Tag Archives: Preserving Sacred Appalachia

JAM: ‘Building Community One Tune at a Time’

Inspiring program is preserving music, history and communities of Appalachia

By Michael M. Barrick

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Strictly Strings. Photo by Martin Church.

LENOIR, N.C. – The Junior Appalachian Musicians (JAM) program says on its website “We’re building community one tune at a time.”

That’s a fact, as I saw it on display last night here at the 19th Annual Caldwell Traditional Musicians Showcase. There, among many other great musicians, we saw and heard the group Strictly Strings, which was born out of the Boone, N.C. JAM affiliate. (Learn more here: Strictly Strings Carrying on the Old-Time Tradition).

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Strictly Strings on stage. Photo by Lonnie Webster.

Below each photo are statements from JAM’s website. We hope these photos and insights will motivate you to click on the links above and learn more about this vital educational music program that is preserving the history, traditions and communities of Appalachia. If you have a chance to see Strictly Strings or any JAM shows of the roughly 40 affiliates in southern Appalachia, do it! You’ll see and hear history come alive. 

JAM at Merlefest

Members of Caldwell JAM at MerleFest 2016

We envision a world in which all children have the opportunity to experience community through the joy of participating in traditional mountain music together.”

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Strictly Strings as seen on the cover of their album, ‘High on a Mountain.’ Photo by Martin Church.

Our mission is to provide communities the tools and support they need to teach children to play and dance to traditional old time and bluegrass music.”

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Caldwell JAM musicians perform for North Carolina’s legislators on ARTS DAY

 

We believe that children who are actively engaged in traditional mountain music are more connected and better prepared to strengthen their communities for future generations.”

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Strictly Strings photo by Martin Church.

Read about Caldwell, N.C. JAM here. 

© Michael M. Barrick, 2017

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West Virginia’s Top Story in 2015: People and Land under Assault

Public health, environment and property rights under siege from crony capitalism; people respond vigorously, despite odds

 By Michael M. Barrick

BRIDGEPORT, W.Va. – While the fossil fuel extraction industry has dominated West Virginia’s political system, economy and communities since it became a state in 1863, the assault upon public health, the environment and property rights in 2015 by corporations and the Mountain State’s legislature was historic. Not since United States senators were appointed by legislatures, in the days when corporate robber barons owned the coal fields, the railroads and the politicians, and efforts to unionize coal miners were met with government-sanctioned violence, has there been such a blitzkrieg of shenanigans and skullduggery unleashed upon the state’s citizens.

Yet, the people have responded energetically. Easily outgunned by corporations, outspent by PACs, and surrounded by apathetic neighbors possessing a sense of inevitability that the energy industry will have its way in West Virginia, many citizens and groups have fought the attack vigorously and widely. The events of 2015 affecting the ecology of West Virginia is about far more than policy, it is about people – about those people making a difference, whether for well or ill.

While corporate interests and most of the state’s mainstream media promote a continued reliance upon what is essentially a bust-and-boom economy, more and more voices standing in opposition to the status quo are being heard. With solid evidence of harm to public health, damage to the environment and abuse of eminent domain from the industry – particularly through fracking and mountaintop removal – more people are joining forces to hold government, industry and even the church accountable.

These stories are not necessarily listed in chronological order and are not offered as a ranking of importance. Instead, it is an attempt to assess the whole year much as one would look at a quilt after it has been completed.

The top stories                                                    

  • The “People’s Capitol” no more
  • Influence of religion a mix of the hopeful and disturbing
  • Mediocrity at West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection
  • Eminent domain abuse
  • Public health threats
  • Environmental degradation
  • The people respond
  • The Don Blankenship trial
  • Poor and biased press coverage

 

The “People’s Capitol” no more

The gold-domed state capitol along the Kanawha River in Charleston is known as “The People’s Capitol” because of its openness to the people. While that is changing physically this year as security officials add metal detectors and other security steps, the event that really denied the people access to their government was the takeover of the legislature by the Republican Party. Not that the GOP has a patent on arrogance. The Democrats had grown entirely too comfortable after more than 80 years of control. Their arrogance was on display for all to see. All one had to do was visit the offices of the legislators before the GOP takeover. The Democrats had the largest offices and those in special authority – such as the speaker – had not only their titles but names affixed to the doors. As I walked through the capitol on a snowy February day in 2014 just a few weeks after the Elk River spill, I was pleased with how many legislators made themselves accessible; more than a few seemed genuinely interested in serving the people. However, the display of arrogance on the office doors by the party’s leadership was disturbing. It was clear proof that the lure of power had seduced them to promote themselves, not serve the people.

