May 10, 2012

On Coal River: Mountaintop Removal Is a Human Rights Issue

When we first learned about mountaintop removal coal mining, we saw it as an environmental issue. We had read a news article accompanied by images of post-mining vistas that looked like the surface of the moon. Mountains have always been metaphors for something greater than us, and something that will outlast us. The idea that humans could bring them down with explosives and bulldozers was disturbing to say the least.

A couple years later we found ourselves in Whitesville, WV — one of the epicenters of mountaintop removal coal mining, and the movement to stop it. In a former post office that served as headquarters for CoalRiver Mountain Watch, Judy Bonds was telling us, “This is not just an environmental issue, this is a human rights issue. It’s not just about birds and bugs and frogs, it’s about human babies. That’s what most people pay attention to, and that’s what is going to stop this.” She was in constant motion and had amazing energy, fielding phone calls and carrying on three rapid-fire conversations at once.

Over the next six years, we filmed with Judy and other activists from Coal River Valley as they fought to end mountaintop removal and to secure safe water, and safety from coal waste dams. It was a privilege to spend time with Judy, as well as Bo Webb, Ed Wiley, and Maria Lambert — to enjoy their humor and spirit, and to be inspired by their courage and determination. But it was also heartbreaking. One day I filmed Bo as he went door to door asking neighbors about their health, and the health of their kids. He admitted that it was a crude survey, and hardly scientific, but there sure seemed like a lot of illness.

At our film festival premiere, Judy came, along with Bo, Ed, and Debbie Jarrell. After six years of hard work, we were elated to premiere the film. It was a celebration, and we were so happy that they had all come to share it, and to help shine a spotlight on mountaintop removal. Judy had been traveling constantly, speaking to audiences about the cost of coal. She was tired and not feeling great, but she still cast a spell over the audience when she spoke from her heart about how coal companies had destroyed the hollow where she grew up, and how the mountaintop removal that is destroying Appalachia is also threatening the water and the climate for all of us.

Sadly, soon after that festival, Judy was diagnosed with stage 3 lung cancer, and six months later she passed away. Judy had never smoked, and many blamed the years of living near dusty and toxic mountaintop removal sites. As she was getting close to the end, she sent a message to the movement to end mountaintop removal: “Don’t let up. We’ve got ‘em on the ropes. Fight harder and finish em off!”

Bo and Ed and Deb have not stopped fighting. Since Judy’s death, Bo has helped spearhead a series of scientific health studies in mountaintop removal communities, and there are now 6 peer reviewed studies that show mountaintop removal is harming human health, even when compared with other coal producing communities. The initiative to publicize these findings, and to use them to convince the US Congress to abolish mountaintop removal is called the Appalachian Community Health Emergency. Go to to donate, and to learn more.

Since 2008, the EPA has taken steps to tighten up the permitting rules, and in 2011, the EPA vetoed a permit for Arch Coal’s Spruce mine. On March 23rd of this year, a District of Columbia District Court overturned that veto, making the Spruce mine, which would span 2,278 acres, the largest permitted mountaintop removal mine in West Virginia history.

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You can Watch On Coal River online free at Snagfilms: