Making a 'Sacred Zone' in Appalachia
It's not enough to stop mountaintop removal coal mining. The goal is to build a new Appalachia.
When people get caught up with that which is right and they are willing to sacrifice for it, there is no stopping point short of victory.--Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., 3 April 1968
It is April 4, 2009, as I write. A year ago, a handful of community residents gathered on a mountain here in Fayette County, West Virginia, to pray for a mountain that has stood sentinel over our homes for generations. We prayed because, like so many other mountains in Appalachia, it, and we, are under attack.
That attack is prosecuted is by a coal company willing to sacrifice us for a load of coal. A day more than forty-one years ago, Dr. King said, "It's all right to talk about the new Jerusalem, but one day, God's preacher must talk about the new New York, the new Atlanta, the new Philadelphia, the new Los Angeles, the new Memphis, Tennessee. This is what we have to do."
In the last speech of his life, made in Memphis at the confluence of civil rights and labor rights, Dr. King staked out new ground that took his movement beyond the struggle for basic civil rights. He said he had been to the mountaintop; that he had looked over Jordan.
The New York Times recently described mountaintop removal as "Appalachia's Agony." Understanding the destruction that comes when mountaintops are sliced away to get to the coal below is important. But I believe Dr. King would have called us to talk about a New Appalachia.
We must begin the building of the New Appalachia while we still have mountaintops worth climbing.
On that April morning of last year, we were surrounded by employees of the coal company. They had come to demand the sacrifice already under way be completed - the sacrifice of our community to Mammon. They swore. They cursed. They screamed at the priest as he tried to deliver his sermon on the flank of that hill. Determined, they shut down our public prayer and the sacrifice of Gauley Mountain continues to this day, as it does on mountains across Appalachia.
As the mining continues, our homes rock from blasting. Toxins leach into our water. We see the end of our community coming, as so many other Appalachian communities have seen the end of theirs. The sacrifice continues, as it continues all over central Appalachia, from Gauley Mountain to Cherry Pond Mountain, Kayford Mountain and five hundred others. The smoke of the sacrifice is sharp with the sting of blasted ammonium nitrate, diesel fuel, and silica, but to the distant agent of Mountain Removal, Appalachian peoples' sacrifice has the sweet smell of success: "There is no god but Coal, and Mountain Removal is its Profit."
Long in the making and long in the tireless efforts of coalfield natives like Larry Gibson, Judy Bonds, and Maria Gunnoe, a light is finally shining on the dirty secret Coal has kept hidden in the deep folds of Appalachia's ancient mountains. Millions now know what is being done to their fellow Americans in the name of "energy." They know that Mountain Removal is a scourge not just upon Appalachia, but upon the nation and the world. Millions of people across America and around the world are demanding an end to the nightmare. Some are asking even deeper questions about how we heal an Appalachia that is seeing the end of the coal reserves.
Chief among those visionaries is Van Jones. Twice recently I have heard Mr. Jones address large groups of people, sharing his vision. Van Jones founded Green For All. He describes an environmental movement that includes social and economic justice in the bargain.
Jones said something that spoke loudly to me: "We're going to turn Appalachia from a Sacrifice Zone to a Sacred Zone."
Ever since then, I've considered what that means. Truly, Appalachia has been a "Sacrifice Zone." Our lives, our homes, our health and our future have all been sacrificed on Coal's altar. Thousands upon thousands of miners have died in the mines and outside of them. They have died for want of basic safety measures and for want of basic human rights. They have died from disease. They have died from slate falls, explosions and gunshots. They have died from flooding. The widows of the nearly 500 miners killed at Monongah in 1907 received as little as forty dollars to support them and their children the rest of their days. Even our graves get no respect from the Mountain Removers, as our cemeteries are pushed over the hill and into the valleys.
Appalachia is a Sacrifice Zone and the ashes lay on the altar everywhere we look.
Mary Harris Jones taught working people how to stand up for themselves as she witnessed coal company brutality in the heart of West Virginia's coalfield conflicts. Mother Jones saw the sacrifices and promised, "When I get to heaven, I will tell God Almighty about West Virginia." Kathryn Hoffman, a neighbor of mine, recently put a fine point on these well-known words. "I think Mother Jones must've gone to hell," she said in a meeting with the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection, "because nothing here has changed."
The very economy of the region, and particularly West Virginia, is held captive by a coal industry that wants to keep other business out to maintain the region and this state as its personal fiefdom. Poverty has been the handmaiden of the coal industry. The West Virginia counties that produce the most coal are the same counties that have the most grinding levels of poverty. It's no coincidence. Our landscapes are dotted with ghost towns, left in the wake of coal companies on the "bust" side of the boom-and-bust cycle of the "free" market's ups and downs.