So, in a sense, the Democrats got what they deserved in November 2014. Unfortunately, beginning in January 2015, so did the people of West Virginia. Why people vote against their own interests is beyond my comprehension. For instance, coal miners voted for the very people who protect men like Massey Energy’s Donald Blankenship (more about him later) and are doing all they can to destroy the United Mine Workers (UMW).

Additionally, the GOP is pushing for “Forced Pooling” legislation that would rob landowners of their most basic rights. That issue died in the legislature on a tie vote in committee last year and is a legislative priority for the GOP this year when the West Virginia legislature convenes on Jan. 13. Forced pooling allows the gas industry to force landowners to allow gas companies to access the gas under their land even if the landowner doesn’t agree to it so long as a certain percentage of their neighbors have agreed to sell. And, despite the devastation done by the Elk River spill in 2014, the Republican-led legislature rolled back vital provisions of the West Virginia Storage Tank Law. This led to weakened oversite, restrictions on public access to hazardous chemical information, and loopholes which severely undermine the stated intent of the law. (Read the full story here).

 

Influence of religion a mix of the hopeful and disturbing

In West Virginia, approximately three out of four people identify themselves as Protestant; only seven percent are Catholic. As with political parties, these two major Christian sects hold quite disparate views on ecological issues; indeed, within each denomination, congregation and parish, one can find division about what the faith teaches regarding environmental stewardship.

Evangelicals and fundamentalists generally hold a “dominion” theory of stewardship. It is not only reflected in sermons, but is referenced by energy industry officials as justification for their attacks upon public health and the environment. Indeed, a leading energy industry executive shared that view here in Bridgeport in March. Executive Director Corky DeMarco of the West Virginia Oil and Natural Gas Association said, “God didn’t want us to be farmers, or this place would look like Kansas. God put us here in these mountains that are 450 million years old with the best coal in the world and the most natural gas in the world. And we have a responsibility, and I think companies like Dominion and others have seized on the opportunities that these mountains have provided and will continue to do this.” (Read the full story here).

Yet, Allen Johnson of Dunmore, who leads the evangelical organization Christians for the Mountains, took several other evangelicals and reporters to Kayford Mountain, West Virginia’s most infamous mountaintop removal site. As a result of this effort, national publications noted that some evangelicals are serious about creation care. (You can read articles here and here). Another, not available online, was published by the conservative Christian World magazine based in Asheville, N.C. Explaining the outreach, Johnson said, “It’s a lot easier to preach to the choir, so to speak, than to step across the divide, but that is what is needed in our polarized culture – build trust, tell stories, show, listen, find common ground somewhere.”

Catholics, however, have become accustomed to their clergy – in particular the bishop – to be a prophetic voice for the land and its people. Indeed, the West Virginia-based Catholic Committee of Appalachia (CCA) has published two pastoral letters by the Catholic bishops of Appalachia – “This Land is Home to Me” in 1975 and “At Home in the Web of Life” in 1995. Both of these letters were signed by the Roman Catholic bishops of the region. So, for the last 40 years, the Catholic laity has become accustomed to its leaders standing up for the poor. Not in 2015 though. Instead, the CCA felt compelled to challenge West Virginia Bishop Michael Bransfield – as well as other Appalachian Catholic bishops – for not supporting the pope strongly enough when the Vatican released the pope’s ecological encyclical in the spring. (Read more here and here).

Indeed, in December, the CCA published what it characterized as a people’s pastoral. It explained, “For this third letter, called a ‘People’s Pastoral,’ the planning team did not seek the signatures of the region’s bishops, but rather sought to lift up the authority of the people, their stories, and earth itself as an expression of the Roman Catholic Church’s teaching of the ‘preferential option for the poor.’” (Read more here).

In short, while the church leadership has abandoned its prophetic voice in support of the people they are called to serve, the people in the parishes and congregations are filling the void. In addition to the CCA pastoral, several other examples demonstrate this.

