Something's Rising: Appalachians Fighting Mountaintop Removal

BOOK: Something's Rising: Appalachians Fighting Mountaintop Removal
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Appalachians Fighting
Mountaintop Removal

Silas House


Jason Howard

Foreword by Lee Smith


The oral narratives in this book reflect the experiences and opinions of the interviewees and do not necessarily reflect the views of the authors or the University Press of Kentucky.

Copyright © 2009 by The University Press of Kentucky

Scholarly publisher for the Commonwealth, serving Bellarmine University, Berea College, Centre College of Kentucky, Eastern Kentucky University, The Filson Historical Society, Georgetown College, Kentucky Historical Society, Kentucky State University, Morehead State University, Murray State University, Northern Kentucky University, Transylvania University, University of Kentucky, University of Louisville, and Western Kentucky University. All rights reserved.

Editorial and Sales Offices:
The University Press of Kentucky 663
South Limestone Street, Lexington, Kentucky 40508-4008

13  12  11  10  09    5  4  3  2  1

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

House, Silas, 1971–

    Something's rising : Appalachians fighting mountaintop removal / Silas House and Jason Howard ; foreword by Lee Smith.

        p. cm.

    Includes bibliographical references and index.

    ISBN 978-0-8131-2546-6 (hardcover : alk. paper)

  1. Mountaintop removal mining—Environmental aspects—Appalachian Region, Southern. 2. Landscape protection—Appalachian Region, Southern—Citizen participation. 3. Environmentalism—Appalachian Region, Southern. 4. Celebrities—Appalachian Region, Southern—Interviews. 5. Appalachian Region, Southern—Environmental conditions. I. Howard, Jason, 1981–II. Title.

TD195.C58H68 2009

338.2'7240974—dc22                                              2008049846

This book is printed on acid-free recycled paper meeting the requirements of the American National Standard for Permanence in Paper for Printed Library Materials.

Manufactured in the United States of America.

Member of the Association of
American University Presses

For Cheyenne and Olivia:
       This is your heritage; protect it.


For Garrison and her fighting spirit.


We offer this book in honor
of the coal miners in our own families
and to all the children of Appalachia
who witness injustice in its many forms

Something's rising
Up on Cranks Creek
People rising to turn the tide
Something's rising
Up on Cranks Creek
People say it won't be the water this time.

                        —Bev Futrell, “Cranks Creek”

Who's gonna stand up?
And who's gonna fight?

                        —Hazel Dickens

What's folks going to live on when these hills
wear down to a nub?

                        —James Still,
River of Earth


Silas House and Jason Howard are both sons of Appalachia, their family lives intertwined with coal mining.
Something's Rising
bears witness to the people they love and the lives they have lived—and still live, with great courage, right here in Appalachia.

House and Howard present a straightforward, knowledgeable, and cogent explanation of exactly how mountaintop removal came to be, and exactly what it is: “an entire mountain is blown up for a relatively thin seam of coal,” followed by giant machines that push dirt, rocks, and trees into the valleys below, destroying streams, wildlife, and the lives of any people in the way. They trace the legislation that has allowed this to happen as well as the history of social protest in the region and the problem of insufficient media coverage both nationally and locally. They present the radical idea that censorship has to do not only with the too-familiar hillbilly stereotyping and the deep pockets and utter ruthlessness of big coal, but also with “class…and a spreading national prejudice against rural areas and the people who live there.” It has to do with Appalachians' own ingrained apathy and powerlessness as well as our unwillingness to “rock the boat”—or to be perceived as “unpatriotic.”

So it is
, what these boys are doing here, publishing this book, which comes after years of tireless activism for both of them—writing and speaking out everywhere, running tours into mountaintop removal areas, joining and leading public demonstrations, forming and performing widely with their band Public Outcry.

Natural storytellers every one, the people profiled and interviewed in this book are all taking a personal risk when they stand up and speak out in these pages—as they are doing every day in their lives. Their stories put a human face on this urgent issue;
their stories add a human voice to the dire statistics. Their stories make it real.

Jean Ritchie tells about her own idyllic childhood, in a time before mountaintop removal mining: “Sometimes, I think of when I was a little girl there, in that place. The mountains circling around us like we were down in a little bowl. My happiest memories are of the times I was walking out in those mountains.…I had a special rock that jutted out, just big enough for a seat. I'd take me an apple and set there and I'd talk out loud, to the trees and flowers.” Contrast this with Judy Bonds's story about taking her grandson to play in the creek, where he found “this white gooey stuff in the bottom…polyacrylamide. It's absorbed through the skin…it causes burns on the inside of your body, it causes cancer. They all use polyacrylamide at the preparation plants.” Judy also tells us that “the kids here are sleeping fully clothed at night, plotting out escape routes, just waiting for the next Buffalo Creek.”

