Tennesseans Moving Mountains

The Bush administration has launched an attack on laws and regulations protecting the environment that has most environmental watchdogs on the defensive. One grassroots organization in Tennessee, true to its nature, is anything but.

While administration policy has been especially kind to the coal industry, Save Our Cumberland Mountains (SOCM) is fighting back. Recently, members of the group requested a public hearing with the federal Office of Surface Mining (OSM) to voice their concerns about a proposed 2,139-acre strip mine in Elk Valley, Tennessee. If approved, this would be the largest strip mine ever opened in Tennessee.

SOCM members are concerned because the proposed mine is within a half mile of the local elementary school and about 75 homes. Besides safety issues related to blasting, SOCM is concerned over the mine's potential to contaminate wells, cause landslides and flooding, and create hazardous driving conditions along haul roads. In addition, the mine threatens the federally protected Cumberland blackside dace fish downstream from the blasting zone. The project is now on hold until an environmental impact study is completed.

SOCM has been working on issues of environmental, social, and economic justice since 1972. Such longevity is rare among grassroots citizens groups.

In 2000, the organization succeeded in saving the Fall Creek Falls watershed from the potentially devastating effects of strip mining. Group members fought for the preservation of the watershed for 25 years. Perseverance paid off, and the watershed was the largest area ever declared unsuitable for mining by the OSM.

How did they do it? Members of the environmental group spoke loudly to those in power when they hung a 60-foot banner from the falls that read, "Don't let the falls down, Bruce Babbitt." Then-Secretary of the Interior Babbitt responded and took part in the celebration after the area was officially declared unsuitable for mining.

Coal mining is only one of the many issues SOCM works to resolve. The mission of SOCM is to assist Tennessee residents to protect, defend, and improve the quality of life in their communities and across the state. This includes stopping the devastation caused by mining, addressing environmental problems created by aerial spraying and the forestry industry, working for fair taxation, overcoming social discrimination, and working on other local and statewide issues of concern to its members. SOCM also has been successful in bringing federal money into the Cumberland coal-mining region for improvements of roads and education.

SOCM members are enthusiastic about their new expansion into west and middle Tennessee and their efforts toward racial diversity. President Howard White, SOCM's first African-American leader, said, "When I was asked to join the board several years ago, I wondered if I would be accepted. I was, from day one, and SOCM is committed to bring in more people of color and to expand the concepts that have worked well for us to all of the state. We know there is power in numbers."

SOCM believes that every individual has the inherent power and right to affect the course of their lives and surroundings. They believe each person has a right to know about and have a voice in developments that affect them. And they believe there is strength in organization—in people working together to protect their rights, improve their communities, and pursue the common good.

"They train you how to make things happen, how to be leaders, how to lobby, how to write a bill. They empower people to understand they can change things, that individuals can make a difference," said former SOCM president Barbara Levi. "SOCM is really about people organizing to make democracy work for them. We have learned that we can find our voice through working together and teaching ourselves the skills necessary to have a say in the future of our communities."

—Beverly Wooden

Beverly Wooden is a reporter for the Volunteer Times in Campbell County, Tennessee.

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