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"Sue the Bastards": Kentucky Leader Teri Blanton on Next Steps for Anti-Mountaintop Removal Movement

"If I could have one wish for how to really put a dent into what is happening I think I would wish for tort attorneys and expert witnesses to sue the bastards."

Editor's Note: The following interview is a parts of "Next Steps for the Anti-Mountaintop Removal Movement,” a  series of interviews with affected residents and activists in the central Appalachian coalfields region, including West Virginia leader Bo Webb, Kentuckian Teri Blanton, Kathy Selvage in Virginia, Ash-Lee Woodard Henderson in Tennessee, and Appalachian Voices legislative aide JW Randolph in Washington, D.C. While the EPA scrambles to enforce the Clean Water Act and a Republican-controlled Congress attempts to defund strip-mining regulatory measures, and various state agencies continue to be embroiled in Big Coal machinations, millions of pounds of devastating explosives are detonated daily across mountain communities in central Appalachia. As a national movement, what should anti-mountaintop removal activists do next?

One year ago today, invoking the rule of science and law and raising the concern of health care in the coalfields, the EPA issued strict guidance rules to crack down on mountaintop removal mining. What has happened since?

Hailed as a cross between Erin Brockovich and the legendary Aunt Molly Jackson, Harlan County native Teri Blanton has been one of the most inspiring and fearless activists on the eastern Kentucky coalfield frontlines. While national media attention on mountaintop removal mining has been focused on West Virginia, Blanton often reminds audiences that more than 290 mountains and 574,000 acres of hardwood forests–58 percent of the devastation in central Appalachia–have been blown to bits by reckless mining operations in eastern Kentucky. A long-time fellow and strategist with the Kentuckians for the Commonwealth on clean water, clean energy and coal issues, Blanton most recently took part in the 4-day Kentucky Rising sit-in at the governor’s office in Frankfort, Kentucky, calling for an immediate end to mountaintop removal.

Jeff Biggers: Thanks to years of advocacy and actionsby a growing movement, the EPA issued strict guidance rules on mountaintop removal operations last year, which EPA administrator Lisa Jackson acknowledged would end most valley fill operations. Do you think the EPA gone as far as it possibly (and politically) can in “regulating” mountaintop removal or should the EPA still be the focused of lobbying pressure?

Teri Blanton: I think the pressure needs to continue to be on the EPA. I think it is their ultimate responsibility to enforce the Clean Water Act and the Clean Air Act, and if the states or other agencies with delegated authority are unwilling to do so, then it should be the responsibility of the EPA to take back the authority of the states and enforce these laws to their fullest.

At the same time we can’t ignore movements in Congress to try to nullify EPA’s actions or strip their authority–either through the changes through law or with extreme budget cuts. We need to continue to identify these measures for what they are: shameless political payoffs to a favored industry at the expense of the environment and the American people.

JB: Do you think mountaintop removal mining needs to be framed as only an environmental issue–and thus, attracting more support from mainstream environmental organizations in DC and beyond–or as a human rights and health care issue?

TB: This is much more than an environmental issue; it is a human rights issue.The only difference with what is happening in Appalachia and the exploitation of indigenous cultures by multi-national corporations is that mountaintop removal mining happens to be occurring within our own borders. Everything else, from robbing a people of their wealth to stripping them of their political power to destroying their health and culture.

JB: After years of lobbying and leading protests in Kentucky and Washington, DC, where do you think the anti-mountaintop removal movement should focus its funds and energy in the next phase—and more importantly, where should foundations and major fundraising efforts be dedicated?

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