Pan Appalachian Defender

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Seeds of Change : Continued From Page 16

Most people, when they think of coal mining, think of Kentucky or West Virginia. But Virginia, too, mines tens of millions of tons of coal each year, in six counties in the southwestern corner of the state, north of I-81 near the Kentucky border. In recent years, nearly 100,000 acres of formerly forested mountains in Virginia have been turned into barren wasteland by large-scale strip mining for coal.
Worse, the devastation is accelerating. On a recent visit to the Big Stone Gap office of Virginia’s Department of Mines, Minerals, and Energy (DMME), a local activist learned that in Wise County alone more than 41,000 acres are currently permitted for strip mining of coal--16 percent of the county’s total acreage. Considering that much of Wise County is National Forest land unavailable for strip mining, the concentration as well as the extent of current and proposed mountaintop removal (MTR) and similar large-scale strip mining here is as shocking and calamitous as anything seen anywhere in Appalachia.
The human costs of the current strip mining boom have been awful here as well: homes cracked by blasting and covered by coal dust, neighborhoods depopulated, an elderly woman recently killed by a coal truck--even a three-year-old boy, Jeremy Davidson, crushed to death in his own bed by a boulder off an MTR site in August

2003. The multistate Mountain Justice campaign against MTR started partly in response to this child’s death.
Most pervasively, MTR has sucked the economic life out of local communities here as effectively as it has destroyed so much of the local landscape: In the past half-century, coal production in Virginia has doubled while coal-mining machinery replaced workers here as throughout Appalachia. Employment has dwindled further since the 1980s.
Highly mechanized, large-scale surface mining has increased, employing vast quantities of explosives and enormous pieces of equipment but few workers. As recently as 1990, more than 10,000 miners were employed in Virginia; in 2004, only 4,000 such jobs remained. There’s no reason to believe that the jobs picture in coal mining will improve in the decades ahead, as the last of the coal is mined out.
Virginia’s citizens have responded before with resistance to coalfield injustice, striking on picket lines and organizing to fight strip mining when it first began. Once again, it’s time to confront injustice, hold the coal companies accountable for their actions, and demand that the wholesale destruction of Virginia’s coalfield region be stopped.
In the summer of 2005, the Mountain Justice campaign against MTR visited southwestern Virginia only briefly. At that time, there was no grassroots group here focusing on MTR. That fall, residents of Wise County formed such a group, Southern Appalachian Mountain Stewards (SAMS). Together with the Mountain Justice network
and organizations as diverse as Sierra Club and Earth First!, SAMS in 2006 began a wide range of projects seeking to protect southwestern Virginia’s environment, economy, and local communities from the ravages of strip mining, including:
Anti-noise ordinance: An ordinance banning mining noise at night has been proposed for Wise County.
Postcard collection: Hundreds of postcards have been sent asking Gov. Kaine to act against the ill effects of large-scale strip mining in Virginia.
Local outreach: Door-to-door flyering and other outreach has connected with local residents’ specific concerns about strip mining and connected concerned citizens with the fight to stop the ill effects of strip mining.
Broader outreach: Concerned citizens all over Virginia are letting their neighbors and elected officials know that MTR in Virginia is real and that people outside the coalfields are responsible for curbing their dependence on dirty sources of energy.
Mine permit task force: Volunteers aim to track permits and violations on particular mine sites, request hearings, document what’s happening at mine sites, and contact people in affected neighborhoods.
Power plant: Local residents and a host of interested organizations are responding to a proposal to build a new power plant near St. Paul that would burn as much as two million tons of coal each year for half a century or more, further accelerating strip mining in the area.
Community center: SAMS and Mountain Justice volunteers seek to establish a new youth and community resource center in Wise County.
Water testing: Groundwork has been laid for an ongoing program of testing streams and other water affected by surface mining.
Fundraising: Supporters from North Carolina to central Virginia to Wisconsin have raised money and sent donations to support anti-MTR work in Virginia.
Beyond the moonscapes of the strip mines, it’s beautiful here. In summertime the fabulous forest that’s natural to this part of the world is brilliant with more shades of green than can be imagined. It’s also beautiful that so many people, here in southwestern Virginia and beyond, are now joining together to defend this land and its human communities. Thanks to all who are helping.


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