A remarkable thing
happened yesterday – Senator Robert C. Byrd, West Virginia’s beloved statesman,
wrote an open letter calling for tolerance in the coalfields and criticizing
the coal companies and coal operators for using “fear-mongering, grandstanding
and outrage,” rather than rational dialogue and flexibility to change. To put
it lightly: this letter is a big deal.
I have a guess that in the future
we will look back and see this letter as one of the turning points in the
campaign that ended mountaintop removal mining. Looking back at the present
from the future is a skill of the imagination I learned through Joanna Macy. By
expanding our sense of time to include the possibility of a more sustainable
and just future we can really test the boundaries of our determination and
crack open a window, however small, for the possibility that our actions now
will have an effect in the future. I have found this to be a particularly
skillful tool for our toolbox right now because while there is so much momentum
pointing toward an end to mountaintop removal, the threatening, intimidating
and scary polarized social environment can make it seem impossible.
writing my last letter, I traveled to Pipestem,
WV for the annual meeting for Mountain
Justice – a grassroots regional movement dedicated to community organizing and
nonviolent direct action in defense of the people and mountains of Appalachia.
Mountain Justice was marking its five year anniversary and I had the privilege
of working with a team to design the weekend gathering. We decided to weave
reflective activities into each aspect of the meeting, and I opened up the
meeting with an exercise from the Work that Reconnects. We sat in two circles facing
one another – an inner circle of people sitting knee to knee with someone in an
outer circle. Then I asked everyone to give themselves permission to use their
imagination. The people on the inside of the circle were from the future and
were able to travel back in time to meet with their ancestors at the 5th
Annual Mountain Justice Meeting.
Let’s try it together.
The exercise we did at the meeting was more involved, but try the following
practice for just a moment if you are willing… Imagine that you are living
approximately 200 years from now. Imagine that you live in a society that
values life above all else and understands that all aspects of creation are
interconnected. You know from the stories shared in history class and songs
that are sung that there was a Great Turning generations back which ended the
Industrial Growth Society – the era which irreparably polluted so much of the
water, air and land and nearly destroyed life on Earth. You find it hard to
believe that people were actually able to dynamite mountains to extract coal,
and even harder to understand that there were a few people profiting and
getting rich from the process while many thousands were being poisoned by it,
but that is what you learned from history lessons. You also have learned that
you have ancestors who were trying to stop this practice – who stood up for you
and your life by working together to end mountaintop removal mining through all
sorts of means: direct action, community organizing, political work, letter
writing, financial contributions, prayer, moral support, etc. What do you want
to say to this people – your ancestors who helped end the practice of
mountaintop removal mining?
yourself a moment to think about this. Since you are reading this and not
sitting knee to knee with someone, write your answer down or just tell yourself
in the air. When you are done, gently say your name out loud and say the date
to help you come back to the present time.
I know from my own experience as an
organizer that it is hard to take the time for reflection. It is even harder to
allow room for the imagination to explore a healthy future because of all the
grief involved. When I was organizing it was around the loss of the last
ancient forests in the northwest, here it is the loss of an entire mountain
range. These mountains will not grow back. The implications are long-lasting,
so to think that life can continue, and possibly in a more sustainable fashion,
requires a giant leap of faith. But then again – what are we working toward if
not to sustain life in Earth?
That particular Mountain
Justice meeting was incredibly productive. One friend who helped design the
weekend told me later that she was super skeptical about this activity, she
thought it was sort of cheesy, but as soon as the process began she felt
herself drop into a space so powerful that she began to really believe a future
was possible for the first time that she was aware of. Tears were shed,
laughter shared, stories told. I heard in the feedback sessions at the end that
the meeting was unlike any before it. We all went away with a solid strategic
plan for the next year plus strengthened relationships and stronger commitment
to the cause.
Meanwhile, the work continues. I actually left the MJ
meeting for several hours on Sunday to attend a Holiness Pentecostal Church
service at a church less than half a mile from a proposed mine site. There was
a public hearing scheduled several days later and the people in the town didn’t
even know that the mountain above their homes was/is in jeopardy! I attended
the service with Wendy Johnston, an inspirational local community leader who is
staying up long nights trying to spread the word about this new proposed mine,
her son, and Sage Phillips Russo from Christians for the Mountains, so that we
could let the congregation know about the public hearing and the proposed mine.
Wendy told me later that forty people went to the hearing! Of course, the
general understanding throughout the groups fighting mountaintop removal is
that these hearings are merely procedural since the public input is rarely or
maybe never taken into consideration, but it is an important holding strategy
while working to get federal help with protecting the land, air, water, and
The letter Senator
Byrd’s wrote yesterday came at an important time because it can really help
support people like Wendy and her community and so many of us living here.
Remember those 79 permits that your letters helped the Environmental Protection
Agency (EPA) put on hold earlier this fall? Well, the industry is having a
heyday blaming the EPA any time they downsize work crews and do layoffs, while
actively stirring up fear that there is a “war on coal,” throughout the region.
