“What if every time you turned on a lightswitch, a mountain exploded?” This is the question posed in the opening scene of Jeff Barrie’s film entitled Kilowatt Ours. The camera zooms in to show the lightswitch flicking on, then immediately cuts to real footage of mountaintops collapsing in great explosions, transforming in the blink of an eye from naturally sculpted mountain peaks to swirling heaps of dust. Fueling the detonation is a quantity of explosives that daily exceeds the total used in the war against Iraq. What Barrie’s film depicts is business-as-usual in Southern Appalachia, where coal mining companies like Massey Energy have made a killing — not just in terms of profit, but in the environmental, economic, and in some cases, human sense as well — in some of the poorest and most biologically diverse regions in the United States.
The method is called Mountaintop Removal (MTR). It’s a process that begins with forest clear-cuts, proceeds to mountain blasting that can pitch boulder-sized debris high into the air (the technical term for it, “fly rock,” is more than an understatement), and utilizes machinery that reaches skyscraper heights to extract thin seams of coal buried beneath the peaks. Once the mountaintops cease to exist in any form other than a pile of shattered stone and earth, they are termed “overburden” and shoveled into surrounding valleys, effectively choking off the streams below and endangering all of the aquatic species and other life that depend upon those water sources for survival. Not surprisingly, people who live in the coal fields have to buy water rather than use what flows from the tap; to drink water downstream from dynamite blasts and coal washing would be asking for cancer. After the coal is extracted, it is sent to the prep plant to be washed. All of the brackish water leftover from this process, which is filled with toxins and heavy metals, is kept onsite in what are known as “sludge ponds.” A disaster in Martin County KY occurred in 2000 when one of these holding ponds burst, and the 300+ million gallons of toxic black sludge that spilled out flooded two separate creeks, exceeding the size of the ExxonValdez oil spill by 30 times. The soil there is still contaminated with sludge. The coal company called it an “act of God.”
I first saw Kilowatt Ours in Asheville, NC. The showing was in an auditorium filled with educated, left-leaning, environmentalist-types. They seemed to enjoy the movie, which first focused on a problem (MTR) and then offered a solution (renewable energy sources). But during the question-and-answer session after the movie showing, many of the questions from these liberal audience members sounded like this: “Are there tax credits available for installing solar energy systems in my home?”
A vision of the mountaintop blasting once again flashed through my mind.
“Are there tax credits available for installing solar energy systems in my home?”
I remembered seeing a bright orange-tainted creek seeping from a nearby MTR site. And seeing a water filter from a coalfield home that was stained brown.
It was at that precise moment that I understood every derisive and derogatory statement I had ever heard radicals make against this class of people; every mocking joke, every sneer, every sarcastic statement, every pissed-off round of verbal ammunition ever directed against LIBERALS suddenly occured to me with an overwhelming sense of clarity: They just don’t get it! We live in a world where coal mining companies are allowed to come in to the lowest-income rural counties and put people’s health at risk. Destroy the environment. Destroy the local economy. Destroy mountain heritage. Even in one case, pay a resident to dig up and relocate their late family members’ graves in order to get around the provision that a mine cannot be within a certain distance of a cemetary. All for the sake of a resource that fuels cancer-causing power plants and is propelling us into a climate change disaster. And these liberals actually sit there and think that all they have to do to change it is install solar energy systems in their home, and receive a tax credit as an added bonus.
Please, reaffirm my faith in humanity! It should have been obvious to anyone sitting in that room that there is an urgent need to make it so inconvenient for these companies to operate that they will be forced to change their ways. That is why this is a call to action, and not a step-by-step instruction on how to enter your solar credit into your tax form.
So what if you’re penniless, and a solar system is out of the question, yet you feel compelled to help oppose this evil destructive machine? Even if it means riding freight cross country into Southern Appalachia where you’ll present yourself respectfully to the locals, sleep in a self-provided tent and eat meager meals of rice and beans while offering up creative brilliance and revolutionary spirit to a consensus-based group of like-minded radicals? Well, there is an excellent option for you.
It’s called Mountain Justice Summer. And it’s about making change. MJS activists successfully called attention to a disaster-waiting-to-happen in the form of a sludge pond and coal prep plant situated directly beside an elementary school in Marsh Fork, West Virginia, helping to get the permit for a coal silo revoked by showing that it was way off the permit boundary. They marched in memory of a boy who was killed in his sleep by a boulder dislodged from a MTR site. In Lexington, KY, activists held Bill Caylor, head of the Kentucky Coal Association, good to his word that coal is harmless and safe enough to eat by preparing him a snack of sludge on a silver platter. They presented it to him in front of media cameras, and he dutifully took a taste of his own medicine. And on Zeb Mountain, TN, the largest MTR site in the state, activists staged a blockade in front a work road with a banner that read: “We Won’t Stop Until You Do.”And MJS activists, too, are true to their word.
Above are just a few of the highlights from MJS 2005, which was born out of a coalition of grassroots organizations working throughout Appalachia to put a stop to MTR. Mountain Justice Summer 2006 is right around the bend, and you are more than welcome to come on down to Southern Appalachia and join in. There is so much to do, and it won’t happen without people like you who actually care, and have the courage to do something about it.
To get involved, visit mountainjusticesummer.org and click on Join Us!