Coal Country is Ground Zero in Climate Change Battle

An Open Letter to Al Gore

Dear Al Gore:

Your long-time work on climate destabilization has triggered a sea change in how our nation tackles the impending crisis of global warming. I deeply admire and appreciate your commitment to an urgent issue that transcends borders, and affects the fate of our children's future.

As a father and grandfather raising a family in the great forests of the Appalachian coalfields, where my family has been rooted since the 1830s, I am writing you in a time of similar urgency.

This spring, I waited anxiously during the entire debate over the historic American Clean Energy and Security Act--or Waxman-Markey bill--to hear one critical truth: That we cannot discuss the end result of burning coal--the greatest contributor of carbon dioxide emissions--without discussing the beginning process of extraction, cleaning and transportation of coal.

That, in effect, the coalfields are ground zero in the climate change battle. If we are to be serious about addressing the "inconvenient truth," then banning mountaintop removal is a logical and required first step in capturing carbon and saving our forests.

You, more than any other person in our country, understand this. As a former Senator of Tennessee, a coal-producing state, and Vice President, you have always been aware of the true price of coal for our communities, our environment, our skies, and our children's future.

As you know, mountaintop removal operations have wiped out millions of acres of deciduous hardwood forests in our nation's great carbon sink of Appalachia. In addition, in West Virginia alone, 50 million tons of coal are exported annually to the dirty coal-fired plants in China and other countries.

Here in the thriving green forests of the Appalachian mountains, coalfield residents understand the reality of climate change better than anyone.

My family and live in southern West Virginia, beneath a mountaintop removal site. I am forced to breathe silica dust everyday because of the blasting that is taking place right above me. Fly rock has landed in my garden. A boulder the size of a car hood came off there and stopped just short of my garden. The sediment catch ditches are full, again. The middle of the hollow is sliding in. The beautiful creek where I used to catch fish bait and along its sides dig ramps, mushrooms, and gingsing, is buried with rock, dirt and knocked down trees. The spring that we used to love to get water from is buried. The well water is sunken and muddy.

My house and my nerves rattle each day around 4 o'clock when the out-of-state Massey Energy company sets off yet another series of blast. And every evening I am reminded that my family has been on this mountain since around 1830--long before Massey Energy invaded from Richmond, Virginia; it's as simple as that.

As a former veteran of the Vietnam War, I tell my children and grandchildren that we are American citizens, just like you. That we have a God-given and inalienable right to live in peace and breathe air that is not contaminated with silica dust, diesel fuel and ammonium nitrate, and to have potable water. That these are basic human rights.

My father, like others in my family, first started working in the coal mines at age 11. But it is the grave of my Uncle Clyde Williams, who died in the mine at Leevale here on Coal River Mountain at age 17, that also hovers in my mind as I walk these hills, gather herbs and berries, and hunt and fish with my grandchildren. When my father went into the mines, 130,000 union coal miners in West Virginia proudly toted their lunch pails and went to their jobs in the underground mines in our state. Today, only 20,000 West Virginia coal miners make up those ranks.

I want my children and grandchildren to have the right to dream and flourish as great contributors to our state in West Virginia. I don't want them to feel compelled to leave our state to look for employment or to realize their dreams. I want them to know that the rule of law protects them, their families and our mountains.

In 2007, at the Reel Film Festival in Nashville, Tennessee, you reminded the nation that mountaintop removal "is a crime, and ought to be treated as one."

As you know, the Obama administration recently announced a series of regulatory initiatives to "strengthen oversight and regulation, minimize adverse environmental consequences of mountaintop coal mining." While I have great admiration for President Barack Obama, energy advisor Carol Browner, and his new EPA administrator Lisa Jackson and CEQ chief Nancy Sutley, the reality is that their regulations can easily be avoided through loopholes.

While federal regulators were able to temporarily halt blasting above my home, I recently learned from the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection that the green light has been given to renew the blasting closer to the coal seam, in an area that is even closer to our Clay's Branch homes.

Nearly four decades of mountaintop removal regulatory history has taught me one thing: the devastation from mountaintop removal can never be regulated, but must be abolished.

For this, we need your help now. We need your help today, as 3.5 million pounds of explosives are detonated in our coalfields every day.

As our nation celebrates the 4th of July this weekend, we must not forget the words of George Washington in the dark moments of the American Revolution. He declared: "Give me but a banner to plant upon the mountains of West Augusta, and I will rally about it the brave men who will lift our bleeding country from the dust, and set her free."

Last week, NASA climatologist James Hansen and actress Daryl Hannah, among many other national leaders, came to witness to the climate crisis on Coal River Valley, and visit Marsh Fork Elementary School, Shumate Dam, and do a flyover over mountaintop removal sites, as a way of bringing this issue to the attention of the nation, and our national leaders.

Al Gore, now is the time for you to journey to Coal River and stand with us in this urgent time of need. We have simply run out of options.

Thank you for your time and consideration, and your crucial work for our nation.

Bo Webb
Naoma, West Virginia

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