Two Decades Of Resistance: Coal River Mountain Watch Takes Stock At 20

Dec 17, 2019

Volunteers, including Coal River Mountain Watch Co-Director Debbie Jarrell, clean up trash along Peachtree Creek.
Credit Brittany Patterson/OhioValleyReSource

Coal River Mountain Watch’s history of resistance to mountaintop coal mining is plastered across the wood-paneled walls of the group’s modest office in Raleigh County, West Virginia.

Framed photos, many of demonstrators being handcuffed, dot the walls. In the back of the building, a floor-to-ceiling length tapestry depicts the “true cost of coal” as envisioned by an activist volunteer group that created it. Pollution spews from a coal-fired power plant. A stream runs dirty. Anthropomorphic creatures take the place of humans.“Look for somebody with a bullhorn,” said Vernon Haltom. The current co-executive director of Coal River Mountain Watch is animated as he searches the tableau, his salt-and-pepper beard bobbing up and down. Near the bottom right-hand corner he spots an ant wearing a hard hat and carrying a bullhorn.

 

Credit Brittany Patterson/OhioValleyReSource

bees flit around. This hive of activity is a tribute to the grassroots network of activists that formed in Appalachia in the 1990s and 2000s, largely to raise awareness of the health and environmental impacts of mountaintop removal. The practice, which requires blowing the tops off mountains to reach the coal below, has disturbed an estimated 1.5 million acres, an area roughly the size of Delaware, and buried thousands of miles of streams.

Coal River Mountain Watch and Bonds were central figures in the movement.

“We had a lot of cross pollination of ideas and various tactics and things that we’ve tried and done in varying levels of success or frustration over the years,” Haltom said. “So many of these things are things that Judy Bonds had to say.”

A coal miner’s daughter and waitress at a local Pizza Hut, Bonds and her family were the last to evacuate from her own hometown of Marfork Hollow, which was surrounded by mountaintop removal. In 2003, she was awarded the Goldman Prize, often referred to as the green Nobel.

 

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In her acceptance speech, Bonds spoke of using activism to break coal’s deep ties in Appalachia and to seek a better way of life for those living in the communities neighboring mining.

“Organize, educate, motivate, mentor young children,” she said. “Children take back your earth.”

For the last 20 years, those have been the tenets of Coal River Mountain Watch, said Vivian Stockman with the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition.

“It takes a lot of courage to stand up when you’re right in the middle of it and that’s what Coal River Mountain Watch has been doing for its two decades of existence,” she said.

A simple wooden sign hangs above the office entrance with the group’s logo and a motto: “Remembering the past, working for the future.” As the group hits the 20-year mark its leaders are taking stock of accomplishments, some painful losses, and the work ahead.

 

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‘True Activist’

The group counts some hard-fought victories in its 20 years of existence, including securing a new campus for Marsh Fork Elementary School, which was previously located in the shadow of an active mining operation owned by Massey Energy.

An earthen dam and impoundment sitting above the school was permitted to hold 2.8 billion gallons of liquid coal waste. The waste pond and dam were constructed by the same mining company that was responsible for a similar impoundment in Martin County, Kentucky, that failed in 2000, sending millions of gallons of slurry into two tributaries of the Tug Fork River.

 

A coal silo near the old Marsh Fork Elementary School.
Credit Brittany Patterson/OhioValleyReSource

In addition to the active mountaintop removal mine, the school was also near a coal silo and railroad line. Concerned advocates feared students were being exposed to coal and silica dust as well as diesel emissions.

While some children reported illness, others in the community were concerned the school could close and students would be sent elsewhere.

Coal River Mountain Watch’s playbook included protest, letter-writing campaigns and the use of the legal system. To raise awareness around Marsh Fork, In 2006, one of the group’s members, Ed Wiley, walked from Charleston to Washington, D.C., to raise the issue to West Virginia’s Congressional leadership. Ultimately, a new campus was approved in 2010.

 

A photo of Judy Bonds inside Coal River Mountain Watch headquarters.
Credit Brittany Patterson/OhioValleyReSource