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June 1, 2011

Join the March on Blair Mountain. ~ Janet Perry

Photo: Dustin White

A Call to All Americans!

The Appalachia Rising: March on Blair Mountain and the culminating Rally and Day of Action will be June 4th to 11th in southern West Virginia’s coalfields. Hundreds of people from Appalachia and across the nation will embark on an historic march to demand an end to mountaintop removal, the strengthening of labor rights, sustainable job creation in Appalachian communities, and the preservation of Blair Mountain.

The Appalachia Rising: March on Blair Mountain is a peaceful, unifying event involving environmental justice organizations, union workers, scholars, artists, and other citizens and groups. The march commemorates the 90th anniversary of the Battle of Blair Mountain in 1921, when 10,000 coal miners rose against the rule of the coal operators and fought for the basic right to live and work in decent conditions.

Today, Blair Mountain, like dozens of other historic mountains throughout the region, is being threatened by mountaintop removal and it is here that a new generation of Appalachians takes a stand. By working to preserve this mountain we are demanding an end to the destructive practices of MTR that threatens to strip Central Appalachia of its history, its economic potential and its health.

This event builds on the energy of Appalachia Rising, which brought thousands to the streets of Washington D.C. last September, and spread to Kentucky where dozens occupied their governor’s office for justice in their state and the region last February. Now we are bringing the movement to Blair Mountain.”

Click Here to Register. Click Here to Donate.

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Dustin White sat surrounded by his Appalachian neighbors and friends.  They were respectful and quiet. They were also livid; listening to lies being espoused as truths and their communities’ plight belittled. They were not allowed to speak.  White is a god-fearing Appalachian and a kind-hearted soul. But enough is enough, and Appalachians have just about had enough.

White visited Colorado this past year and spoke to folks about mountain-top removal and how it was damaging his home. White gave a slide show and talk along with Appalachian Voices Legislative Representative Austin Hall to a packed crowd at the Stage Stop in Rollinsville.

Those gathered then sent letters to Senators Udall and Bennettbe asking them to consider signing the Appalachia Restoration Act in a show of support for Appalachians and their plight with the coal companies and mountain-top removal.

Coloradans are being called on again by White. This time, the show of solidarity will be in support of both Appalachian communities and the Environmental Protection Agency.

Flying over the Appalachians, the carpet of green looks like one organism. Underneath its canopy, a symbiosis exists between age-old communities and their woods. Each has supported and protected the other. Now, each in turn are dying.

The coal companies have poisoned creeks in order to get permits to bomb areas. Three million pounds of explosives are used daily on mountaintop removal sites in West Virginia alone.

Mountain-top removal is the fastest way to get to the seam of coal under the mountain. All it takes to do this job is a few demolition experts and heavy equipment operators. The number of jobs has dwindled to the point of becoming highly competitive. This has created an air of loyalty to the company by those lucky few who are hired.

The areas that are bombed were first cleared of trees, which were dumped into creeks. The timber destroyed is worth millions, but because of the rush to get to the coal, the coal company does not offer the timber for bid to timber companies. They simply dump it into the creeks, killing giant ecosystems as they do.

The next step is to plow the top-soil away and dump it onto the trees, finishing the deed of now completely burying the creek. Then starts the bombing, to get rid of the layer of mountain that lies between the top and the coal.

The bombing has dislodged rocks that have hit houses. One three-year old boy was killed by a 300 pound rock that was blasted by a coal company as he slept in his own bed. The company later claimed that the incident was ‘an act of God.’

The trucks and giant bright lights go all night long in places that are accustomed to nothing but moon and starlight. In the processing, a sludge is left behind that is one of the most toxic combinations known to man. The size of the sludge impounds have grown out of control, with impending disasters sitting all through the coal-fields.

The children of Marsh Fork Elementary school sit below a pond and cracking containment wall taller than the Hoover Dam.  A new school is being built for them, but if the wall cracks, the children know they face a terrible fate. Meanwhile, Hydraulic Fracturing for natural gas is happening around the state, and has triggered a new phenomenon of clusters of earthquakes throughout the region.

Folks have had enough. Entire communities are educating themselves, bolstering themselves to speak up at hearings. These are quiet, shy people with great humor. The hills have kept them isolated for generations and this has created a way of life that is intensely community-oriented.

These same communities have seen an influx of young people from around the country who have come to stand by them in their fight for justice. Many of these young people are active with Climate Ground Zero, doing physically impressive actions to draw attention to the tantamount problem that is happening in the Appalachians.

This influx of youth from around the country has created a new dynamic in the Appalachians. As a result, profound changes have permeated the hills. That, as well as the wireless internet that is now accessible in many of the ‘hollers,’ creating new access to information, is having a strong impact.

“We’re educated hill-billies now,” said Ed White of Rock Creek, WV.

The tireless organizing and work to educate the rest of the country to their plight is starting to have its effect. Coal-field residents are starting to see glimmers of hope as people from around the nation have responded with letters, phone calls and emails to Congress, letting them know that Appalachia should not be sacrificed for the nation’s energy.

On January 14th, the EPA denied the largest permit to ever be considered for the state of West Virginia. The denial was based on the history of violations the coal company had in previous mountain-top removal sites, with dire consequences to the water in those areas.