In April, during the week of Earth Day, North Carolina-based St. Luke’s United Methodist Church joined with the West Virginia chapter of the Sierra Club and West Virginia Interfaith Power & Light to hold a two-day conference at the Catholic-owned St. John’s XXIII Pastoral Center in Charleston. The conference included people from various faith traditions, scientists, educators, preservationists, educators, artists and others. The theme of the conference, “Preserving Sacred Appalachia,” was organized out of a faith-based view of environmental stewardship, but was intentionally designed to welcome people from all walks of faith and life. (Read more here).

That same week, Shepherdstown Presbyterian Church was a first-place winner of Interfaith Power & Light’s annual Cool Congregations Challenge. The church earned its award for being the top renewable role model in the nation for, among other reasons, having the largest community-supported solar system in West Virginia. (Read more here).

In August, at its annual gathering, the West Virginia Sierra Club chapter considered how it, as a secular group, could apply the ecological encyclical by Pope Francis to its preservation efforts in West Virginia. That gathering led to the writing of this article.

 

Mediocrity at West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection

While the church, as an institution, was offering mixed messages on environmental stewardship, the state’s primary agency charged with protecting the environment for the people of West Virginia was sending a clear message – it is, at best, mediocre. In fact, its acronym – DEP – is referred to sarcastically as the “Department of Everything Permitted” by public health experts and environmentalists. In 2015, it was unresponsive to citizens expressing concerns about the health impacts of mountaintop removal. (Read more here), and its leader was unprepared for and even hostile to questions about the most basic of safety considerations regarding the impact of the energy extraction industry. (Read more here).

 

Eminent Domain abuse

Among the most egregious attacks upon the people of West Virginia was the misuse of eminent domain by the energy extraction industry. This is not surprising though, as without approval from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) to build the Atlantic Coast Pipeline (ACP), Mountain Valley Pipeline (MVP) and others in the future to extract gas from the shale fields of northern West Virginia, the industry will not be allowed to use eminent domain to seize the land of private landowners. Without that weapon, the energy industry is facing billions of dollars of losses already invested in what the industry obviously considered a slam dunk.

In March, Pittsburgh-based energy company EQT sent out letters to landowners threatening legal action if they did not allow EQT access to their property for surveys. The company’s lawyers argued that the pipeline would serve the interests of West Virginians, so eminent domain should apply. (Read more here and here). Opponents saw it differently and won in court – for now. (Read more here).

 

Public Health threats

Whatever one’s political outlook, it is generally agreed that a basic function of government is to guard the public’s health. This is part of its mission to “…promote the general Welfare…” as stated in the Preamble of the United States Constitution. Again though, even fulfilling this most basic responsibility of government seems beyond West Virginia’s capability – or willingness.

As already noted above, West Virginia DEP Secretary Randy Huffman out-of-hand rejected the Precautionary Principle as a reasonable, scientific method of protecting the environment and public health. This, despite clear evidence from health experts about the dangers of fracking and mountaintop removal (read here and here). The facts are supported by personal stories of destroyed lives from the extraction industry. (Read more here).

 

Environmental degradation

Those attempting to stop the environmental degradation caused by fracking and its related infrastructure got a good taste of what they will face should the Atlantic Coast and Mountain Valley pipelines receive FERC approval. Because those proposed pipelines would cross state lines, FERC approval is required. However, beginning in the spring and going well into the winter, another pipeline – the Stonewall Gas Gathering (SGG) pipeline – was constructed, traversing only about 56 miles of West Virginia. Hence, as an intrastate pipeline, FERC approval for it was not required. The SGG was built by Stonewall Gas Gathering, LLC, which was incorporated in Delaware on June 4, 2014. SGG is a subsidiary of Momentum (officially M3Midstream), based in Texas and Colorado. The Stonewall Gathering line is part of Momentum’s Appalachian Gathering System (AGS). The SGG connected to the AGS in Harrison County and terminates in Braxton County, where it connects to the Columbia pipeline. It runs also through Doddridge and Lewis counties. It began operation in December, but in the process disrupted the lives of thousands of West Virginians, harassed opponents, and caused significant damage to farmland, streams and roadways.