Something's Rising
is a moving document of human hope, love, and determination. Let's hope that “courage is contagious,” as House and Howard believe. And let's do everything we can to help them get the word out.

Lee Smith


We offer our heartfelt thanks to all of the following, who helped in manners large and small, whether it be by offering tips on good subjects, singing songs that inspired us, passing along news, telling stories of their own, or serving as a guiding spirit: Lisa Abbott, Josiah Akinyele, Pat Beaver, Wendell Berry, Kate Black, Teri Blanton, Richard Bradley, Brooke Calton, Scotty Cox, Robin Daugherty, Pam Duncan, Dorothy Emery, Ashley Judd Franchitti, Amanda Fretz, Frank and Norma Garrison, Jan Goff, Ricky Handshoe, Harold and Ann Hayden, Marcy Hayden, Judith Victoria Hensley, Jane Hicks, the Hindman Settlement School family, Chester and Kathy Howard, Kate Larken, Burt Lauderdale, Lincoln Memorial University, Don London, Denton Loving, Sylvia Lynch, George Ella Lyon, Maurice Manning, Representative Harry Moberly, Myrtle and Debbie Moore, Mike Mullins, Ann Pancake, Representative Don Pasley, Kevin Pentz, George Pickow, Erik Reece, the Reel World String Band (Bev Futtrell, Karen Jones, Heather Roe Mahoney, Sue Massek, Elise Melrood, and Sharon Ruble), Eleshia Sloan, Lora Smith, Ben Sollee, McKinley Sumner, Patty Tarquino, Neela Vaswani, Marianne Worthington, Jack Wright, Colleen Unroe, and Aimee Zaring.

Among the heroes who inspired this book are Ollie “The Widow” Combs, Dan Gibson, Judy Hensley, Aunt Molly Jackson, Florence King, Florence Reece, Bill Strode, and Nellie Woolum. We were especially moved by the dedication of the more than 1,200 people who participated in I Love Mountains Day 2008; we extend all of them our gratitude. And we offer a tip of our hats to Angela Collins's fifth-grade class at Crestwood Elementary, who refuse to abandon their fervent belief that mountaintop removal is wrong and ought to be stopped, even in the face of bullying by those in power.

We are blessed to work with such people as our editors, Laura
Sutton and Donna Bouvier, and everyone at the University Press of Kentucky, who care about this book as much as we do. Most of all, we thank the subjects of this book—for welcoming us into their homes, for sharing their stories with us, and for standing up for what they believe in.


“Despite all the riches under ground, the most important riches of the area are above ground: they are the people…It is your understanding coupled with your creative thinking that can find the creative solutions to the problems that exist. You can find the opportunity in the problem, open it up, articulate it, and bring new things into existence. And by doing so create a new, brighter future.”

These words were spoken by Senator Robert F. Kennedy at Alice Lloyd College in Pippa Passes, Kentucky, on February 13, 1968, during a fact-finding mission of sorts. Over the course of two gray February days, Kennedy traveled more than two hundred miles over winding mountain roads to hear from Appalachians about the economic and social challenges they faced and how their government could help them. It was not a campaign trip; Kennedy had not yet declared his candidacy for president. He came to the mountains because he cared, because he believed in mountain people, and because he knew that change was possible.

Some Appalachians still believe Kennedy's assertion—that the greatest wealth in the region is its people. Fortunately, many of them have strong voices, and those voices are rising up against the biggest threat to Appalachia today: mountaintop removal mining.

Mountaintop removal is a radical form of surface mining. The term is concise and straightforward: an entire mountain is blown up for a relatively thin seam of coal. This destructive method of mining requires large areas for disposal of the resulting overburden, or “waste”—topsoil, dirt, rocks, trees (almost never harvested so the coal can be extracted as quickly as possible)—which is then pushed into the valleys below, burying the streams, trees, and animals. This activity is neatly described as “valley fills.”

Although the coal industry's loudest defense of this practice is
that mountain people need the jobs mining supplies, the truth is that Appalachia's mining jobs are being buried with the overburden. Mountaintop removal is done by giant machines; draglines, bulldozers, and dynamite don't require as large a number of employees as deep mining. According to
USA Today
, this mechanization has resulted in a net loss of over 48,000 jobs in West Virginia alone during the period from 1978 to 2003.

Ironically, mountaintop removal began as the result of a law intended to slow the rate of strip mining and its resulting environmental devastation. As strip mining increased throughout the 1960s and 1970s, many Appalachians began to speak out in protest. In response, Congress passed the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act of 1977, which required coal companies to restore the mined land to the “approximate original contour.” Having been vetoed twice by President Gerald Ford, a more stringent version of the legislation was signed by President Jimmy Carter, fulfilling a promise he made to Appalachians while campaigning in the region during the 1976 presidential election.

