Appalachian women testify against coal industry - Business, Government Legal News from throughout WV

Appalachian women testify against coal industry

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An international women's organization put coal — specifically surface mining — to the test in West Virginia Thursday.

The Central Appalachian's Women's Tribunal on Climate Justice largely came to the conclusion the effects of coal mining in Appalachia has disastrous effects on West Virginia. The tribunal was sponsored by the Loretto Community at the United Nations, the Feminist Task Force of the Global Call to Action Against Poverty, the Civil Society Institute and the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition.

Rosa Lizarde, global coordinator for the Feminist Task Force, said the Feminist Task Force spearheaded more than 20 social justice tribunals around the world in the last few years. Most of those were held in the global South, and Thursday's tribunal was the first in the U.S.

"These issues around climate justice — around mining issues — it is really a global issue," Lizarde said. "We took a very local view of what was happening here, and we can relate it to what happens around the world."

Bill Raney, the president of the West Virginia Coal Association, said he was not invited to the event, but disagreed with its premise. 

"It simply sounds like the continued onslaught by opponents of the mining industry no matter where it is," Raney said. "They're reaching and trying to use everything they possibly can."

The tribunals are intended to "create a public space for women to draw attention to critical issues at local, national and global levels." The findings of the tribunals will be presented at the Rio+20 United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development in Rio de Janeiro in Brazil.

Lizarde said the organization felt it was important to connect global issues to what is happening in the United States to inspire "activism and advocacy at all levels."  

"Sometimes the thought is that this type of environmental degradation doesn't happen in the United States," she said following the tribunal.

The tribunal was set up as a mock court trial with witnesses being organized into four categories — health impacts, economic impacts, community impacts and environmental impacts of coal. A three-member panel than acted as judges, evaluating the comments made by the witnesses. The tribunal's three-member panel consisted of:

 

  • Lois Gibbs, an activist who organized the Love Canal Homeowners Association when she learned her son's elementary school was built on a toxic waste dump. She later went on to found the Center for Health, Environment and Justice.
  • Elizabeth Peredo Beltran, a social psychologist, writer and activist, who is the executive director of the Solon Foundation.
  • Grant Smith, an energy policy analyst with the Civil Society Institute.

 

Beltran, of Bolivia, said she was touched by what she called "a real crime against … rights."

"We are building systems with a very unfair relationship between those people who sacrifice their lives to give comfort to others, but there is no empathy, no solidarity, just greed as a basis for this system," Beltran said.

Amanda Rauma, project director for West Virginia Free, a women's reproductive rights organization, said the tribunal highlighted a need for her organization to be involved in the debate about mountaintop mining.

"It's really important that we stop mountaintop removal so we can have healthy future generations in Appalachia to make sure that we are able to live life free of the health problems caused by mountaintop removal," Rauma said. "… From the tribunal … I think at this point it's definitely something West Virginia Free and the reproductive health movement needs to get more involved in."

Rauma pointed to studies by Michael Hendryx, a West Virginia University researcher whose studies have warned of health issues associated with living near surface mining sites.

Hendryx has published studies connecting proximity to mountaintop mining with birth defects and higher rates of cancer. The studies were referenced throughout the tribunal. However, others have challenged the veracity and balance of Hendryx's studies.

The studies, said Beverly May, a family nurse practitioner and member of Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, points to an obvious conclusion.

"All the research points to what mountain people have known since mountaintop removal began — it is not possible to destroy our mountains without destroying us," May said. "It's not possible to poison our streams without poisoning our children for untold generations to come. The research is not complete, but there's more than enough research to justify an immediate moratorium on mountaintop removal."

Raney said there is a lot of doubt surrounding Hendryx's studies and said they were "less than thorough." 

"You look at Hendryx's studies and their matters of correlation," Raney said. "... You can draw almost the same conclusions he does saying becuase of diabetes in Wirt Coutny, that's why they voted for that (convicted felon Keith) Judd guy on the Democratic ticket." 

People who spoke during the tribunal were largely women from the coalfields, many with very personal stories about the effects of coal. While the event's name suggested climate change may be the focus, most of the conversation centered on the more local effects of mining, and not burning coal.

Maria Gunnoe, a nationally recognized opponent of mountaintop mining, talked of her young daughter growing up near a surface mining operation and struggling with breathing problems. She linkes those problems to inhaling dust from a nearby coal operation.

She said her and her family "stayed sick" during blasting operations at the mine.

"This is an assault on my family for coal," Gunnoe said tearfully. " … My daughter grew up, living like this, knowing that she was being sacrificed for energy in this country. That is the real, true facts of what's happening. … If you live anywhere near coal, you are being sacrificed."

Gunnoe said she has continued to watch as her friends and family become ill. The thought of moving away from the operations instead of fighting them provoked a response from Gunnoe similar to sentiments many of the women shared.

"Hell no, I'm going down with the ship," Gunnoe said when people suggested she move.

Lorelei Scarbro, a member of OVEC and community organizer for the Boone-Raleigh Community Group, said she was "thrust" into joining the group.

"We don't live where they mine coal. They mine coal where we live," she said. "… I realize I could no longer sit quietly and peacefully in the head of the hollow."

