We Love Mountains

Preface to We All Live Downstream, by Jason Howard

I am very proud to be a Kentuckian. Of all the many things my Creator has seen fit for me to have accomplished, there is one simple fact that brings me the most honor and the greatest sense of self, and that is that I am an Eastern Kentuckian – a proud hillbilly who traces my family back at least eight generations in our beloved mountains – Martin County, Lawrence County and, eventually, Boyd County. There is no better home than Kentucky. We have a deeply ingrained, almost mystical, sense of place – a sense of belonging that defines us. And it is our love of our special place, and the catastrophe it faces, that moves us to do what we must: speak truth to power. Sitting here in my home in Tennessee, I am not far from the mountains as the crow flies, but in many ways, I am a million miles away. In the mountains, we still live with enduring poverty, frustrating lack of opportunity, poor health, education far below national averages crippling addiction, and more.

There’s not a doubt that there is a crisis in Eastern Kentucky, but crises are systemic and the system at the root of our 100-year long crisis is the unchecked power of the coal companies. We’ve known it for a long time, and we’ve fought it for a long time. Every step for justice in the coalfields has been a long, drawn out, hard-won battle, too often bloody, too often lethal. No one has struggled against or suffered more from the coal companies’ power than our coal miners and their families. First, there was the desperate struggle to unionize, to improve working conditions in the coal mines and the unconscionable living conditions in the coal camps. Then, miners and their families courageously led the fight to improve mine safety and to prevent that slow death known as black lung. Next, the coal companies fought against the surface mining laws in the 1960s and 1970s and the protections they promised for the residents of the mountains. The companies fought the severance tax and the unmined mineral tax. And finally, the companies fought Kentuckians for the Commonwealth over those diabolical broad form deeds. And, in each of these epic struggles, the coal companies sounded panicked alarms. They assured us that each reform, each step toward dignity, empowerment, and safety for miners and their families, or each new law to protect the mountains, would signal the death of the coal industry. Now the coal companies are bigger and badder than ever, with hundreds of millions in profits hightailing it out of the mountains every year. And the same is true in West Virginia and the other coal-producing states of Appalachia; let’s not forget our brothers and sisters there.

The coal industry is thriving. What’s dying is our mountains. And they are dying so fast, so shockingly fast. In September, I made my favorite journey, my journey home to Eastern Kentucky. The trip is always meaningful and special, but this one was life changing. It was deeply marred by my to visit to mountaintop removal coal mining sites. Oh, I had read the books: Lost Mountain, Moving Mountains, Missing Mountains. I had read the lawsuits and judge’s decisions (some of which were overturned by the man now serving as our Chief Justice, John Roberts), articles and history books and historical fiction, too. But nothing, absolutely nothing, could have prepared me for the trauma of seeing mountaintop removal coal mining for myself. I flew over barren moonscapes where the only thing growing is invasive, non-native grasses. Where once were our ancient, verdant hills and the most biodiverse forests in North America, I saw nothingness. On the ground, visiting with families in Grapevine, I heard the harrowing stories I had read about: busted unions and miners; lack of ability to collectively bargain for better wages, benefits and conditions; intimidation and bullying at all levels; chronic health problems not only in miners but in the whole community; arsenic levels in drinking water 100 times higher than is safe; mothers putting Mountain Dew in sippy cups while they bathe their babies to prevent their children from drinking anything that comes from the tap, so poisonous is the water; children who draw water as black or red because they don’t know creek water is supposed to run clear; collapsed and dry wells; choking dust, cracked foundations and windows; non-stop noise from blasting; overloaded coal trucks terrorizing already nominally safe roads; companies’ small promises of mitigation and damage offset that either come not at all, or come too late. And perhaps most maddening, I saw the coal companies’ smoke and mirrors, bells and whistles, the double speak and sleight of hand that tries to convince Appalachia and America that this is actually good for us, that we need it, and that we’re better off for it. Let me be clear. Mountaintop removal coal mining is a tragedy. Mountaintop removal coal mining is a scourge on our people and on our land. Mountaintop removal coal mining is devouring vast acreages of irreplaceable hardwood forests, filling our sacred hollows, burying precious headwater streams, and eliminating wildlife habitat. And with its monstrous equipment and mechanization, it is also eliminating coal miners’ jobs.

The fact is this and nothing less: mountaintop removal coal mining is killing our mountains, the very thing that has produced us, the source and repository of our utterly unique culture and heritage. I have been taught it is abusive to point out a problem without highlighting a solution. And although the companies would have us believe there is no alternative for Appalachia’s people and economy, and our nation’s urgent need for energy independence but to blow up our mountains, do not believe them. There is a solution, one our president, Barack Obama, believes in and urges and for which he and Congress have designated hundreds of millions of dollars. The solution is new power. The solution is the green collar economy. It is the future, and I say the future must come to Appalachia, and especially to Eastern Kentucky, and it must come now. We are honest about our past. We are realistic about our present. And we are optimistic about our future.

