Monday, June 25, 2012

Organizing against coal companies in forgotten Eastern Kentucky

Eastern Kentucky is one of the poorest regions of the U.S., where 27 percent of the population lives below the poverty line. Coal mining has been going on for decades, while the struggles of the miners and the local community have been revived again and again against the exploitation. (A documentary called Harlan County, USA filmed the miners’ strike of 1973; and in 1981, the group Kentuckians For The Commonwealth was founded to offset the coal companies.) Even though the million-dollar coal business still employs a significant part of the local population, it takes away more than it contributes to the life of Eastern Kentucky. Poverty is the biggest in areas where coal mining is ongoing. Coal is a strong form of identity - there have been coal miners in essentially every family many generations back. Despite this, many people raise their voices and protest against the most devastating form of strip mining, mountain top removal, which has already led to the destruction of approximately 500 mountain tops in Central Appalachia.

We are driving in Floyd County, in the heart of the Appalachian mountains, to test the water of streams polluted by strip mining. The closest biggest town has a population of only 3,000. We are passing by a small settlement, David, which received its name from David L. Francis, the President of Princess Elkhorn Coal Company, who built this place for his workers and owned it for a while. 29 percent of Floyd County lives below the poverty line. The landscape very much reminds me of the Carpathians in Transylvania, Romania, where the community of Rosia Montana (Verespatak) has actually been struggling against cyanide gold mining and strip mining.

We are stopping by at a small plot of land. An old man is coming out of his cabin, his bandana displays the bald eagle, the symbol of the country. Chickens are running around the cabin, the little grassy area is embraced by thick bushes and tall trees. The nature has lustfully overgrown the area, leaving a bit for the old man, which he modestly occupied. It turns out that the stream flowing in his backyard is polluted. In the last couple of years, 10 percent of Central Appalachia, approximately 500 mountain tops, has been exploded to extract coal from its depth.

Any form of strip mining causes significant harm to the environment because the surface vegetation has to be removed, the soil is scalped by bulldozers, then the exposed overburden is moved leaving the bald mountain behind so that the mineral can be extracted. In the end, a big hole remains, into which the overburden is backfilled and may be covered by topsoil. The most devastating form of strip mining is the mountain top removal method when the mountain top is actually removed by explosives. The exploded poisonous overburden is filled into adjacent valleys, often by burying streams. The devastated plants and soil do not absorb rain water any more, exposing houses to flooding. Companies find loopholes in the environmental regulations or simply do not comply with the rules, and the Environmental Protection Agency is too weak to make them accountable.

Jeff Chapman-Crane: The Agony of Gaia
Source: KFTC
Kentuckians For The Commonwealth (KFTC) organizes in several ways to offset the destruction of the region. The campaign is a multi-faceted: KFTC organizes the community at a local level and raises awareness in the whole state about this unfairly ignored issue (e.g., urges authors, musicians, painters to make the issue more visible; organizes witness tours with the involvement of local people to expose the destruction; carries out water-tests), they want to achieve changes in the regulations (e.g., against burying the streams), and to implement the current laws (e.g., to review company permits and to ensure the compliance of mining with regulations).

Agitation is not easy in the closed communities of Appalachia, which relate to coal mining through numerous ways, says Kristi Kendall, KFTC's community organizer living in the region. Kristi often runs into folks who yielded to the coal companies and are not ready to act. Through the decades, they have learned that the companies can easily retaliate, so they had better not raise their voice, because one of their relatives or acquaintance works for the coal company. One of the features of rural organizing is that people are often tied by web of close relatives. Even if they do not agree with the mountain top removal and its effects on the community, they do not come to a meeting or a protest, because their neighbors or relatives would frown upon them. Kristi had to face becoming an outsider in her own community and to confront the disapproval of her own family for taking an active role in the fight.

We are walking up the hill to have a view of the mutilated mountain. We are at the end of an abandoned, gravel road: in the middle of the living mountain there is a huge, bald spot and the crippled part is covered by a thin layer of grass. More than 500 such plateaus are located in Appalachia. It is legally binding for the companies to reclaim the land, so under this label, golf courses, a prison, airplane runways and Wal-Marts have been built and real estate investors have experimented with constructing luxury homes.

A local fellow has driven up to us in his four-wheeler. He belongs to the nearby estate where probably three or four families live in their dwellings. He was curious about what we are doing.

"What do you think about the mountain top removal?," I asked.

He thinks there has been no problem. He will start working in the mine from the fall, just like his father did. Local folks do not usually ask questions about the mountain top removal. Strip mining is a taboo, nobody needs unnecessary fights.

Read it in Hungarian.

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