“The EPA determined “that Arch Coal’s Spruce No.1 mine in Logan  County, would bring “destructive and unsustainable” mining procedures which would disrupt the natural habitats of small to medium sized [West Virginian] Appalachian counties.”  (OVEC)

Coal-field residents were stunned with disbelief and were celebrating. This was a major victory. Immediately, rumors started flying that the coal companies would now take down the EPA. Coal companies were holding rallies and erecting bill-boards proclaiming the EPA as the enemy of West Virginia commerce. One of those rallies was held in the Charleston Capitol Building Rotunda, where coal-field residents silently walked in and let their presence be known.

Within the boundaries of the EPA-denied site stands the beloved Blair Mountain. The mountain is an important site in West Virginia history, and was the scene of a courageous show of miners’ solidarity.  According to Dr. Harvard Ayers, in an Appalachian Voices Front Porch Blog, “The Battle of Blair Mountain in 1921 was the second largest armed insurrection in U.S. history, and the culmination of the “mine wars”, where much blood was shed in order to secure labor rights for miners.”

Ayers goes on to explain the rare action that endangered Blair Mountain.

“I, along with historian Barbara Rasmussen, on behalf of Friends of Blair Mountain, succeeded in getting the Blair Mountain Battlefield on the National Register of Historic Places in March 2009. However, nine months later, due to a ‘bogus’ list of objectors created by the coal operators, the National Park Service took the rare action of de-listing the site. The coal operators want to blow the mountaintop up to get the coal underneath and to eradicate any evidence of the 1921 battle. Friends of Blair Mountain, along with Sierra Club, are currently pursuing legal action to get the site re-listed.”

On Wednesdays May 4th and 11th, the coal company threat to call out the EPA culminated in a hearing hosted by the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee’s Subcommittee on Water Resources and the Environment. The hearing was called, “EPA Mining Policies: Assault on Appalachian Jobs”.

This time, it was the EPA Deputy Administrator Nancy Stoner who seemed to be the sheep in the lion’s den. Appalachian coal-field residents sat helplessly as false ‘facts’ were presented by the pro-coal stacked witnesses, and as the MTR’s impacts on communities were minimized. The EPA representative stood alone. She was the only witness called in support of the EPA’s decision. Coal-field residents resented not being allowed to speak.

It’s ironic that the name of the Hearing implies that stopping the bombing of mountains for coal will somehow destroy this large number of jobs. In fact, mountaintop bombing has taken jobs away from miners.

This point is important. It is the miner to whom America owes a debt. The true miner is like a soldier, toughened quickly in the depths of a coal-mine, marching off to a daunting task each day. A true coal miner has coal in the seams of his skin. It is unmistakable. It is a hard job, a hard life and a hard way to die. Their jobs have been stolen, along with their children’s heritage — the largest deciduous hard-wood forest in the continental United States.

Matt Wasson of Appalachian Voices commented on the hearings:

“These hearings on Appalachian mining issues are being held without the testimonies of impacted Appalachian residents, scientists who have documented the harm mountaintop removal is causing to our air and water, or health experts who can speak to the increasing evidence that mountaintop removal is causing sickness and worse to those who live in the region.”

Patrick Morales, a coal-field resident had this to say in a letter posted by Appalachian Voices:

“Last Wednesday, this committee reconvened and all but one of the witnesses, Nancy Stoner from the EPA, had some financial interest in keeping MTR free from oversight. Most disturbing was that of the 9 folks asked to testify during these meetings, not one person from an impacted community was asked to share their experience with MTR. Not one person whose family has a proud history of coal miners in their lineage was asked to tell why they are now out of work… Mr Gibbs called this a ‘balanced’ panel of witnesses though some of the largest contributors to his campaign were on the panels.”

Dr. Ayers explains the next important step — the March on Blair Mountain:

“In order to highlight the support for protecting Blair Mountain and other places threatened by mountaintop removal mining, a coalition of groups, including Friends of Blair Mountain and Appalachian Voices, are organizing the Blair Mountain March and Rally from June 6-11. This 50-mile, five-day march from Marmet to Blair, West Virginia is the same route taken by the pro-union miners in 1921 to the battle. The goal of the event is to call for the abolition of mountaintop removal, ensure miners’ rights, and work for a just transition to a renewable energy economy.”

The March on Blair Mountain is a show of solidarity. People from everywhere are being asked to join together to prove that it is time to stop the bombing of Appalachia’s mountains.

Those who cannot attend are asked to simply contact Senators Udall and Bennet and ask them to sign on to the Appalachia Restoration Act.  Both Udall and Bennet have voiced their support of the Act and are simply waiting to hear from their constituents in order to have the numbers to back up their signing.  Congressman Jared Polis has already signed the corresponding House bill.

The March on Blair Mountain will be empowering for the communities who have struggled so very hard to take back their mountains and their lives. Their struggle against King Coal is still formidable, but the momentum is growing and so are the numbers who are planning to attend.

This will be another historic march of solidarity, with ties reaching back nearly a century. This time the show of solidarity is not only for the Appalachian mountain communities — it is also a show of support for the Environmental Protection Agency. Without them, we could all be facing the same destruction as the Appalachians are today.

For more information on the March on Blair Mountain go to iLoveMountains.org

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Bonus:

Here is a clip all about the history of Blair Mountain, from a documentary titled “The Appalachians: http://vimeo.com/24149386

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Janet Perry is a freelance writer with the Colorado Press Association. She cares deeply about our natural world and those without a voice. She feels compelled to shed light where she finds injustice.

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