Our miners and our coal have powered this country for 100 years. Half of the nation’s electricity still comes from coal, 16% of that coal from Kentucky. The price has been so much more than what folks see on their utility bills – the cost has been our environment, our pristine streams, our wildlife, our health and even our lives. It is only right that Appalachia be first in line for money from the stimulus package to create green collar jobs. One of the many things I love about the green collar economy is that it puts to rest, once and for all, the archaic argument that we must choose between our environment and our economy. The truth is that has always been a false choice sponsored by big industry. We can fight poverty and pollution at the same time. We must fight poverty and pollution at the same time. To do anything else is to slide backwards, and we are so over being backwards. Let me clear, in case I haven’t been. The definition of a green collar job is a family supporting, career-track job that directly contributes to preserving or enhancing environmental quality. Those new power jobs are perfect for us because here in Appalachia, we love mountains, and we are due for a piece of the pie. To our politicians, I say stop spending our tax dollars to subsidize coal companies that are making millions. Instead, invest in our region’s precious resources with new solutions like a solar panel factory located in the mountains. Invest in our workers by providing training in new energy job skills. We live in America, a land of pioneers and innovators.

The one thing that actually slows forward-thinking green entrepreneurs and employers is that at present they cannot find enough trained, green collar workers to do all the renewable energy and new power work they are creating. That’s good news for our rural communities, which suffer from chronic lack of job opportunities; communities where coal companies have literally run off other industries to keep workers dependent on dirty coal jobs. Green entrepreneurs, come on down! We need you in Appalachia, land of the fabled self reliant, hard working, creative folk who only want to be self-sufficient and provide for their families with an honest day’s work. Coal is a finite resource and a nineteenth century fuel, and this, my friends, is the twenty-first century. It is time and we are ready for new power and modern power like solar and wind to meet our energy needs. The green collar, new energy economy makes use of the fact that enough sunlight hits the surface of the earth in one hour to power our entire planet for a full year.

So how does that fancy fact impact coal miners and their families? One solar panel has 4,000 parts. Think of the jobs that would be created by a solar panel factory in Hazard, in Grundy, in Huntington. There is money for that type of job creation in the current stimulus bill, and coal miners – current and retired – should immediately be given the job training to build solar panels. Let me tell you about another type of new power we are ready for here in Appalachia. People all over the region are standing up and stepping out for a more just economy and a safe, healthy environment. You are our most precious resource, our most powerful source of energy, and our best hope for a better future. This morning in my prayer and meditation I was not all surprised that one of my readings was about Mahatma Gandhi, whose peaceful, nonviolent resistance to the British and brilliant civil disobedience by ordinary people is the perfect for model of us as we ask the coal companies to leave. I’d like to share that reading with you.

“I claim to be an average man of less than average ability. I have not the shadow of a doubt that any man or woman can achieve what I have, if he or she would make the same effort and cultivate the same hope and faith.” – Mahatma Gandhi While most people think of ordinariness as a fault or limitation, Gandhi had discovered in it the very meaning of life – and of history. For him, it was not the famous or the rich or the powerful who would change the course of history. If the future is to differ from the past, he taught, if we are to leave a peaceful and healthy earth for our children, it will be the ordinary man and woman who do it: not by becoming extraordinary, but by discovering that our greatest strength lies not in how much we differ from each other but in how much – how very much – we are the same. This faith in the power of the individual formed the foundation for Gandhi’s extremely compassionate view of the industrial era’s large-scale problems, as well as of the smaller but no less urgent troubles we find in our own lives. One person can make a difference.

My fellow Americans: will you be that one person who makes a difference? Call your representatives in Washington. Call your representatives in Frankfort, Charleston, Columbus, Richmond, Nashville. Tell them you want new power, and you want it now. Educate and empower yourselves with the facts, share the good news with your friends and families, and let’s bring the twenty-first century new energy economy to Appalachia. And, don’t forget, when your lawmakers do the right thing, thank them! Send them a jar of shucky beans, a homemade apple cake. Write them thank you notes, long petitions with grateful signatures. Phone their offices and leave kind messages. That is how we were raised, is it not? Let them know you see and you acknowledge and you appreciate their progressive and position actions. And then, vote for them again, and others who run on a progressive and positive platform. And, while you are at it, why not run for office yourself? I am serious. We all believe in that better future. We love Appalachia; we love our families and communities, our streams and rivers, our forests and fields, our clean water and our precious air. We cherish our proud under ground mining heritage, and the ethic and courage of our mining relatives. We believe in and love the dream of better, safer jobs that contribute to, rather than devastating, our communities, with social protections and security of person and livelihood. And, of course, we love mountains.