The West Virginia DEP did issue several Notice of Violations to Precision Pipeline, the company that built the pipeline. However, it did so only after numerous complaints from citizens. (Read more here).

As has already been demonstrated, the extraction industry operates from a position of arrogance – of “dominion.” In the next section are several links to stories about people and groups who learned this hard lesson and immediately began responding. Before reading those accounts though, you might want to refer to the articles, “A Dirty Dozen Reasons to Oppose Fracking” and “Filmmaker Finds Compelling Story in Her own Backyard.”

 

Citizens stand up to crony capitalism

Despite this relentless assault upon public health, the environment and property rights by the unholy alliance between government and business – known otherwise as crony capitalism – no small number of people and groups have organized and coordinated efforts to safeguard their human rights. The outreach has even extended across the states bordering West Virginia, as alliances have been formed with people and groups in Virginia, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Ohio and Kentucky.

As a result, I was fortunate to meet some incredible people giving completely of themselves and resources during the year. Following are a few examples.

The McClain family, farmers in Doddridge County (about 8,000 residents), though quiet and deferential people, stood their ground against the industry for ruining some of their crops. (Read more here).

Also in Doddridge County, residents joined with folks from neighboring counties to demonstrate their solidarity against the fracking industry. (Read more here).

Earlier in the year, a landowner in the mountains of Randolph County was a one-man army fighting Dominion Resources. He is working to protect some of the most pristine mountain valleys in West Virginia. (Read more here).

Also early in the year, several environmental groups challenged FERC to abide by its charter and deny approval of the pipelines because they would benefit private shareholders, not the people of West Virginia. (Read more here).

In a proactive response to the industry, a Harrison County couple modeled, for the public, their homestead powered by solar panels. (Read more here).

As the year came to a close, dozens of people and groups gathered in central West Virginia to learn more from each other and to coordinate efforts to oppose the fracking industry. (Read more here).

 

The Don Blankenship trial

The year concluded with the conviction of former Massey CEO Don Blankenship on charges brought by federal authorities because of the Upper Big Branch mine disaster that killed 29 coal miners in Raleigh County in April 2010. Sadly, the jury found Blankenship guilty on just one misdemeanor count brought against him – conspiring to willfully violate safety standards. The same jury found him not guilty of securities fraud and making false statements. His lawyers have said he will challenge the verdict. So, in light of the expected appeal and mixed verdict, it would seem the opportunity to send a message that crony capitalism would no longer be allowed to kill West Virginians was missed. Hence, it is an important chapter in this story of West Virginia’s reliance upon the fossil fuel mono-economy. Still, while it was covered by media from the United States and beyond, I consider it less important of a story than the stories above, in particular the response by average citizens to the assault they and their land face from the energy extraction industry.

 

Poor and biased press coverage

These are serious times requiring serious and devoted people. While I generally try not to be snarky about the mainstream media, I must say that I was quite disappointed that West Virginia Public Broadcasting considered a little dustup about pepperoni rolls as one of the top eight stories in West Virginia in 2015. Now, I’ve transported more than my share of pepperoni rolls across state lines. But the debate over fracking – a debate that continues savagely in every corner of the Mountain State – is a far more important story. Yet, this important issue did not even make the list from West Virginia Public Broadcasting, which claims to be committed to “Telling West Virginia’s Story.”

In this instance, it failed miserably.

Meanwhile, in Clarksburg, which is at the epicenter of the fracking industry, the city’s only newspaper – The Exponent-Telegram – has an owner who also owns interests in oil, gas and coal companies. The newspaper, which touts itself as “The Independent Voice of North Central West Virginia,” had not disclosed this conflict of interest to the public, even as it served as a cheerleader for the energy extraction industry. (Read more here and here).

The point is this: The Fourth Estate has become part of the establishment. Just as our three branches of government are intended to serve as a check and balance on the other two branches, so too, since the Revolutionary War era, has the press been counted upon to serve as a fourth check on the three branches of government. Now though, the courage required to honor that legacy is rarely found in a newsroom or TV studio. In short, the modern press, whether for-profit or not, will not challenge government, church and academia beyond the boundaries which might hit them in the pocketbook.

Consequently, it does not report what we truly need to know.

