I attended the Mountain Justice Fall Summit in Rock Creek, W.Va. to learn about mountaintop removal coal mining. A panel of local residents led workshops, such as an introduction to mountaintop removal, the military in Appalachia, and tactics for direct action. For one exercise, we practiced linking arms and legs across a simulated mine road while summit leaders imitated enraged police and mine operators.
Panelists mentioned a 2011 study published in the journal “Environmental Research.” Between 1996 and 2003, nearly two million live births were examined in central Appalachia. Results were adjusted for factors such as the mother’s age, level of education, prenatal care, and use of alcohol or cigarettes during pregnancy. Compared to non-mining counties, birth defects happened 10% more often in mining counties, and 26% more in mountaintop mining counties. Concerning circulatory and respiratory defects, the ratios were 8% and 93%, higher respectively.
Obviously, there is a problem.
Direct action groups, like those who lead Mountain Justice, have potential to prevent blasting. However, tree-sits and soft blockades do not always create long-term change, and they do nothing to create jobs for the miners and equipment operators. Despite good intentions, enemies are created out of the people most victimized. A group of local community members protested and shouted at the Fall Summit camp entrance one night. A Summit member who had driven to Beckley that day had a tire slashed upon trying to reenter the camp.
The community opposition gave me a new perspective. Many depended on the income from the coal industry to feed their families. In an area where various forms of coal mining are a major support of the economy, temporary out-of-state college kids are seen as threatening a way of life. Both groups have valid arguments for their cause.
EMU stimulates an atmosphere of ethical involvement. However, short-term justice efforts are self-serving and largely ineffective.
I now have powerful memories and interesting stories. However, I have done nothing to mend the bonds between activists and miners. Babies are still born with cancer. Tap water still runs black. Aeons of geological creation are demolished.
I caution well-meaning students against brief movement participation. There is something to be said for spreading awareness, yes. However, nothing is accomplished if people are aware but still apathetic or inactive.
If you really want to make a difference, then move to southern West Virginia, live among the people, and wage a graffiti war to educate your community about the health dangers of mountaintop removal. Open a business that will give miners alternative sources of income. Set up a food bank for their families before you prevent them from going to work.
Randi Hagi, Co-Editor in Chief