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Background information on mountaintop removal mining, the Roda coal dust fight, and some of the local residents who are standing up to Big Coal, from Sierra Club attorney Aaron Isherwood:

We've all seen the photos and video with shocking scenes of mountains blown apart and rivers buried with mining waste. While the experience of seeing those things firsthand is powerful indeed (especially on a fly-over), anyone who has traveled to the Appalachian coalfields will tell you that nothing can quite prepare you for the emotionally wrenching experience of hearing firsthand from local residents about how their culture is being lost and how their communities are being torn apart from all the blasting, dust, intimidation, and other injustices inflicted by the coal industry and their minions in the regulatory agencies.

Southern Appalachian Mountain Stewards (SAMS) is a small (but growing) group comprised almost entirely of residents from a handful of communities in Wise County, Va. -- where king coal has reigned oppressively for decades. The story of this community is one of tremendous hardship and suffering. With the support of Environmental Justice (EJ) organizer Bill McCabe -- whose organizing represents the backbone of our campaign to help communities of Wise County -- SAMS has grown from a handful of individuals who courageously stood up to the coal companies to a powerful force for change.

My own journey in the quilted fabric of this story began in early 2007 when Bill invited me to Wise County to meet a man known locally as Jigger (more on him later). Knowing I'd need help, I recruited longtime Club volunteer and attorney John Harbison (aka, "horneyhead" whose nickname is a Wise County story in itself) to travel with me.

When we arrived, Bill introduced us to SAMS leaders Pete Ramey and Kathy Selvage (both of whom presented testimony before the Air Board on April 24, 2009). From Pete and Kathy, John and I began learning about the immense hardship and suffering experienced by these communities -- including the death of a 3-year old a few years earlier when a boulder dislodged by a mining operation (working outside its permit boundary) came careening down a cliff and landed on a house where the child lay sleeping.

Pete Ramey -- a WWII veteran and stalwart of the community who worked as an underground coal miner for 37 years -- warned us to expect a different type of courtroom from what we were used to. "Kangaroo courts," Pete calls them. He told us that some years back (before Bill's arrival) he'd filed a formal protest, with the help of a recent law school graduate, against an mountaintop removal (MTR) mine planned for behind his house. After a trial, the administrative law judge rejected the challenge and ordered Pete to pay the coal companies' attorney fees. Pete explained that, as a result, many in the surrounding communities are afraid to stand up to the coal companies (stories having a way of getting around in the hollows of Appalachia.)

Kathy Selvage told us about a mining operation that set off massive explosions at the edge of her community -- explosions that cracked foundations, shattered windows, filled the air with dust, and generally just made life unbearable. Kathy's mother had long enjoyed sitting out on her porch in the morning looking up at the mountain, listening to the birds and reading her bible; but she can no longer do that, Kathy explained. To make matters worse, Kathy told us, the coal company eventually decided the mine wasn't sufficiently profitable, so it declared bankruptcy and abandoned the site without reclaiming it.

During that first trip, John and I also learned about the massive MTR mine that had been proposed at Ison Rock Ridge. Pete introduced us to Gary Bowman, another former coal miner who lives with his wife Carol in a beautiful home just below this spectacular, forested mountain ridge. Gary tends a garden in his backyard, watered by a clear rippling creek that runs down the side of Ison Rock Ridge, and he gives much of the fruits of his garden to people in need. The creek that waters his garden will be buried in mining waste if A&G mining company (the same company that killed the 3-year old some years back) is allowed to go forward with its mine.

Gary told us that A&G is also planning to build a 2-million-gallon sediment pond 100 yards behind and upslope of his house. He wonders if the sediment pond will break and flood his home. He wonders if the blasting will smash his house apart. He wonders how he'll still be able to enjoy his life with all the dust and noise and coal trucks that the mine will bring. Since I first met Gary, a logging company has clear-cut the mountain behind his house (a prelude to mining), causing the creek to turn muddy and sending watermelon-sized boulders tumbling into his yard.

Bill then took us down to meet Jigger, a former coal miner of 28 years who lives in a small community known locally as Roda -- in the hollow where he was born. The particulate matter (PM) monitoring we conducted for the report presented to the Virginia Air Board was done at Jigger's house, as well as the house of a 91-year old woman who lives just up the road from Jigger, named Nell Campbell. We also monitored at Ms. Campbell's house and there we obtained a PM-10 reading three times the national air quality health standard.

The houses where Jigger and Nell live are a mere 20 feet from a narrow road that passes through Roda and culminates at nine active mining act operations. These mines truck much of their coal through the community, and when I was there, the trucks were passing by at a rate of about 10 per minute. Every house in the community is coated with coal dust -- outside and inside. Jigger keeps a clean house, vacuuming once a week, and he brought out boxes filled with plastic bags of coal dust he'd saved over the past several years (each carefully marked and dated), along with filthy air filters and photos of dusty coal trucks and mud-covered road. (Jigger emptied 40 wheelbarrows or so of mud out of his basement one day after coal waste clogged a culvert and flooded the road). Since I first met Jigger, he has had quadruple bypass surgery and other health problems, but as he told me recently, whenever he thinks of quitting he remembers poor Ms. Campbell down the road. "I'm still with you," he assures me, "but you better hurry because I'm getting old!"

There are countless others who live in these Wise County communities with stories every bit as compelling as those of Pete, Kathy, Gary, Nell, and Jigger (and countless other communities throughout the Appalachian coalfields suffering the same plight). These are the real heroes (along with tireless EJ organizer Bill McCabe) who most especially deserve our appreciation.

It is also important to keep in mind that we still have a lot hard work to do to ensure this story has a happy ending. Together we must continue to create a political climate that will make it possible for the administration to take the bold step of ending mountaintop removal mining.

Aaron Isherwood
Senior Staff Attorney
Sierra Club Environmental Law Program


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