800px-Mountains_of_West_Virginia_from_Pipestem_1Appalachia in its natural state (the mountains looking out from McKeever Lodge in Pipestem, West Virginia). Image via Wikimedia Commons

Cat McCue, environmental journalist, is a Yankee transplant who was smitten at her first sight of the Smoky Mountains, when she went down to Tennessee (from Buffalo, New York) for college. Now, appropriately enough, she’s communications director for Appalachian Voices, a nonprofit conservation organization whose mission is “preserving the heart of Appalachia.”

Cathryn McCue

Cathryn McCue

The organization’s website gave me plenty of help as I was researching the story of Clara Bingham, an investigative journalist who became so outraged at the depredations of mountaintop-removal mining (coal companies’ blasting off the tops of mountains to get at seams of coal) that she produced a compelling documentary, The Last Mountain, about it.

The Appalachian Voices website showed me what these folks were doing: lobbying Congress and federal agencies to change injurious laws and regulations; suing coal companies over pollution violations; testing water in sludge-filled valleys for toxicity; focusing its supporters’ political action on important bills; translating complicated issues into language understandable to a layman; and reaching out to educate the public. Appalachian Voices blends the voices of staffers (lawyers, scientists, outreach workers) plus supportive donors/activists plus committed interns like “The Thoughtful Coal Miner,” Nick Mullins, a (former) fourth-generation underground coal miner. He, along with his wife, Rusti—also an intern—and their children recently wrapped up their “Breaking Clean” tour of the Northeast, South, and Midwest to enlighten folks about the devastation wrought by mountaintop removal mining.

This, I guessed, was a small band of activists who had grit and optimism, given that they’re fighting so massive an opponent—the entrenched, politically powerful coal industry. I found myself wondering, “Who are those guys?”

So I called Cat McCue to find out. And to confirm what I suspected—that we can all become Appalachian voices wherever we live, even if, as my friend Susanna wrote from California, “I’m too old and far away to march to the mountaintops.” Then she added, significantly, “But I can donate.”

The relevance of mountaintop removal for those of us in states not ravished by it? First, to know anything about the ruination of the peaks and forests and waters of a gorgeous part of our country is galvanizing enough.

MountainTop RemovalAppalachia in an unnatural state: photo (taken July 4, 2014) of mountaintop removal mining occurring on Kayford Mountain, West Virginia. Copyright Lynn Willis. Photo courtesy of Appalachian Voices. Flight by Southwings. 

But there’s an even stronger connection: Every time you turn on a light, you are likely to be burning coal extracted by mountaintop blasting (“an explosive power the size of a Hiroshima bomb—once a week,” notes Robert Kennedy Jr. in Clara Bingham’s movie)

How can you know you’re burning mountaintop-mined coal? “One of our proudest achievements was working with Google Earth to create ‘What’s My Connection to Mountaintop Removal?’” McCue says. Google and Appalachian Voices’ on-staff technical wizards created this online tool, which lets you go to http://www.ilovemountains.org/myconnection/show_connection.php?zip=78704 and put in your Zip Code. “It basically tracks the end user of electricity back to where the coal is extracted, and shares the stories of the people whose lives and communities are harmed by mountaintop removal,” McCue says.

It sure does. The tool told me that my Manhattan electricity supplier, Con Edison, “uses coal from mountaintop removal mines.” Not only that: the site went on to show the devastated face of Kayford Mountain, West Virginia, one such mined mountain, and told the story of the late Larry Gibson, whose family has lived in the area since the 1700s: “Where he once looked up at the peaks of Kayford from his family graveyard, he now looks 300 feet straight down at a blasted and devastated landscape.” (The “What’s My Connection?” tool traced Susanna’s California supplier of electricity back to mountaintop-removal coal as well.)

The tool is housed on the website of I Love Mountains, a joint project of the Alliance for Appalachia, which is a coalition of 12 organizations, including Appalachian Voices.

Changing the Rules in the Heart of Appalachia

“The heart of Appalachia,” as the Appalachian Voices folks see it, is West Virginia, Kentucky, Virginia, Tennessee, and North Carolina. Accordingly, the group’s 25 staffers work out of offices in Boone, North Carolina; Charlottesville, North Carolina; Knoxville, Tennessee; and Washington, D.C.

Appalachian Voices and the Alliance for Appalachia fight mightily to change the laws and regulations that have allowed the blasting-off of the tops of 500 mountains, clogged the valleys, and tainted the waters of Appalachia.