 

Conclusion

So, it’s up to the people. Last year left social justice and environmental activists exhausted, even burned out. Yet, the battle continues. While 2015 was not a good year for the people or environment of West Virginia, 2016 offers hope. It also offers great peril. The extraction industry has unlimited resources – cash, marketing departments and lawyers – that groups fighting for justice simply can’t match. The industry is working 24/7 to assault the people and natural beauty of West Virginia. So activists cannot rest. They are gearing up for a busy year, beginning with the legislative session that convenes next week. They have doggedly fought the industry hard in 2015. However, if they do not get additional manpower this year – an army of volunteers – 2017 will likely be too late to keep West Virginia from becoming an industrial waste zone that is unsuitable for any living thing.

© Michael M. Barrick/Appalachian Chronicle, 2016

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Unity the Theme at ‘Preserving Sacred Appalachia’ Conference

Interdisciplinary and interfaith gathering helps strengthen collaboration on environmental issues

CHARLESTON, W.Va. – Approximately 40 ecological preservationists joined together in Charleston at the St. John’s XXIII Pastoral Center from April 19-21 to champion responsible environmental stewardship in the context of understanding that Appalachia – and all the earth – is sacred. Among those at the “Preserving Sacred Appalachia” conference were people of faith, activists, artists, scientists, politicians, and educators.

Ben Townsend, a West Virginia native and traditional Appalachian musician, teaches at the conference. Photo by Keely Kernan

Ben Townsend, a West Virginia native and traditional Appalachian musician, teaches at the conference.
Photo by Keely Kernan

The unprecedented interfaith and interdisciplinary gathering was sponsored by St. Luke’s United Methodist Church of Hickory, N.C. In-state partners included the Sierra Club – West Virginia chapter and West Virginia Interfaith Power & Light (WVIPL). The Appalachian Preservation Project handled public relations, planning and logistics for the conference.

It was an intentional interdisciplinary and interfaith outreach by and to people that are devoted to preserving the eco-systems which support life in Appalachia. It brought together the region’s rich collection of seasoned, experienced preservationists. While several organizations provided speakers, the event also included numerous attendees from West Virginia and other Appalachian states determined to identify fundamental areas of agreement regarding the immediate core challenges to Appalachia’s eco-systems and key strategies for addressing them.

Bob Henry Baber, an Appalachian poet, writer and educator, speaks at the conference. Photo by Keely Kernan

Bob Henry Baber, an Appalachian poet, writer and educator, speaks at the conference.
Photo by Keely Kernan

The gathering concluded with a roundtable discussion of the topics discussed over the course of the conference. From those discussions, participants will issue a white paper – scheduled for release this summer. The white paper will be a unified, decisive statement identifying the core challenges threatening the people and environment of Appalachia; explaining what makes Appalachia – and all the earth – sacred; and to equip the people of Appalachia with practical, effective methods to help preserve the region’s water, air, soil, habitats and natural beauty.

The keynote speaker was Tierra Curry, the senior scientist and a conservation biologist at the Center for Biological Diversity. The conference kicked off with an extended trailer of the feature film, “In the Hills and Hollows,” a documentary by Keely Kernan, an award winning freelance photographer and videographer. The documentary, which Kernan is presently filming, investigates the boom and bust impacts that mono-economies based on fossil fuel extraction have on people and their local communities.

Tierra Curry with the Center for Biological Diversity discusses the impact of climate change upon Appalachia. Photo by Keely Kernan

Tierra Curry with the Center for Biological Diversity discusses the impact of climate change upon Appalachia.
Photo by Keely Kernan

Other speakers included Susan Hedge with the Catholic Committee of Appalachia; Bill Price, the organizing representative for the Sierra Club – West Virginia Chapter; Allen Johnson of Christians For The Mountains; Angie Rosser, the executive director of the West Virginia Rivers Coalition; Ben Townsend, a West Virginia traditional musician; Carey Jo Grace and Tuesday Taylor with Our Children, Our Future; Robin Blakeman, the Special Event and Membership Committee Organizer for the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition; Mike Manypenny, a former member of the West Virginia House of Delegates; Bill Hughes, the West Virginia Community Liaison for the FracTracker Alliance; Bob Henry Baber, a widely published Appalachian poet, novelist, creative writing teacher and mosaic artist; Barbara Ann Volk, a Lewis County landowner; Liz Wiles, the chair of the Sierra Club – West Virginia chapter, as well as Aurora Lights and the Mountain SOL school; Lindsay Barrick, an artist and the Director of Programs at St. Luke’s United Methodist Church; Mel Hoover and Rose Edington with WVIPL; Autumn Bryson, an environmental scientist; Michael Barrick, the founder of the Appalachian Preservation Project and publisher of the Appalachian Chronicle; and, all of the conference attendees.