Although enacted in good faith, the law contained a loophole that coal companies soon began pulling wide open. The legislation allows for an approximate original contour variance, in which the site can be approved for post–mine use in residential, commercial, and industrial development.

Statistics from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) on mountaintop removal are sobering. The EPA estimates that more than 700 miles of Appalachian streams were buried by valley fills from 1985 to 2001. Many more mountain waterways have been lost since then. The study determined that if this practice continues at the current rate, over 1.4 million acres of land will be lost by the end of the decade.
And at the moment, there is no end in sight.

As a parting gift to the coal industry, which includes many of his largest donors, President George W. Bush, in the final year of his second term, proposed to relax the 100-foot mining buffer zone around streams. In essence, with this change, valley fills would be specifically written into law. Appalachians turned out
at numerous hearings throughout the region to protest this action. In acts of unparalleled bravery for governors of coal-producing states, Kentucky governor Steve Beshear and Tennessee governor Phil Bredesen publicly condemned Bush's proposal in November 2008. Despite their pleas, the EPA approved the measure shortly thereafter.
Nationally, according to a recent poll, two out of three Americans are opposed to this change.
This widespread opposition, however, has yet to register with most Appalachian politicians. Coal is the “third rail” of Appalachian politics. To touch it means certain political death.

Coal holds no political loyalties. In the coalfields, there's plenty of moral cowardice among Republicans and Democrats alike. This became especially evident in 2005—when the anti–mountaintop removal movement started to gain political traction—to 2008, when the fight intensified, becoming too important and visible to ignore. This was a fever-pitch moment in the struggle, and for that reason this period bears closer examination.

The turning point in the legislative process against mountaintop removal came in 2008, when landmark bills were introduced in Kentucky, West Virginia, and Tennessee to severely regulate, or even ban, the practice.

Kentucky's House of Representatives saw a committee vote on the Stream Saver bill, legislation that would ban the dumping of overburden into any “intermittent, perennial, or ephemeral stream or other water of the Commonwealth.”
The bill had been bottled up in committee for three years by the powerful chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, Jim Gooch (D-Providence),
who consistently refused to give it a fair public hearing.
It was finally introduced in a different committee by Representative Harry Moberly (D-Richmond) in March 2008.
Ultimately, the resolution failed 13–12, with three lawmakers abstaining. One lawmaker exited the room just before the vote, returning shortly after the roll call.

A similar situation happened the following month in neighboring Tennessee, when an undecided member of the House
Environment Subcommittee left the room prior to the vote on legislation that would have banned mountaintop removal. That, coupled with a lawmaker who changed his mind and voted against the bill, led to its defeat in a 3–5 vote.

Such legislation didn't fare any better in West Virginia. On Ash Wednesday in early February 2008, State Senator Jon Blair Hunter (D-Monongalia) introduced Senate Bill 588—legislation that would end valley fills—and offered his fellow legislators an emotional confession: “To intentionally destroy God's creations, be they human or a mountain, is a Sin of Commission. To stand by and do nothing is a Sin of Omission. On this holy day…I wish to confess my sin of omission, and I promise to sin no more…God created our mountains…And, yes, God also put the coal in those mountains. But I firmly believe He did not intend for us to destroy the mountains, the streams, the forests and His people to mine it. Coal can be mined without mountaintop removal, Mr. President.”
Later that month, the Senate Energy, Industry, and Mining Committee held a public hearing on the legislation before an overflow audience. Despite a majority of witnesses testifying in favor of the bill, it was not voted out of committee.

Many of the region's politicians conveniently blame such legislative failures on public support for mountaintop removal. In a now-infamous article in the
Lexington Herald-Leader
, Gooch was quoted as saying, “If there were wholesale destruction of the mountains I think there would be more of an outcry. I've gotten a few letters from Louisville and Frankfort and Lexington, but not from where mountaintop removal is taking place.”

Despite Gooch's claim, the people of Appalachia were crying out. The
Lexington Herald-Leader
received sixty letters in response to his statement, pointing out that Appalachian citizens had been increasingly outspoken about mountaintop removal.
Less than a year later, in February 2008, approximately 1,200 people gathered on the front steps of the Kentucky state capitol to support the Stream Saver bill.
In response to this huge public outcry, nearly a month later about 1,500 miners and industry supporters
marched on Frankfort in opposition to the bill. The governor met them on the front steps.