Take the Clean Water Protection Act (H.R. 1837), which, notes the I Love Mountains site, is “a bill in the U.S. House of Representatives which will sharply reduce mountaintop removal coal mining and protect clean drinking water for many of our nation’s cities. It will protect the quality of life for Appalachian coalfield residents who face frequent catastrophic flooding and pollution or loss of drinking water as a result of mountaintop removal coal mining.”

“Every year, we work to pass the Clean Water Protection Act, which has been one of the most heavily supported environmental bills in Congress over the years, ” McCue points out. “We educate Congress members and their staffs about the importance of this legislation in terms of addressing the worst aspects of mountaintop removal, and we help connect them with people in the Appalachian communities that are bearing the brunt of that impact. We help folks from the area travel to D.C. so they can meet in person with legislators. That is a key part of what we do—bring those voices to the decision-makers.

“Here in Appalachia, the coal industry has dominated the economy for almost 100 years,” McCue says. “At this point there’s little else to do in the coal-impacted counties; the industry’s influence over the years at the state and federal level has provided very little motivation to diversify the economy. If a coal job dries up, there’s really no other work. There are many parts of Appalachia that are beautiful, and towns that are vibrant, lovely tourist destinations, but where the mining is going on,the forests are gone, many of the mountain views are gone, the water is tainted, fish are dying, people are sick because of mountaintop removal mining. Needless to say, this makes the area unattractive to companies that might want to relocate there.”

Taking on Goliath

Wins for the Davids in this conflict are rare and slow in coming. I asked McCue for some heartening news. First, I wanted to know, does computer activism—petition-signing, notes and calls to legislators, etc.—actually have an impact?

“It does . . . it really does,” McCue said earnestly. “I can speak for Appalachian Voices and a number of other groups that we work with—we think very carefully about asking people to do too much. We have a very passionate and committed support base—some of them members, others who support us with their action. We’re always very keenly aware of how critical it is for people to be involved, so we ask for signing only if we think this can make a difference—when we need to elevate voices around an issue.

“You put your name into an online form and off it goes, and you think, what have I done? Well, it is very impressive when, for example, we can walk into a representative’s office and say ‘There are 25,000 people in your state who say they want an end to mountaintop removal, the cleanup of coal ash ponds, clean energy, more sustainable jobs for the future’—that really does have an impact.”

As for heartening results:

  • Consider the satisfying settlement that Appalachian Voices, the Waterkeeper Alliance, other nonprofit groups, and several individuals achieved in 2012 by suing the International Coal Group, Inc. (ICG) in Frankfort, Kentucky, for its falsification of pollution records and also suing the state Energy and Environment Cabinet over its lack of oversight in the matter. “We found 20,000 violations of the Clean Water Act!” McCue says. “We succeeded in getting a strong settlement; the state issued pretty substantial fines, which will go to clean up water in eastern Kentucky, and the coal companies must send their pollution reports to a third-party group for inspection.” Not only that: “It is the first time a Kentucky state court has allowed affected citizens or environmental groups to intervene in a Clean Water Act enforcement case brought by the state,” the Appalachian Voices website notes.
  • One of the programs Appalachian Voices has launched, “Energy Savings for Appalachia,” aims to help rural communities work with electric member cooperatives to develop energy efficiency financing programs.“This can be a tremendous boost to a community: not only do the homeowners and business owners save money by using less electricity, but energy efficiency creates jobs for people who need to do the energy audits, the foam insulation, install the energy-saving appliances—a whole suite of real jobs that improve everybody’s level of comfort and saves users money by using less electricity,” McCue says.
  • McCue points out that Appalachian Voices had an important role in 2012 in stopping the Old Dominion Energy Company from building the largest coal plant in Virginia. “Old Dominion was going to build a plant in eastern Virginia that would have locked the state into another 50, 60 years of soot and air pollution and carbon dioxide on a grand scale. We were one of the lead groups pushing back on that—doing grassroots organizing; for sure, getting a lot of petitions signed; tapping into the voices of Virginians who wanted to say “No, we don’t want this.’ And so in 2012 the company put that on indefinite hold (see “ODEC Puts Coal Plant on Ice,”) and now it’s pretty much over.”

Let Appalachian Voices’ Front Porch Blog fill you in on further triumphs—and struggles—in the long battle for clean water, soot-free air, unclogged valleys, and mountain greenery.