Why West Virginia Can't Wait

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the Charleston Gazette

Why West Virginia Can't Wait

As author/farmer philosopher Wendell Berry settled his 76-year-old lanky frame onto the floor of Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear's office, he picked up a copy of "The Tempest." But in joining other protesters in this extraordinary sit-in to halt reckless mountaintop removal mining -- including a coal miner and inspector who dedicated 40 years of his life to the industry, a Harlan County activist whose brother was killed in a mine, a nurse who has served black lung-affected coal miners for decades and some of the country's top Appalachian labor and history scholars -- Berry was not taking part in any Shakespeare spectacle.

When Prospero commands in the classic play, "We are such stuff, as dreams are made on," Kentuckians, who have lived among the ravages of strip-mining for a century -- and mountaintop removal operations since 1970 -- were making it clear that they can no longer wait for the elusive dream of coalfield justice and democracy in their own homeland of central Appalachia.

No one understands this better than West Virginians who live in the coalfields.

When Martin Luther King Jr. wrote his game-changing letter for the civil rights movement on the need for civil disobedience -- "Why We Can't Wait" from the Birmingham, Ala., jail in 1963 -- the neighbors and families of coalfield residents were already in the throes of a growing movement to stop the devastation from unyielding and increasingly lawless strip-mining operations.

While King sought "to create a situation so crisis-packed that it will inevitably open the door to negotiation," besieged strip-mined residents in Eastern Kentucky and West Virginia organized their own sit-ins and protests to keep unchecked strip-miners from destroying their historic homelands and hillsides and watersheds. They exclaimed to the world: "We feel we have been forsaken."

As early as 1965, conveys of coalfield residents made the same journey as today's protesters to the governors' offices in Frankfort and Charleston, and called on their elected leaders to enact enforceable laws to keep absentee coal companies from "ruining our farms and fields and streams."

The Feb. 11 meeting between the sit-in activists and Gov. Steve Beshear revealed the state's still astonishing denial of the human, environmental and economic cost of coal placed on the shoulder of its coalfield citizens. Beshear refused to acknowledge any of the impacts from strip-mining, including the widely documented irreversible and pervasive destruction of federally protected waterways from mountaintop removal dumping. He dismissed the Environmental Protection Agency as a meddler in state affairs.

Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin's denial of the human and health impacts of mountaintop removal in West Virginia is no less astonishing.

Later that day, Beshear's administration was symbolically reprimanded by a circuit court judge in his decision to include citizen participation in a stunning case of coal industry fraud and violation over the Clean Water Act. Beshear's administration had attempted to dismiss the citizens groups as "unwarranted burdens."

Are coalfield residents in West Virginia also unwarranted burdens?

In one of the most poignant moments in the meeting, Eastern Kentucky coalfield resident Rick Handshoe said to the governor: "I pay a higher electric bill than you: I pay my electric bill, and I pay with my family's health, my nephew's health. We pay a bigger price. We're paying with our lives there."

More than four decades since King's letter and the Kentucky movement to abolish strip-mining, Kentuckians and the nation have watched as close to 300 mountains and nearly 600,000 acres of hardwood forests, and hundreds of miles of headwater streams, have been irreversibly destroyed by mountaintop removal strip mining. In the process, more than 60 percent of coal miners' jobs have been stripped by the heavily mechanized operations, leaving the local economies in ruin and without any hope of economic diversification. According to recent studies, less than 4 percent of any mountaintop removal reclamation operation has resulted in verifiable post-mining economic productivity, excluding forestry and pasture.

The same damage has been carried out in West Virginia.

Kentuckians, like West Virginians, are as forsaken today as they were when the desperate residents called on the nation for assistance in the 1960s.

As the most egregious human rights and environmental crime during the past 40 years, mountaintop removal mining in all of central Appalachia, which provides less than 8 percent of our national coal production, has resulted in the largest forced removal of American citizens since the mid-19th Century.

King dispelled the role "outside agitators" in his letter, and provided the "four basic steps" of non-violent civil disobedience: "the collection of the facts to determine whether injustice exists; negotiation; self-purification; and direct action."

Berry and the sit-in protesters holed up in the governor's office for the weekend in this inspiring act of protest, in anticipation of the call for a mass rally on Monday at the Kentucky Capitol for "I Love Mountains Day." The nation will continue to watch as this veritable Kentucky Rising plays out. And the nation will continue to watch West Virginia and its treatment of coalfield residents.

The question remains: Will Kentucky and West Virginia politicians continue to deny the costly and deadly impacts of mountaintop removal, or begin the process, as King wrote, "to heal" the legacies of the past and move the state toward a just transition for clean energy? Either way, central Appalachia can't wait.

Jeff Biggers

Jeff Biggers is the author of The United States of Appalachia, and more recently, Reckoning at Eagle Creek: The Secret Legacy of Coal in the Heartland (The Nation/Basic Books). Follow him on twitter: @JeffRBiggers

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