountaintop removal operators do?

LS: Most of the jobs are heavy equipment operators, truck drivers and explosive “experts”.

JB: Do you think any “just transition” toward a diversified and clean energy economy will require federal and states assistance?

LS: While I believe the top down process does not work for us, we must have the assistance of state and federal agencies and resources. We believe that nobody knows better what we need than we do and you must ask us what the needs are. We don’t always know how to get it and we don’t have the resources. We need people to stand beside the people who have paid the highest price for coal and support us through a just transition to rebuild our economy from the ground up.

JB: Have any outside venture firms or entrepreneurs approached your community for clean energy manufacturing possibilities?

LS: Not that I am aware of. Other people working on community owned wind and biomass. We are working on the ground to try to empower the residents to find their voice, believe that what they have to say matters and to help our neighbors become more self sufficient. We started with a community greenhouse and that led to community gardens. We believe if we can grow it locally and buy it locally we will all be healthier and wealthier.
We are working to create a business incubator in our center where residents can start their own business. The center would pay the overhead and when their business is established they can move to one of the vacant buildings in the area. This would help to rebuild the town. Many community members remember when this area had thriving little towns and we would love to see that again.

JB: Do you think coal miners would participate in a GI Bill for coal miners, in terms of training and getting placed in other “clean energy” industries, such as reforestation, manufacturing, energy efficiency programs?

LS: I believe coal miners are just like other men and women. They want good paying jobs with good benefits. They want clean drinking water for their kids and a safe environment for them to grow up in.I know that the biggest problem we have here is we have no choices and we live in a mono economy. If they had choices they would not destroy the land that they love and they would not work in jobs where their life is at risk everyday.

I have asked federal legislators to set aside funds for retraining of workers who would need to transition inot clean energy jobs.

JB: The future for the Boone-Raleigh Community Center?

LS: We have big dreams and high hopes for this place.
We are creating a place where no matter which side of the issues you come down on we can come together and work on the things we agree on. We want to have workshops and classes where we can share and pass down the skills and traditions that are so much a part of our rich culture. We made apple butter in a 300 year old copper pot over an open fire in the middle of town. We had beginning banjo classes taught by a retired school teacher, cooking classes and line dancing. We are working on quilting classes, candle making, painting and many more,

I remember my little half Cherokee grandmother went to her grave with knowledge that I wish I had been smart enough to absorb from her. We believe we must harvest the knowledge of medicinal herbs, gathering of greens and many other skills from our elders
before those skills are lost forever.

We want to share and learn those things that gives us that sense of place.

This article was originally published on The Huffington Post.

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