It Takes a Village to Stop Razing Appalachia: Power Past Coal Fights Back


Appalachia needs no defense: It needs more defenders.

Check out the footage of the bright blast that greeted Bo Webb, a decorated Vietnam veteran, and his community last week in Clay's Branch, Peachtree, West Virginia.  A shower of rock dust mixed with a toxic brew of diesel fuel and ammonium nitrate explosives swept down their hollow, as the Richmond-based Massey Energy behemoth detonated another round of explosives in their haste to bring down the mountain for a thin seam of coal. Nearby, children attended the Marsh Fork Elementary School, the blasting in the distance like a harbinger of Massey's brutal force--the company is now infamously embroiled in a US Supreme Court case for compromising judicial neutrality in their efforts to contribute their way into the good graces of West Virginia judges--as 2.8 billion gallons of coal sludge held back by a 385-foot-high earthen dam hover a few football fields above the school like an accident waiting to happen.

Good morning, Appalachia!

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Just another day of mountaintop removal; that process of wiping out America's natural landmarks, dumping the waste into waterways and valleys, and effectively removing historic communities from their homeplaces through a campaign of horrific blasting, dusting, poisoning, and harassment.

We've reached a new landmark in the central Appalachian coalfields of West Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee and southwest Virginia: Over 500 mountains in one of the most diverse forests in the Americas--the same kind of mountains that garner protection and preservation status in a blink of an eye in other regions---have now been eliminated from our American maps.

Five hundred mountains are gone. For what? Less than 5 percent of our nation's supply of coal, while 50 million tons of West Virginia coal are annually exported to CO2-spewing plants in countries like China.

As a new report by Quentin Gee, Nicholas Allen and their colleagues at the Associated Students Environmental Affairs Board of UC Santa Barbara recently found, the overlooked external costs of coal further debunk the black diamond's image as a "clean" and "cheap" source of energy. ( .

Gee and Allen write:

"The average U.S. coal plant creates about 13.5 cents of "harm" for every kWh it produces.
This harm comes about by damages to crops and buildings (acid rain), as well as health implications for humans (sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, particulate matter). Given that coal plants produced 1.99 terawatt-hours of electricity in 2006, the mean external harm for that year was $268 billion. Until coal-fired plants clean up or get phased out, we can expect coal to cost the U.S. economy about that much in externalities every year.

The coal sector is also a highly subsidized industry. A 2007 study by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) estimates that the coal industry receives about $8 billion per year in federal subsidies.

In addition to subsidies and general harms from air pollution, the added environmental risks of coal mining and ash waste disposal present another serious problem. The Department of Energy estimated that regulating coal ash as a "toxic waste" would result in $11 billion per year for tighter controls."

But mountaineers, and a growing movement of citizens affected by strip mining, coal mining, coal ash and slurry ponds and leaks, coal-fired plant pollution, black lung, contaminated watersheds, and the silent tsunami of climate change induced by the release of C02 from coal-fired "sorta cleaner coal" plants, are fighting back.

Organized into the Power Past Coal have hosted daily events in the first 100 days of the Obama administration to demonstrate the urgent need to recognize the devastating costs of dirty coal, and shift our nation toward an energy policy without dirty fossil fuels.

Here are some of the events that have taken place:

Sludge Safety Lobby Day, January 31st, Charleston, WV

On January 31st, residents of southern West Virginia crowded the state capitol, carrying jars of black water which they had taken from their wells in Prenter, Boone County, and Mingo County. They spent the day lobbying their legislators, asking them to stop slurry injections into sludge ponds until they new exactly what toxins the slurry contained.

Windmills, Not Toxic Spills, February 3rd, 2009, Coal River Mountain, WV

On February 3rd, fourteen activists were arrested after locking down to an excavator on Coal River Mountain. Coal River Mountain is slated for a 6,600-acre mountaintop removal site, but local residents have developed plans for a wind farm there instead. The wind farm would provide over a million dollars more in tax revenue per year than the mountaintop removal site, and would provide jobs and clean energy forever. Citizens have been working to convince West Virginia Governor Joe Manchin to support their plan for their community, but they're running out of time. That's why activists have escalated a civil disobedience campaign during the 100 Days of Action. This action was the first of four - with more to come.

No New Coal...That Means for Santee Cooper Too, February 12th, Florence, SC

On February 12th, over 100 residents of Florence County, SC hauled a blow-up smokestack outside of the courthouse in protest of a permit that was granted to Santee Cooper Energy Company to build a new coal-fired power plant on the banks of the Great Pee Dee River. Set in a watershed already marked with a DHEC mercury contamination advisory, the proposed plant would emit over 60 different hazardous pollutants, including selenium, dioxins, arsenic, heavy metals and mercury. The plant would also add 11 million tons of CO2 annually to our nation's greenhouse gas emissions.

March in Corpus Christi, February 19th, Corpus Christi, TX

On February 19th, more than 200 respirator clad citizens marched along the bay front in protest of the Las Brisas coke-fired power plant proposed for the coast of the port city. Among the most vocal marchers were local doctors, who warned that the new plant would worsen rates of asthma, heart attacks, cancer, neurological and behavioral problems, and failed births. Projected emissions levels suggest the plant would produce 21,166 tons of air pollution a year, which is more than all of the surrounding county's annual emissions combined.

Dooda Desert Rock at the Navajo Nation Council, February 26th, 2009, AZ

On the morning of February 26th, Elouise Brown and Dooda Desert Rock (DDR) made history as the first grassroots organization invited to present before the Navajo Nation Council. Friends of DDR packed the council room in opposition to recent legislation that granted rights of way across Navajo land to a coal company hoping to build the new coal-fired power plant in Desert Rock, New Mexico.

According to Elouise, "This precious day was not only a great day for the Navajo Nation Grassroots but for all of humanity. DDR's efforts extend to all living beings because toxins in the environment harm all of Mother Earth and Father Sky's children. It is history in the making and 100 years from now it will be regarded as the first grassroots effort granted a presentation in front of the Navajo Nation Council." The Council has yet to cast its final vote on the controversial legislation.

Action en Mass, March 1st, 2009, Somerset, Holyoke, & Salem Harbor, MA

While thousands were crowding the streets of DC last weekend for Powershift 2009 and the Capitol Climate Action, some Power Past Coal'ers decided to stay at home. But it certainly wasn't for lack of motivation. On Sunday, March 1st, citizens across Massachusettes convened outside of the state's three major coal plants to protest the release of toxic chemicals, asthma-causing particulate matter and greenhouse gas emissions into the air.

Freeze on Coal, March 10th, 2009 at Middlebury College in VT

When students at Santa Clara University convinced their president to divest itself of Massey Energy Stock, other schools across the country followed their lead. At Middlebury College, a school that earned an "A" on the 2009 "College Sustainability Report Card" in every category but "endowment transparency," senior Nate Blumenshine planned a spur of the moment "Freeze on Coal" to launch a campaign compelling the administration to divest from coal. On Tuesday at 12:30 p.m., forty students froze in place while getting lunch in the campus's busiest dining hall. Each held a piece of charcoal in his or her hand, and when two minutes had passed, they continued on with their meal, explaining to their befuddled peers what had just happened.

Next stop: Time to Power Past Coal on Bo Webb's mountains on Clay's Branch.

See: on how you can help to stop razing Appalachia.

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