Even in the face of these daunting political odds, grassroots environmentalist groups soldier on. The Alliance for Appalachia, the Alliance for the Cumberlands, Appalachian Voices, Christians for the Mountains, the Coal River Mountain Watch, the Keeper of the Mountains Foundation, Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, Save Our Cumberland Mountains, the Southern Appalachian Mountain Stewards, and other organizations have mobilized to fight mountaintop removal in the Appalachian coalfields. In addition, countless individuals quietly toil away on their own on this issue. Most of them never appear in the newspaper, yet they are there, and they keep fighting.

Opposition to mountaintop removal has developed into a full-fledged movement, with several different factions fighting to change laws, debate the coal industry, and tell the stories of the people affected by this destructive form of mining. Over the past five years the term “mountaintop removal” has evolved from being an obscure industry description to a household phrase throughout Appalachia.

The region's artists have become increasingly important in this fight. Writers in West Virginia and Kentucky—the most affected states thus far—have put out books and CDs to increase the public's awareness of the issue. Large groups of writers tour mountaintop removal sites, attend community meetings, and report on what they have seen and heard, striving to keep the issue in the media.

Individual Appalachian artists involved in the struggle are bringing more attention to the issue as the fight intensifies, especially in the past two years. West Virginia author Ann Pancake's novel
Strange As This Weather Has Been
received wide acclaim after its release in late 2007, being named to several Top Ten lists and winning the Weatherford Prize for Literature; coal miner's daughter Shirley Stewart Burns released
Bringing Down the Mountains
in 2008, hailed as a major study on the topic and described as “clear
and impassioned” by Denise Giardina, an author who has been at the forefront of the movement; Public Outcry, a band composed of Kentucky writers and musicians, released an entire album of protest songs about the issue in 2008. Mari-Lynn Evans, a West Virginia native and the creator of the widely viewed PBS miniseries
The Appalachians
is currently filming the documentary
Coal Power
, a portion of which will focus on mountaintop removal.

The movement is growing in southwest Virginia and East Tennessee as well, where mountaintop removal sites are increasingly appearing on the horizon. Citizens there are speaking out, trying to get ahead of the practice, which has already kicked into high gear in their areas but is not as advanced as the destruction that has befallen Kentucky and West Virginia.

Appalachians have written editorials, letters, and features that have been published in the
New York Times
, the
Washington Post
, the
Chicago Tribune
, and many other national newspapers. While the
Lexington Herald-Leader
and the
Charleston Gazette
are the largest newspapers read in the region, only the
has investigated the issue in depth, thanks to Ken Ward, who was writing about mountaintop removal when hardly anyone else was. Recently, the
Lexington Herald-Leader
published an editorial against the practice.
The addition of reporter Cassondra Kirby-Mullins, a native of Eastern Kentucky, has increased that paper's coverage of rallies and community hearings with fair and intelligent articles. The
, located in Louisville, is not widely read in the region, but it continues to give the issue prominence. And Tim Thornton of the
Roanoke Times
has written a series of investigative reports, including an exhaustive explanation of mountaintop removal and articles on the importance of women in the opposition movement and on the issue's increasing prominence in the curriculum at some of the region's colleges.

Although most regional newspapers have been slow to voice their own opinions about mountaintop removal (the exceptions being Whitesburg, Kentucky's
Mountain Eagle
, which is known for bucking the status quo, and the
Corbin Times-Tribune
in Kentucky], under the leadership of managing editor Samantha Swindler, who has been vocal in her opposition), national magazines have not; plenty of pages have been devoted to the subject in such major international magazines as
Vanity Fair, Harper's, Orion, O, Mother Jones, People
, and
National Geographic
. Many within the region, however, read only local newspapers.

By determining what is news with their story choices, the media act as gatekeepers of information. This in turn also makes them agenda setters, determining what issues are discussed by the public and consequently what appears on the political agenda.
The lack of information that has been made available about mountaintop removal has restricted the public's response to the issue.

This trend is historical in nature. According to John Gaventa in his classic social study
Power and Powerlessness
, such gatekeeping was a major issue during the coal mining strikes of the 1930s. The local media were eager collaborators with the coal companies in determining what would be reported as news and thus restricted the scope of the conflict. As Gaventa wrote, “By shaping certain information into the communication flows and shaping other information out, the gatekeeping capacity could combine with the repressive capacity to
isolate, contain
the conflict.”
In the case Gaventa was referring to, the local newspaper, the
Middlesboro Daily News
, played down the extent and the significance of the miners' strike, effectively discouraging others from joining in the collective action. The regional and national media, however—led by the
Knoxville News Sentinel
and the
New York Times
—chronicled the conflict as widespread and important.
Gatekeeping was used, then, by the different levels of media to perform different functions: the local media used it to restrict the scope, intensity, and visibility of the conflict, while the regional and national media did just the opposite.

BOOK: Something's Rising: Appalachians Fighting Mountaintop Removal
13.55Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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