Mountaintop Removal Coal Mining Opponents Work to Generate Clean Energy
Interview with Lorelei Scarbro, Coal River Valley, W.V. anti-mountaintop removal coal mining activist, conducted by Melinda Tuhus
Over a thousand activists from the Appalachian coal fields and their supporters met in Washington, D.C., the last weekend of September for a two-day conference on how to stop mountaintop removal mining. The conference, titled, Appalachia Rising: Voices from the Mountains, was followed by a march, rally and acts of civil disobedience outside the White House, where more than 100 protesters were arrested.
One of the conference speakers was Lorelei Scarbro, a resident of the Coal River Valley, W. Va., whose coal miner-husband died of black lung disease and whose home was threatened by a nearby mountaintop removal operation. Mountaintop removal is a method of coal extraction where explosives are used to blast the tops off mountains in order to get at the thin seams of coal underneath. The process has literally destroyed the landscape of the region and buried 2,000 miles of streams, creating air and water pollution that is making local residents sick.
For the past five years, Scarbro has been working to a build a wind farm to generate electricity atop Coal River Mountain. She spoke with Between The Lines' Melinda Tuhus, who attended the Appalachia Rising conference, about the destruction wrought by mountain top removal coal mining, progress being made to build her wind farm, and the urgent need for a diversity of jobs in the impoverished region.
In early 2007 there was a wind feasibility study for Coal River Mountain and it showed that (the mountain) had amazing wind potential. It has between four and seven wind feasibility, with four being the minimum you have to have in order to erect an industrial-scale wind farm. By early 2008, we came together with Coal River Mountain Watch and the Sierra Club and Appalachian Voices and Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition -- a lot of groups partnered together in order to begin the Coal River Wind Campaign. And the primary purpose of the campaign was first and foremost to save that mountain, to keep that mountain intact, and to create renewable energy and green jobs and to actually start rebuilding the area, since we're ground zero for mountaintop removal and Coal River Mountain is probably the last fully intact mountain range within a 50-mile radius -- or was until Massey Energy started mining activity in late 2009.
And so we mounted a campaign that showed we could generate enough power on Coal River Mountain to power 70,000 to 80,000 homes; we could generate revenue for the county that would be above $1.7 million annually; we could create 200 locally trained green jobs during the two-year construction phase, and forever, we could create 40 to 50 jobs on that mountain maintaining that wind farm. Every 20 to 25 years the wind turbines would have to be replaced, which is another spike of employment. We had an economic feasibility study done for the area, which also advocated for a wind turbine factory on Coal River Mountain, as opposed to the expansion of coal mining.
Now, while the Coal River wind project would erect an industrial scale windmill farm on Coal River Mountain, we also advocated and believed that when we stop mountaintop removal, there will be an increase in underground, traditional, responsible room-and-pillar coal mining jobs. At one time in West Virginia, we had 125,000 coal mining jobs and now we're down to about 17,000. So mountaintop removal is not a job creator, it's a job killer. What we want, and what we desperately need in the Coal River Valley and throughout Appalachia and the coal towns -- we need job diversity. One of the biggest obstacles in Appalachia is the fact that we have no choices; we live in a mono-economy and we have no choices. The only good paying jobs are in the industry; that's the way the industry likes it and that's the way the majority of our politicians like it. And for 120 years, we've been fighting to change things. And one of the things I do on a regular basis -- whether it's in my neighborhood, at the state capitol, or on Capitol Hill -- I advocate for job diversity in the coal fields.
There are some of us who've made the decision that we've lived our whole lives in these little coal towns and we plan to spend the rest of our lives there; they're not driving us out. And that is people in the environmental community and people in the coal industry; on both sides we've made the decision that we will live and die there. And a small handful of us have made the decision that if we're going to stay there, we need to try to figure out what we can do to make that place a better place. So we believe that job diversity is a major contributing factor to be able to continue to exist and live on the land we love and be with the people we love. There's a song, "Which Side are You On?" And it's to the point now that it doesn't matter which side you're on; we all love the same people. And the problem is we're all being used and none of us have any choices. When the fourth largest coal producer in the country decided to come in and blow the top off the mountain behind my house where my property borders Coal River Mountain, I no longer had a choice to stand by any more and pretend that bad things weren't happening. The guys who work for the coal industry, and a lot of the guys on the mountain top removal sites don't feel as if they have any choices. There's a limited number of jobs underground, and that's the way the industry likes it; and it is a greater profit margin for the coal industry if they can access the coal by blowing the tops off the mountains and that's why mountaintop removal exists -- it's simply a greater profit margin for the coal industry.
It makes me very, very angry for people who rape and pillage Appalachia to call themselves coal miners. It's an enormous insult to my husband, who spent 35 years as an underground union coal miner and he died of black lung -- he gave his life to the industry. And for someone who is pushing a button and destroying everything around us and destroying the water source and destroying more than 2,000 miles of headwater streams, decapitating 500 mountains -- to call themselves a coal miner.
One of the things I fight very, very hard for, whether it be the wind farm, whether it be standing in front of the governor pleading for job diversity, is, we need job diversity in the coal fields. We live in a mono economy; the coal industry has a death grip on the state of West Virginia. And it's time that changed. And no matter what you believe about coal, how long you think it's going to be around, the fact of the matter is, coal is a finite resource and someday it's going to run out. So no matter how long you think it's going to be there, we have to start preparing for the post-coal future, and we have to start creating jobs. We can't wait until we end mountaintop removal to start rebuilding Appalachia.
Visit Coal River Wind's website at www.coalriverwind.org and the conference website at appalachiarising.org.
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