WV Chemical Spill in Context: Appalachian Communities' Fight Against Mountaintop Removal Mining

January 21, 2014
Ann Cornell

This blog post was authored by Ann Cornell, President of the Cornell Douglas Foundation.

As the president of a foundation which focuses on the environment, I don't think any issue other than mountaintop removal mining tramples so heavily on the rights of all of us: to have clean air, water, and sustainable land in which to grow our crops.  Contamination of our water supply by outside groups has long been thought one of the highest levels of potential terrorism.  Yet the disastrous chemical leak in West Virginia which affected hundreds of thousands of residents seems to have caused little concern in the halls of Congress. 

For years, residents living in states rich with resources have been subjected to severe environmental degradation and health challenges caused by chemical, oil, and gas industries.  By providing jobs in weak economies, these industries operate with the confidence that they will often be free of oversight and regulation; the argument that pits having a job against protecting health implies that one must choose between the two.

In November, I traveled to West Virginia with Cari Stein, Executive Producer of To The Contrary, to film a segment about mountaintop removal coal mining.  The filming highlighted the efforts of Maria Gunnoe, a Goldman Environmental Prize winner and organizer for the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition who has fought passionately to halt the harm created by the coal industry. 

Maria took our group on a Southwings flight over the mountains devastated by mining, as well as a drive to Kayford Mountain, where an enclave of green is surrounded by barren moonscape. We heard some of that green enclave’s backstory: about how Larry Gibson, the late president of Keeper of the Mountains, had for years, refused to sell his land to mining companies.  He was shot at, his dogs were killed, his family threatened, but with astounding spirit, he refused to relinquish his legacy. 

We flew over lifeless mountains, and lakes of gray, thick chemical ponds left as the result of the mining.  It was clear that no means of containment would be able to prevent the release of this toxic sludge onto towns living in the path.  As Maria said, “It is a matter of when, not if.”  We looked down on family cemeteries at the top of once proud mountains with their gravestones cracked by dynamite.  We heard about how family members wishing to visit relatives buried on active mining sites must take a safety training course, sign a waiver stating that they know the dangers, as well as ask permission from the company. 

A recent To The Contrary segment about the WV chemical spill used some of the footage from that trip; the full episode will air early in 2014.

The spirit of cooperation is striking within the community of those seeking to bring attention to the devastation wrought by mountaintop removal coal mining.  Groups such as Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, Appalachian VoicesCoal River Mountain Watch and Alliance for Appalachia work together, sharing information and readily urging funders to provide grants to other organizations working toward the same goals. 

They have willingly shared advice with communities threatened by harmful effects of fracking:  how to mobilize as a group, and how to best use legislation to protect their environment, all the while noticing that anti-fracking voices in more affluent states seem to be heard more readily than voices from poor Appalachian areas who have fought for years against harmful effects of coal mining.

Whether it is the scarcity of water or the contamination of water, every single being on earth is dependent on and connected to this most critical resource on the planet.  I urge funders able to make a difference in the lives of others to bring your focus to the immediate and long-term needs of those impacted by the travesty of mountaintop removal.

Ann Cornell is the President of the Cornell Douglas Foundation, a private, non-operating foundation established in 2006. Its mission is to provide small grants to organizations promoting the vision of the foundation: advocating for environmental health and justice, encouraging stewardship of the environment, and furthering respect for sustainability of resources. 

Editor’s Note:  The Cornell Douglas Foundation is one of several HEFN members that have been funding organizations in Appalachia and/or are considering grantmaking following the West Virginia chemical spill.  Most are willing to share grant lists and to serve as peer resources for other funders and donors.  HEFN is supporting networking, information sharing and collaboration among grantmakers focused on this critical environmental health and justice issue as well as many others. Please contact hefn@hefn.org for more information.

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