Raney said the coal industry does various things to mitigate impacts tailored to each community.

"It's individualized to each operation," Raney said. "If there's concerns in the communities, they typically gather and try to make certain those concerns are addressed. They've altered traffic patterns, they've adjusted many diffferent things for the communties, and in my experience it's always worked out well." 

An issue the women emphasized was the fear of bringing children into a world they do not believe is safe. Ivy Brashear, a member of Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, said she was worried about having children.

"I'll have to make a lot of important choices in my life," Brashear said. "Of all of the major choices I will have to make, wondering whether it is safe to birth my future children in my homeland of Appalachia should not even have to register on that list."

In addition to health risks, witnesses said, they fear that economic depression could be made worse as it takes fewer men to mine the same amount of coal. Without diversification of the economy, coal could theoretically continue to come out of the ground without returning to previous employment levels because of technological advancements in mining.

"The coal industry, for very strong structural reasons, is a job-shedding industry," said Betsy Taylor, a cultural anthropologist and research scientist at Virginia Tech's Alliance for Social, Political, Ethical and Cultural Thought. "It tends toward monopolization. … We are at a crisis point in Appalachia. … Jobs in coal could collapse."

Raney said that "age-old accusation" was based on a false pretense.

"Clearly, there's a lot of mechanization, automation," Raney said. "It's truly a Star Wars environment to mine coal today in the sense how modern it is and how technology has advanced it so much."

The mechanization and automation, he said doesn't mean jobs are down everywhere. He said science labs and other jobs associated with mining are no longer included in mining jobs because of specialization. 

He said those jobs are counted as coal mining jobs anymore. 

Taylor said political influence built by the extraction industry has allowed the business to flourish with little benefit to the people around it.

"This is not primarily an economic problem," she said. "This is a political-economic problem. The region has abundant natural and human assets for a stable and robust economy."

Sally Dunne, the United Nations representative for Loretto Community, said she appreciated being able to connect with the women of Appalachia on such a "visceral level" and said the experience was "overwhelmingly emotional."

"I feel so outraged," she said. "… Numerous times today, I just found myself thinking, who are these people who are making these immoral, unethical decisions that are destroying peoples lives?"

Dunne said she believed there was a "real case" to be made for human rights violations in southern West Virginia and referenced presenting that to the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva.

Janet Keating, executive director of OVEC, said if local politicians and companies won't listen, then it may be time to take the information elsewhere.

"The silence on the human health impacts has been deafening," Keating said. "We are going to make sure it gets out. If we need to go to Geneva, we'll go to Geneva. We're not going to stand for this."

Keating said subsidies for coal mining should be going toward re-educating and developing other skills for miners in southern West Virginia.

Raney said the event seemed to be designed to draw attention to mines and miners who have good jobs mining coal. 

"They're working and doing a wonderful job here in West Virginia and I don't understand that," Raney said. "I don't understand why they want to take someone's job. Nevertheless, they seem to want to do that."

Gibbs said she was in awe of the practices of the coal industry and of the stories of southern West Virginia women.

"It is so morally wrong. I mean if another country came in and blew the tops off of one of our mountains and harmed and poisoned and tortured and killed our people — we would not tolerate it," Gibbs said. "Why, in this country, do we allow these coal companies, with dollars and cents, come in and do what a terrorist would do?"

Lizarde responded to Gibbs later in a conversation following the event, saying that if another country had blown up U.S. mountains, the country would be at war.

"We should start that war," Lizarde said. "A war against these international companies that are devastating our land and our people."

Gibbs said the state should focus on other means of economic development such as tourism or technology.

"There are industries that will come, and the water can be cleaned up, but you can't get there until you have a commitment to get away from coal and make a transition," she said.

Smith, with the Civil Society Institute, said the organization commissioned a study that found that by 2050, the U.S. could rid itself of coal-fired power generation with no additional technology advances, and without factoring in externality costs.

"There is an alternative to our energy economy without coal, and that won't happen overnight, but we already have the technological know-how," Smith said. "Financially, it would be better, with a much healthier population."

Smith said CSI will continue to support efforts to move away from coal.

"These companies are preventing us from modernizing," Smith said. "If the guilds in the 19th century had the same power that these guys had, we would have never had an industrial revolution. Now they're preventing an energy revolution. It's hurting our economy, and it's killing our people. It's unnecessary, and it has to stop."

Raney stood up for the general criticisms aimed at the coal industry. 

"It's a very modern industry, with absolutely the best coal miners in the world that are protecting the environment," he said. "They are mining coal and providing energy to this country and many parts of the world that truly need it. It's low-cost, it's reliable, it's not cuasing people to have electricity rates go up."

Raney said burning coal actually helps people who may otherwise not be able to afford electricity if it came from other types of energy sources.

"Everything these people are advocating are going to raise everybody's electricity rates to the point where many people on Social Security and fixed income are not even going to be able to afford it," Raney said. "They don't explain that." 

Jane Branham, vice president of the Southern Appalachian Mountain Stewards, summed up what many called for at the tribunal.

"We know what's causing (ill health effects) and we know what can stop it," she said. "We need to end mountaintop removal today."

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