In Part IV of this four-part interview, Branden talks about one of the most disheartening, yet hopeful campaigns that RAN is spearheading: the Gobal Finance Campaign. Take a look at the incredible work going on behind such a controversial topic.
L&W- What does RAN’s Global Finance Campaign entail?
BB- Our global finance campaign is focusing mainly on the funding sources behind large-scale environmental destruction, normally focusing on extractive industries, and our current focus is on mountain-top removal coal mining in Appalachia. We’re looking at West Virginia in particular, but it occurs in Kentucky and Tennessee as well. As far as mining goes, for decades there was what they called “tunnel mining” where men would go with chest drills, put a little dynamite in, blow it up and pull the coal out. They stopped because there were many health hazards involved in doing that, including black lung and such. But that was not nearly as environmentally destructive as mountain-top removal coal mining. This is an incredibly efficient method of blowing up mountains and removing coal. It can drop a mountain easily by 800 feet by blowing away layer after layer in order to remove the coal, and there is no way to reclaim these mountains. The coal companies will argue that they’ve saved the mountains by being so efficient, but they’re not talking about the fact that they’ve sprayed hydro seed all over these barren hilltops- and that stuff will grow on anything; people in Appalachia have seen that stuff grow on fence posts and old cars. There’s no nutritional value in it and it’s an invasive weed species. But it’s green, so now you’ve got these mountain tops that look like golf courses and are environmentally toxic. One of the biggest problems with this is what it does to the land. When you blow the top off a mountain not only are you destroying the dirt, losing the top soil and exposing the heart of the mountain, you are also uncovering lots of heavy metals and elements that are poisonous to biological entities. These coal mining corporations take the tailings that they blow off and they push them into the valleys, which then creates the perfect condition for all of those metals to leech into a stream-way or a river, creating terrible water pollution for the people in Appalachia.
L&W- Such as what?
BB- Such as tragic cancer clusters, horrible health problems. There’s been some great work done in uncovering this, and what it has shown is that the coal companies have incredibly strong friends in government, and that West Virginia’s government is completely at the beck and call of coal because they gain a financial benefit. But above and beyond the financial benefit it seems clear that there’s an “old boy” network that refuses to be unseated. They’re not interested in changing the way they do things. Period. It’s been the EPA’s responsibility to enforce environmental legislation, primarily from the ’70’s, like the Clean Water Act and the Environmental Protection Act; all those things we haven’t seen enforced throughout the last Administration. Now we’re starting to see this new EPA under the leadership of Lisa Jackson call into place for the first time in many years the Clean Water Act. There were 86 permits for blowing up 86 individual mountain tops, and of those 86, 79 were pushed back by Lisa Jackson’s EPA for not meeting clean water guidelines. And that was good news because it has been 18 years of mountain-top removal without any sort of intervention, created mainly by Massey Energy and Dominion. Massey Energy is an amazing mountain-eating monster headed by a guy named Don Blankenship. He’s very tight with government in West Virginia. It’s really amazing to hear people tell you that the law doesn’t work the same in the rest of the country than it does in West Virginia, or in West Virginia the media is not really reporting anything about the negative impacts of coal until you go there and see that they’re right. You see the results of the coal companies’ domination of this region.
L&W- Can you give an example of what you mean?
BB- I visited communities that have been depopulated, meaning that the mining company comes in and offers everybody money for their property so the company can do whatever they want in that area without being liable for plaguing the people with health issues. But when people sign away their land, if they’re willing to, they also have to sign agreements that say they will not protest the company. They will not talk to the media about this stuff. So basically they’re being told to move, take the money, and sign here. I drove through a place called Lindy Town that had 60-odd dwellings that are all empty except for three families that are still holding out. The people still living on the planes had well water and they were impacted the greatest. They had bizarre cancers, kids and teenagers died on a regular basis. This is all beginning to come to light, but if you haven’t heard about it you really don’t know about it.
L&W- Did you get a chance to talk to any of the families who are still living there?
BB- I met with one of the familes, a woman by the name of Laura Webb, who was beside herself with anxiety, grief and resignation. She had held out as long as she could and finally was leaving after being intimidated enough to make her want out. And by intimidated I mean it’s not enough to have more explosives than were dropped on Hiroshima blown up in her area in a single day, it’s not enough to have her water poisoned with countless chemicals that you get from the coal-washing facilities; Laura finally decided to move out after her power lines had been pulled down, her phone lines had been pulled down, and then when she went out to go see if she could find a new place to live, someone had come and poisoned her horse. She got home and her horse was lying on its side, bleeding from all of its orifices, its water had been turned upside down and there was nothing she could do. She stayed up with it all night and held it until it died. That is the kind of stuff that goes on down there. It is amazingly brutal and amazingly common. And there are some amazing heroic people who live there who are standing their ground because their families have lived there for 300 years, literally. They have cemeteries that are under threat. One guy, Larry Gibson, who stayed to fight to protect his mountain top, watched his family cemetery recently get pushed off the edge of a valley-fill. There’s incredible lack of concern or regard for the culture of the Appalachian people and their health and well-being. So that is a fight I am very proud that RAN is involved in.
L&W- What sort of support have you been able to offer them?
BB- We have provided lots of on-the-ground support to the groups of people there, sending in activists to train and coordinate direct actions to disrupt the mining operations, as well as putting pressure on JP Morgan Chase, which is the top funder of mountain-top removal. We put pressure of Lisa Jackson’s EPA too, and we’re seeing signs that they’re taking this very seriously. At a meeting the other day in San Francisco, two of our activists approached Lisa Jackson and handed her more petitions with 2000 signatures and said, “you really need to fly over this area to seeit for yourself.” And she said “you know, you’re right. I’m gonna do that.” So things are starting to pick up steam and RAN is committed to seeing the end of mountain-top removal by the end of July, 2010.
L&W- Branden, this has been one of the most enlightening conversations I’ve had about environmental hazards, and I’m so glad that I talked to you and that I can share this information with others.
BB- Well it takes the efforts of many people, no matter how small it may seem, to make such an impact. And that’s why I appreciate and love so much what you’re doing- what is it you say, a lot of a little adds up fast? Well, it’s so true. If every person who donated to us wrote us a check for $800,000.00 I would be elated. But we couldn’t do it without all the checks that come in, including the ones for $5.00 and $10.00 that, by the end of the year, allow us to function that much more easily than the last year.
L&W- That’s very inspiring.
BB- It is. It really is.
If you want to read more details about this campaign, visit Brenden’s blog at http://understory.ran.org/tag/appalachianvisit/
If you want to read more about their new campaign that is about to launch, visit the Love and Water International Facebook Fan Page for the bonus interview on Wednesday, October 14.