How then, do we create that Sacred Zone? It starts, as it must, with the end of Mountain Removal. That is the sine qua non of any attempt. Ending Mountain Removal, in turn, means people losing the jobs they've had doing that work. Mountain Removal workers are constantly told that "environmentalists want to take away your jobs." Mountain Removal workers have been so emotionally abused by their employers over the years (remember: the vast majority of them don't have the protection of a union) that they have been conditioned to believe that they lack the skills to work in an economy not predicated on the ruin of everything around them. This is one of the most hateful lies in the whole process, alongside the cynical insistence that Coal is all that West Virginia has.
The jobs question has been answered. The Coal River Wind Project proposes an industrial wind farm on Coal River Mountain, a series of peaks suited to capturing winds of sufficient force for industrial electrical generation. This community-led project envisions a wind farm that provides more jobs in perpetuity than the Mountain Removal job that is now slated to destroy Coal River Mountain. Its revenues would outpace the tax revenues from coal. Its jobs are the equal to those who are hired to demolish the mountain. The Coal River Wind Project is a lamp to Appalachia in Mountain Removal's endless night. It refutes Big Coal's insulting premise that Appalachian people are good for nothing more than destroying their own homes and communities.
Since last year's financial collapse and government bailout, we've grown accustomed to monumental dollar figures. The word "trillion" is losing its meaning. For the New Appalachia, however, we don't need that much.
The coal industry estimates there are fewer than 5,000 people employed removing West Virginia's mountains. Let's assume that they earn $70,000 each, or a total of $350 million a year. That's tiny by comparison to what we've already thrown down rat holes like AIG. West Virginia's cut of the "stimulus" has been figured at $1.8 billion.
How long would it take to get a green economy started and self-sustaining in Appalachia? Five years? Ten? Five years of retraining and guaranteed income replacement for Mountain Removers would cost $1.75 billion. That's less than the amount of money being thrown away on the "clean coal" boondoggle. Even ten years of income replacement is a bargain at $3.5 billion.
Is long-suffering Appalachia worth as little as even one percent of what the rest of the nation is getting? If we aren't, then we will know that we are less-than-American in the eyes of our government and fellow citizens.
Part of making Appalachia a "Sacred Zone" lies in making Appalachia whole. That would require us to fix the land that has already been stripped. We can keep people working by doing the reclamation work the scofflaw coal companies evade once they've extracted the coal and the profit from these hills.
In the meantime, while we're putting Mountain Removal's wrongs to right, we can be installing the components of the new, green economy in Appalachia. Solar panel factories, lithium battery factories, and wind turbine factories in the heart of Appalachia will put miners and others to work on good, stable jobs. Tax incentives and public spending can green low income homes. The AFL-CIO has recently initiated a Green Workplace Certificate program at its National Labor College. These skills could be taught at our local community colleges. Imagine the potential for change such a program presents for the rank and file of the building trades. I can see homes on hillsides and in hollers where solar panels and ridgeline wind turbines generate ample electricity to meet every need.
There is a vision. There is a dream. We need the minds and hands to make that dream concrete. We need economists and accountants and finance specialists to make this dream reality. We need labor organizers to speak directly to the people who will build with their own hands the economy of the New Appalachia. We need musicians, painters, writers, photographers and poets to carry our sacred heritage into the coming century. We need agriculturalists and biologists to rethink how we use this precious, well-watered soil.
We have an opportunity to re-imagine Appalachian life and culture, to take the best of our past and reinterpret it for the coming centuries. From music, to visual art, to written and spoken words to the very nature of how our communities exist civicly, how they exist socially, we have here, now, a chance to make Appalachian culture in our own image, and of our own spirit. We have a chance to define what "community" means in the Digital Age.
I am an Appalachian. Generations of my kin have lived in this region. My wife and I are helping to raise members of the next two generations of Appalachian children. We have a vested interest in the New Appalachia. The long history of deprivation in this region has made Appalachian folk some of the most hardworking, inventive, creative people in the country. Our music circles the planet. Our lore is the lore of a nation. Our homespun wisdom bears truths that have withstood the test of time. Generations of Appalachian folk have survived in nigh unsurvivable circumstances. We have made a virtue of making bricks without straw. Imagine what we could build with even a little bit of straw! Those new bricks, strong with the sacred energy of community, will be the foundation of the New Appalachia, and our anguished sacrifices will finally give way to victory.
© 2009 Daily Yonder