The concerned citizens of the organization Southern Appalachian Mountain Stewards bring passion, energy, and joy to their work as they fight to save their beloved mountain range and local biodiversity from surface mining.
Our two-and-a-half day immersion in the lives of those living in small towns and hollows in southwestern Virginia bore a shocking resemblance to experiences some of us have had in third-world countries, witnessing firsthand the exploitation of poor communities and natural resources by those with wealth and power. Mike Little, Director of Faith and Money Network, led eight1 of us to Appalachia, Virginia, where we were welcomed by members of Southwestern Appalachian Mountain Stewards (SAMS), an organization of concerned citizens working to stop the destruction of their communities by surface coal mining. Laura Miller, director of SAMS, and the determined band of grassroots members had worked out an intensive program of storytelling and drives through those magnificent mountains to the small coal camps and extensive mining sites so we could hear and see for ourselves.
Our teachers were those who dared speak out about the ways in which their lives had changed and deteriorated since surface mining — strip mining and mountaintop removal — had been tearing into their mountains and hollows in more recent years. Most of their families had been mining for generations. Despite the problems associated with underground mining, there remains a loyalty to the work and the industry on which generations had depended.
“I’m not against coal,” said Bob Mullins, who worked in the mines for 35 years, “but strip mining and mountaintop removal are destroying everything. Coal dust is everywhere. Now nothing survives in the water. It’s the chemicals. We’re not against mining. We’re against the way the mining is being done.”
Thanks to a fly-over with SouthWings — a volunteer organization of aviators that makes it possible to view the massive mining sites that have turned rolling green mountains into flat, raw moonscapes — our pilot, Andy Meranda, provided a perspective often hidden from the ground. SAMS members Mike Clark and Tim Mullins, as well as Laura Miller, were our guides through the twisting mountain roads to see the grandeur and beauty of these oldest mountains on earth, a stark contrast to the numerous sites in the immediate vicinity that have suffered the ravages of above-ground mining. With Tim and Susanna, one of four interns working with SAMS, we learned how citizens can monitor the streams and rivers that carry contaminants resulting from processing coal.
The fears and concerns that had been growing in the area caused locals to mobilize into action in 2007, founding the Southern Appalachian Mountain Stewards. In addition to the deteriorating quality of air and water, the effects on the health of those living in the area, threats and intimidation by the large coal companies, and the loss of homes due to those threats, one tragic incident especially haunted the community. A large boulder was dislodged by a strip mine operator, as it was operating in the middle of the night on an unpermitted road. As reported, “the boulder crashed down the mountain like a cannonball, hit a stump, went airborne, and smashed through the back wall” of 3-year-old Jeremy Davidson’s home, killing him as he slept in his bed. The mining company, which called the accident an ‘act of God,’ was fined only $15,000.
Were it not for the determination and courage of this small band of citizens, fear and despair might well cave in to the powerful forces exerted by the corporations blasting the tops of mountains, with which every level of government seems to be complicit. Instead, the individuals of SAMS work tirelessly and gratefully for their growing successes. Ongoing efforts include getting the coal companies to control dust, marching in their communities as well as in the nation’s capital, keeping issues in front of those too fearful to join in, and working with other grassroots groups. Perhaps their most heartening success to date has been the delay of a permit that would allow mining of Ison Rock Ridge, which rises directly behind the SAMS office and runs parallel to the main street of Appalachia. We shuddered to think of what would happen to that already-depressed town were the coal company to have its way mining the ridge.
The saving grace of SAMS is that these fearless activists are fun-loving, caring people. They prepared their homemade favorites for us — fried green tomatoes, soup beans, corn bread, chili, jambalaya, apple stack cake, peach cobbler, and much more. What’s more, some of the very people who had been our storytellers and tour guides provided two evenings of foot-tapping, soul-stirring music: Jane Branham, Buddy Delp, Sam Broach, and Bob Mullins.
Most touching of all was that they opened their hearts and their lives to these eight strangers, and as Jane said in our concluding time of reflection, “we’ve become brothers and sisters.” We too will raise our voices in concert with these valiant people who persevere against the power of large corporations and governments that do little to protect the citizens, and through our own prayers and activism support SAMS and other community groups determined to improve the quality of their lives and to create sustainable communities. We’re committed to keep on singing and praying: “Stop tearin’ the mountains down!”
1Our group of eight: Mike Little, Dottie Bockstiegel, Carolyn Davis, Marget Guthrie, Billy Hart, Brian Higgins, Tim Kumfer, and Margee Kooistra.
By Margee Kooistra | August 31, 2011
Margee Kooistra was a longtime Faith and Money Network board member. She lives in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania, and is an active member of Market Square Presbyterian Church in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.