Topics addressed include Appalachia’s sacredness, climate change, water quality, the role of art and music in telling Appalachia’ story, mountaintop removal, fracking, natural gas pipeline development, child health, politics and policy. It also included times of meditation, reflection and sharing.

Bill Hughes with FracTracker Alliance teaches about the harms associated with fracking. Photo by Keely Kernan

Bill Hughes with FracTracker Alliance teaches about the harms associated with fracking.
Photo by Keely Kernan

As the conference completed, several presenters commented on its value. Wiles shared, “The Preserving Sacred Appalachia conference was a great opportunity to re-connect with familiar faces in West Virginia’s environmental movement as well as meeting members of the faith community who are working on environmental issues in their congregations. This was a good step in bringing together all kinds of communities who care about the health of their families, their neighbors, and their local, natural environment.”

Manypenny said, “I found it very inspiring that so many came out to participate in this event, both as speakers and as advocates, in the ongoing struggle for environmental justice, our Appalachian way of life, and for our love and appreciation of nature.” Barbara Volk echoed his remarks, adding, “I found myself so inspired by the diverse group of people that are ready to shift the paradigm regarding how we affect change in this culture of waste.”

Tierra Curry (L), Susan Hedge and Allen Johnson lead a discussion on the sacredness of Appalachia. Photo by Keely Kernan

Tierra Curry (L), Susan Hedge and Allen Johnson lead a discussion on the sacredness of Appalachia.
Photo by Keely Kernan

Price added, “I’ve been thinking about how the conference will benefit the work that all of us are doing. I think that the faith community can help to convene spaces where people of various opinions and perspectives can come together to get to know each other, to figure out those common values, and to work together for a better future.” Blakeman said, “The conference was a great opportunity to network with and learn from like-minded individuals.”

Hoover offered, “This partnership demonstrates that we are at a crossroads in the Mountain State. We have always known that we must work together to address the many environmental issues impacting the people and ecology of West Virginia. This conference, by joining together people of faith with scientists, educators, artists and others, sends a clear message that cannot be ignored – we are united in purpose.”

St. John's XXIII Pastoral Center. Photo by Allen Johnson

St. John’s XXIII Pastoral Center.
Photo by Allen Johnson

© Appalachian Preservation Project, LLC, 2015. The Appalachian Chronicle is a publication of the Appalachian Preservation Project. The Appalachian Preservation Project is a social enterprise committed to preserving and protecting Appalachia. If you wish to support our work, please consider becoming a member.

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Environmental Groups target W.Va. DEP over Mountaintop Removal Permitting

‘The People’s Foot’ rally cites adverse health impacts as well as environmental damage

By Michael M. Barrick

CHARLESTON, W.Va. – Several environmental preservation groups are joining forces to hold a rally Monday, March 16 to call upon the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) to quit issuing permits for Mountaintop Removal (MTR). The groups cite adverse public health impacts as well as environmental damage. The permitted rally will be held at the DEP headquarters at 601 57th St. SE in Charleston.

The rally, which is called “The People’s Foot,” is a challenge to West Virginians and others to symbolically put their foot down to further permitting for MTR.The-Peoples-Foot-SSP

Allen Johnson with Christians For The Mountains explained, “The West Virginia DEP issues permits for mining operations. Its mission is to promote a healthy environment. Plentiful scientific research points strongly to high correlations between mountaintop removal operations and significantly worse health indices in nearby communities. We are pressing West Virginia DEP to acknowledge the science and stop issuing MTR permits immediately. We are calling upon them to ‘Stop the poisoning of people!’”