The coffers of the coal industry’s public relations funds have been opened in
order to ensure polarity and civil unrest throughout the coalfields. Massive
amounts of money have been poured into billboard campaigns and television
commercials feeding the false dichotomy between jobs and the environment, the
EPA versus the ‘good working families of WV’ and sickest yet ‘West Virginian’s
versus environmentalists, which stings my friends the most as many of them are
fourth, fifth or sixth generation West Virginian’s fighting to save their
communities and mountains in the mountain state. These commercials are
amazingly effective at capturing the public’s attention and stoking already
smoldering tensions between neighbors on the issue of mountaintop removal coal
The stakes are too high
for the people living under the active and/or potential mine sites and
downstream from the coal-slurry impoundments to give up the struggle. There is
a normal ebbing tide of overwhelm, despair, apathy and cynicism, there also is
strong determination and a collective tenacity to see this through. Here in
Ansted, the Powelton Coal Company recently applied to renew its permits to mine
above town, even though the previous permits are on hold due to a pending federal
court case brought about by strong community organizing. Further south, CoalRiverMountain
is being actively blasted with dynamite near an obscenely large
slurry-impoundment held up with a sketchy earthen dam. Like I said, the stakes
are too high to give up: the life of everyone and everything nearby.
The urgency is clear,
but the social environment is rough and tough and frankly, quite unappealing. As
a new friend and deeply committed activist from the CoalRiver valley said yesterday, “who
wants to live with the uncertainty of whether you can say hi to your nephew at
Thanksgiving dinner or not without provoking violence?” I know I don’t. Do you?
This is why Senator Byrd’s letter
is so important. He makes many points that these committed community leaders
have been saying for years, by a person who has the power to be heard. His
letter stems from your efforts helping make the issue of mountaintop removal
national, and from the many years of organizing locally. Senator Byrd’s letter
is long and articulate. The whole text can be found by clicking here. These are some highlights:
recent years West
has seen record high coal production and record low coal employment.
Let’s speak the truth. The most important
factor in maintaining coal-related jobs is demand for coal. Scape-goating and stoking
fear among workers over the permitting process is counter-productive.
companies want a large stockpile of permits in their back pockets because that
implies stability to potential investors. But when coal industry
representatives stir up public anger toward regulatory agencies, it can damage
the state’s ability to work with those agencies to West Virginia’s benefit.
…Most members of Congress, like most
Americans, oppose the practice, and we may not fully understand the effects of
mountaintop removal mining on the health of our citizens. West Virginian’s may
demonstrate anger toward the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) over
mountaintop removal mining, but we risk the very probably consequence of
shouting ourselves out of any productive dialogue with the EPA and our
adversaries in the Congress.”
yourself friends, mountaintop removal mining may become history sooner than we
think! Senator Byrd would not be writing anything about “most members or most
Americans” if it were not for all of you helping make this an issue of national
As I wrote in my last letter, the
dynamiting and blasting on CoalRiverMountain has continued, the last
intact mountain in the CoalRiver
watershed. Many people have been working for years to protect this mountain and
Coal River Mountain Watch created
an alternative proposal for a Wind Project which would create long term jobs
and sustainable energy in lieu of short-term profit and terminal employment.
This coming Monday, December 7th
there will be a large mobilization of supporters of CoalRiverMountain
and the Coal River Wind Project demonstrating in front of the WV Department of
Environmental Protection (DEP) in Charleston.
Residents of the CoalRiverValley who have fought so long for
their communities will be speaking as well as Bobby Kennedy Jr. and others. The
request is first for an immediate halt to the blasting. Second is a request that
the federal Environmental Protection Agency take over the failed WV State
Department of Environmental Regulation (hence Sen. Byrd’s concerns), and third,
to alternatively implement the Coal River Wind Project.
We would love your help! Please
participate in this demonstration by calling or writing to the EPA and the
White House on Monday, Dec. 7th.
EPA Environmental Justice Hotline: 800-962-6215,
White House Comment Line: 202-456-1111.
I’ll send y’all stories and photos from Charleston
in my next letter letting you know how it goes.
Meanwhile, I have been loving life
in my cabin in Hico, and in the community of Ansted. Sage and I helped put up
the town Christmas tree with our friends from the Ansted Improvement Motivators
(AIM).We hosted friends for
Thanksgiving from Kentucky and my
dear friend Loretta who first welcomed me here. We all cooked up a feast and
soaked up the good company. The next day we enjoyed the first snow of the
season. When we went hiking in the New River Gorge I knew everyone we passed on
the trail! Slowly, slowly I am settling in and loving each minute of the
Please remember all of us here in
your prayers this coming Monday. I have to tell you that when my new friends
learn that I am able to live here and do this work through your generosity,
they are as impressed and grateful as I am. It means a lot to be able to
participate in this movement at this time, and I am full of gratitude for all
of your help. Thank you!
If anyone wants to make a donation
to my work as a Christmas or Holiday present to someone
else, just let me know and I will make a special card explaining what I am up
to and how their gift helps this cause. If you have been meaning to send me a
donation but keep forgetting, feel free. You can always e-mail me, send me mail
at PO Box 765, Ansted,
or use my paypal account.
Thank you to each of you! May our descendants sing praises about all we do!