16 Tons and What Do You Get?

If Tennessee Ernie Ford were to sing his blue-collar anthem "Sixteen Tons and What Do You Get?" to the residents of the coal fields of Kentucky and West Virginia, they would answer: property damage, dried up wells, respiratory illness, and explosions 100 times more powerful than the Oklahoma City bombing.

The latest technique in strip mining—mountaintop removal—involves detonating explosives to blow apart the top 1,000 acres of a mountain and using a dragline (a mammoth bulldozer) to dig away the soil and reveal seams of coal. The excess dirt is then deposited in valley fills, mountain streams that support the regional ecosystems as well as providing area residents with a source of water.

This is the latest of the ongoing battles for economic survival in the mountain communities of central Appalachia. In the last 40 years, the number of coal-industry jobs in coal-rich states such as West Virginia has dropped from 138,000 to 16,000, while the amount of coal mined annually is the highest ever. With the steady decline in jobs and the increase in the threat to the visual legacy of the mountains, citizens are fighting to take back their mountains—and their futures.

In Harlan County, Kentucky, citizens organized a local chapter of Kentuckians for the Commonwealth (KFTC) to stop mountaintop removal. Robert Gipe, an organizer with KFTC, said the group asked themselves what the pivotal issue was. "We found a strategy that gives citizens something to do," Gipe said. They drafted a "Lands Unsuitable for Mining" petition to declare Black Mountain a public land trust. By focusing their efforts around protecting the state’s highest peak, the group was able to draw greater public attention to the extent of mountaintop removal in eastern Kentucky.

As members of KFTC pushed their petition through the local government to the state level, they gathered coalition support from other state chapters of the organization as well as national environmental groups such as the Sierra Club and Trout Unlimited. Gipe said, "Black Mountain made a local issue into a state issueà.Letters of support of the resolution came from citizens in each county, instead of from just the local government." The group used the election year to its advantage, with normally pro-coal industry Gov. Paul Patton throwing his support behind a resolution to protect Black Mountain from mountaintop removal and set it aside in a public land trust. Through petitioning and civic support, organizers negotiated with timber and coal companies to purchase the top 2,000 acres of the peak from the companies with state money appropriated in the 2000 budget.

WHILE KENTUCKIANS took a citizen action approach, a West Virginia group built a coalition to support the protection of the mountains in their communities, and they used litigation as a tool to meet their ends. James Weekley founded Blair Mountain Historical Organization in February 1999 after seeing the results of mountaintop removal from his front yard. "I saw the devastation of mountain, streams, and everything my grandfather worked for," Weekley said. "I had to protect the future for my grandchildren and children."

While the group’s main objective is to preserve Blair Mountain as a historic site and to use it as the base for eco-tourism, Weekley and other Blair coal-field residents sued the federal government for improper enforcement of surface mining regulations and the Clean Water Act of 1977. Last October, U.S. District Court Judge Charles Haden II ruled in favor of Weekley and the plaintiffs. Haden’s order could stop mountaintop removal as it is currently practiced.

Grassroots groups like these are giving voice to citizens like Julia Bonds, an organizer with Coal River Mountain Watch in Raleigh County, West Virginia. "Most of us are poor. Home and water are all we have. We have no place other than our land to move to. We endure what the coal companies put us through."

But maybe the times are changing. Persistent activity and organizing by grassroots groups might soon cause coal companies to realize that the answer to Tennessee Ernie Ford’s musical question is: lawsuits, enforcement of regulations, and citizen action.

ELIZABETH NEWBERRY is editorial assistant at Sojourners. For more information on mountaintop removal, visit www.appalnet.org/BlackMountainBlues.htm or contact: Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, Box 1450, London, KY 40742. Blair Mountain Historical Organization, www.geocities.com/badtothebone53; (304) 369-3512.

Coal River Mountain Watch, Box 18, Whitesville, WV 25209; (304) 854-2182.

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