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Ripples of Hope
By Jason Howard
Water and mountains have shaped my life. Like many other Appalachian children, I grew up playing in the creek and climbing the mountains around my family’s home in Eastern Kentucky. Our small holler even took its name from the creek that ran through it—Dorton Branch. During the summer months, I waded in its current, overturning rocks in search of crawdads. My friends and I would spend hours there catching minnows and planning our next fishing trip, often to the music of Dwight Yoakam and Kathy Mattea that drifted from neighboring porches.
Once, just before Wednesday night church, I took a dare from a friend that I could swing across the creek on a grapevine. Halfway across, the vine snapped, dropping me into the water with a splash. Soaked to my waist, I sulked inside to a back pew, my shoes squishing with each step to the beat of “There Is Power In The Blood.” My dad dealt with me later that night at home.
The creek wasn’t always my friend, though. Each spring seemed to bring a flood and new lines of worry on my mother’s face. A child of poverty, she and her family had often been forced out of their home by the floodwaters. Pain choked her voice as she recalled being roused by her grandmother in the middle of the night and led to their front porch, where she and her sister were lifted into a waiting rowboat. After the waters receded, they’d go back, salvage what they could and start over.
She told me this once just after a powerful flash flood had covered the road in front of our house in 1990. “The [flood waters] hardly ever came like this,” she noted. “They seem to get faster and stronger every year.”
Statistics from the National Weather Service, the United States Geological Survey and the Office of Surface Mining support my mother’s observations, as do testimony from residents throughout the Appalachian coalfields.
“You can’t blame this on God,” wrote Denvir Mitchell, a witness to disastrous flooding in Logan County, West Virginia, in a letter to the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition. “Blame it on who’s doing it. Massey Coal and all of the other coal corporations.”
For decades, Big Coal has laid waste to Appalachia through mountaintop removal mining. Since 1985, more than 1,200 miles of streams have been impacted as a result of this devastation. Over 800 square miles of mountains have been destroyed. Each year, the explosive equivalent of 58 Hiroshima-sized atomic bombs is detonated by the coal industry in the region.
There’s a saying in the anti-mountaintop removal movement that “what we do to the land, we do the people.” The residents of Appalachia are realizing this, and it’s moving them to speak out.
They include people like 78-year-old McKinley Sumner of Perry County, Kentucky, whose ancestral land is bordered by an encroaching mine site operated by industrial conglomerate International Coal Group (ICG). Although Sumner refused to sell his land to the company, workers nonetheless ignored his clearly marked property line and destroyed some of his land. He now makes a grueling hike up a steep mountainside to his land’s ridgeline three times a week to ensure his property boundaries are respected.
Community organizer Tanya Turner is one of many 20-somethings choosing to stay in Kentucky to work for social justice in the mountains. Turner, along with 13 other protesters, staged a four-daysit-in of Kentucky Governor Steve Beshear’s office in February to protest the governor’s support of the coal industry. Dubbed Kentucky Rising, the group also included internationally acclaimed author Wendell Berry, a fierce protector of the environment for more than 50 years, who recently received the National Humanities Medal from President Obama. Upon emerging from the Capitol in Frankfort, KY, they were joined by more than one thousand protesters rallying for change.
Sumner, Turner and Berry—and thousands of Appalachians like them—are creating a rising tide of protest saturating streams and hollers throughout the region. They are producing, in the words of Robert Kennedy, a “tiny ripple of hope [that will] build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.”
Now that’s a flood I’d like to see in my creek.
To see more photos of the destruction caused by mountaintop removal in Appalachia, see the Summer 2011 issue of Julep Magazine.