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National Problem Deserves National Answer: Virginia Leader Kathy Selvage on Next Steps for Anti-Mountaintop Removal Movement

"We must be taking steps, no giant leaps, toward a goal that is well defined, take great pride in our achievements and never let our eyes drift from the goal."

Editor's Note: The following is part 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?

There may be no electricity fairy, but the indefatigable campaigner Kathy Selvage has been described as the clean energy angel from Wise County, in southwest Virginia.

A union coal miner’s daughter and a long-time grassroots activist in the region, Selvage has lived within a football field of the blast and roar of mountaintop removal strip mining operations. Her native Wise County, in fact, has lost over 25 percent of its land to strip-mining.

Over the past decade, Selvage has been in the forefront of several movements in the central Appalachian coal country to stop reckless mountaintop removal and get the nation at large to understand the true cost of coal–especially in Virginia: Even with more than 60 mountain ranges and adjacent waterways destroyed by strip-mining, the Virginia state legislature hastily passed a bill in February to strip regulatory controls over proper water monitoring.

I caught up with Selvage on her return trip from Washington, DC, where she had been walking the halls of Congress to support the Clean Water Protection Act.

Jeff Biggers: Thanks for years of advocacy and actions by 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 has gone as far as it possibly (and politically) can in regulating mountaintop removal or should the EPA still be the focus of lobbying pressure?

Kathy Selvage: I fully appreciate the careful steps the EPA has taken in the last year and I want them to go as far as they can legally and scientifically go. However, understanding that their steps are not permanent and could readily regress in a new administration, we still desperately need to pass the CWPA in the House and the ARA in the Senate to set in stone the protection of our waters from mine waste.

In order to pass the bill, we need courageous leaders in Congress that at least match the courage of Appalachians who vehemently oppose and live with the repercussions of mountaintop removal daily, suffer physically and financially. Burying headwater streams in the region also deprives millions on the east coast of clean drinking water –it is yet another gift to the nation from Appalachia.

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?

KS: For sure, the Appalachian region and its century–long complicated and intermingled affair with the mono-economy of coal is not just an environmental issue. Its varied effects on our lives and communities includes environmental issues which mainstream organizations can shine a spotlight on while being careful not to leave people out of the equation or the conversation.

Beyond purely environmental concerns, Appalachians are robbed of future economic development opportunities through the loss of the mountains, their communities magically and tragically disappear, their health is poor and their health care even poorer, and their sense of security and well being is snatched from them as is their “place”.

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