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MTR Is Just One Symptom of Systemic Oppression: TN Activist Ash-Lee Henderson on Next Steps for Anti-Mountaintop Removal Movement

"Issues about land ownership, self-determination, labor justice, and so many others are intimately related to our struggle to end mountaintop removal."

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?

Few activists have put their necks on the line as often as Tennessee activist Ash-Lee Woodard Henderson–literally. As one of the “ Kayford 8,” Henderson joined other nonviolent protesters with Mountain Justice and Climate Ground Zero campaigns in the spring of 2009 in locking themselves–and Henderson’s neck–to massive strip mining equipment on a mountaintop removal site in Boone County, West Virginia. On the steering committee of Mountain Justice and last summer’s Appalachia Rising action in Washington, DC, Henderson has taken part in numerous nonviolent demonstrations, including last year’s action in front of the White House.

Mountaintop removal operations in Tennessee rarely receive the media attention as those in West Virginia and Kentucky. Despite the numerous campaigns by organizations including SOCM and United Mountain Defense, a recent effort in the Tennessee state legislature to ban mountaintop removal in that state failed this fall.

An eastern Tennessee native, Henderson credits the Civil Rights Movement and veterans for much of her activist work in Appalachia today, where she is currently a lead organizer with Chattanooga Organized for Action. Focused on issues of mountaintop removal mining, community empowerment, and environmental justice in Southern Appalachia, she is a former member of the National Council of the Student Environmental Action Coalition, among other organizations.

Over a half century ago, fellow Southern writer William Faulkner confronted Southerners who quietly allowed the South to “wreck and ruin itself in less than a hundred years.” He begged his fellow Southerners to “speak now against the day, when our Southern people who will resist to the last these inevitable changes in social relations, will, when they have been forced to accept what they at one time might have accepted with dignity and goodwill, will say: ‘Why didn’t someone tell us this before? Tell us this in time?’”

Henderson has been one of the most tireless, courageous and inspiring campaigners to speak now against the day of mountaintop removal in Appalachia.

Jeff Biggers: Thanks to 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 gone as far as it possibly (and politically) can in “regulating” mountaintop removal or should the EPA still be the focused of lobbying pressure?

Ash-Lee Woodard Henderson: The EPA has not gone as far as it possibly can in terms of “regulating” mountaintop removal, and if left to the coal industry, the agency will never have the political strength to do much more. The evidence is out–Valley fills are still being permitted. For members of our movement who focus energy on lobbying, we should definitely keep up the pressure on the EPA. But, regulation of mountaintop removal isn’t enough–How do you regulate an industry that seems to have an endless amount of money to pay the fines that are given to them as punishment for breaking rules? It is time for a ban on strip-mining. The EPA cannot give us a permanent ban on strip-mining, so other federal bodies need to be pressured as well.

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