- Hope for Appalachia
In late February, I attended the Power Shift Conference in Washington, D.C., which focused on achieving federal action on climate change. Along with 12,000 other young environmental activists from every state and a dozen countries, I attended workshops and panels on everything from planning a media campaign to creative activism. In these sessions—as well as in conversations throughout the hallways of the Washington Convention Center—mountaintop removal was a major topic of discussion.
We talked about it in the halls of Congress as we lobbied our representatives in support of the Clean Water Protection Act. And we took it to the streets as we engaged in a direct act of civil disobedience against the Capitol Power Plant, which provides Congress with electricity generated from mountaintop removal.
I left dc convinced that mountaintop removal had finally become a national issue. And I was hopeful.
That optimism is reflected in the pages of the anthology I’ve edited, We All Live Downstream: Writings about Mountaintop Removal, which features pieces from young writers and noted authors, artists, and activists from seventeen states. Names like Mark Reynolds, Graham Marema, and Ellen Robertson appear alongside of Wendell Berry, Ashley Judd, and Denise Giardina.
It’s made for a very powerful book. But more than that, it’s established these young writers as members of a national movement against an outlaw industry that is destroying Appalachia.
One of those young activists is Jessica Boggs, the recipient of our Young Activist Award. Jessica is from Whitesburg, Kentucky, and is currently a sophomore at Campbellsville University. Her essay, “Unnatural Disaster,” was written when she was applying for a Coal Education Development and Resource (cedar) Scholarship. Unable to praise the benefits of coal as the prompt demanded, she instead wrote about her family’s history of exploitation by the coal industry. [End Page 71] An excerpt from “Unnatural Disaster” by Jessica Boggs, which appears in We All Live Downstream: Writings about Mountaintop Removal. This essay is the recipient of the Young Activist Award:
As you drive through Eastern Kentucky, it is hard not to notice the huge chunks of mountains that appear to be missing, as if some awful disaster had ravaged their crests and contours. Instead of lush vegetation and rich scenery, these mountains have become scalded, seared versions of themselves—harsh dirt and scattered patches of brown grass roll slowly over the landscape, as if the Midwestern plains have been picked up and dumped onto the Appalachians.
Apparently, the federal Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act of 1977 (smcra) can be interpreted loosely or ignored altogether. This legislation states “reclaimed land must be as useful as the land was before mining.” While this is a nice idea, it seems that coal companies see it just as that—an idea. They have no consideration for those of us who believe that most of the usefulness of a mountain stems from the tiny detail that it is, in fact, a mountain and not a slightly sloping patch of dirt.
Of course, the mining industry has all sorts of rebuttals for this argument. They speak of the wonderful economic opportunities awaiting the poor hillbillies—the business parks waiting to be built, the shopping centers full of big box stores ready to be inundated with ssi checks, the lovely baseball fields and walking tracks poised to be appreciated by the youth of the county.
But do they think about the jobs they take away from their own workers? Instead of several hundred men hard at work deep inside the mountain, five or six park their pickups on top, pack diesel fuel and blasting caps into a hole, and wait for the boom. The Environmental Protection Agency has said that even though the amount of coal produced is still high, these new methods of removing coal have lowered the need for miners.
Mountaintop removal has been lauded for its easy creation of flat land in the steep Eastern Kentucky mountains. These plateaus are supposed to serve as a giant beacon of light, calling new businesses to the region, but no one seems to realize that companies do not want to root in the...