Johnson said that the concept originated with the Appalachian Community Health Emergency Coalition, led by Bo Webb. In addition to Christians For The Mountains, sponsoring organizations include the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, Coal River Mountain Watch, the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy, the West Virginia chapter of the Sierra Club, and others.Sierra Club

The DEP is the state agency responsible for issuing permits to companies seeking to operate or expand MTR enterprises. Allen revealed, “Several of our groups have joined together to ask the United States Office of Surface Mining and Reclamation to strip West Virginia DEP of authority and take over permitting itself under existing provisions, as the West Virginia DEP is not doing their job to protect the public and our lands and waters and air from harmful pollution.”

Johnson explained, “Water pollution comes from the exposure of heavy-metal laden rock that during blasting is exposed to water and then leaches the heavy metals into the streams. This can be measured by conductivity meters. High concentrations of Selenium, arsenic, magnesium, and others are carcinogenic as well as detrimental to the food chain in water systems. But perhaps an even more insidious pollutant is that of ultra-fine air particulates, sub-micron, smaller by far than the EPA standards of 2.5 and 10 microns.” He explained that the explosions resulting from the MTR process create “…very high concentrations of ultrafines, made up of silica, aluminum compounds, and blasting materials. These are absorbed through the lungs and into the circulatory system, including the placenta barrier, and are highly toxic for those living in these communities.”

Johnson explained his group’s involvement, sharing, “Isaiah 6:3 in the Bible says that ‘the whole Earth is filled with God’s glory.’ Numerous other scriptures can be cited, along with thousands of years of theology. Simply speaking, to degrade God’s handiwork in a permanent way is sin. Pollution of water, air, and stunting the fruitfulness – or sustainable viability – of earth is out of God’s order for creation. Humans are given the responsibility to nurture and protect creation, and in so doing to gain the privilege of sustenance, but within the boundaries of not assuming hubris and self-idolatry, which we are warned against in Genesis 2:15-17.”

Explaining the purpose of the rally, Johnson said, “We want to inspire, motivate, and equip people to really push for justice on this issue. That public policymakers and regulatory organizations would have such contempt upon their citizenry to permit, even aid and abet, their poisoning, is irresponsible and criminal. We are smoking them out from behind the coal industry’s smokescreens and keeping the lights on.”

The organizations also want rally participants to educate others. “We want them to push for the national Appalachian Community Health Emergency Act, since state policymakers are hip-strapped to the coal industry. We are at a time when people power must rise up strongly all across the nation to break the neck – metaphorically – of moneyed power that is breaking apart our democracy and fleecing the treasury and destroying the future viability of our planet.” He continued, “Pollution simply cannot be acceptable. Full-cost accounting – that is, honest accounting of negative externalities – shows that the coal industry costs more in net sum that it adds.”

He added, “We’re going to pressure the West Virginia DEP on health and MTR. So far they and almost all legislators and congressional representatives refuse to even publicly acknowledge the two dozen peer-reviewed studies even exist. We are going to relentlessly push them.”

Johnson pointed out also that the message about MTR is shifting. “The message on MTR has changed since it first hit the media 15 or so years ago. Then it was about how ugly MTR is, how destructive it is to the ecology. Then we had no research on human health. Now we do and it’s devastating. So we are shifting MTR focus from an environmental justice issue to a health issue.”

Not mincing words, Johnson asserted. “The West Virginia DEP is a fraud if it does not address its most important mandate to protect the health of people from environmental pollution.”

He added, though, “On the other hand, we must give it room to change its heart, so to speak. So our event will be firm but civil. We hold the moral high ground. We want to win the hearts and minds of our fellow citizenry in the face of ‘fear mongering’ propaganda that says our state is sunk without the coal industry.”

For those who are unable to make it to the rally, the groups anticipate having a video available for streaming or downloading. Also a ride share board has been set up online for those seeking transportation.

© Appalachian Preservation Project, LLC, 2015. The Appalachian Chronicle is a publication of the Appalachian Preservation Project. The Appalachian Preservation Project is a social enterprise business committed to preserving and protecting Appalachia. If you wish to support our work, please consider becoming a member.

The Appalachian Preservation Project is also handling planning for the “Preserving Sacred Appalachia” Earth Day conference scheduled for April 20-21 in Charleston, W.Va. Learn about it here. Johnson will be speaking at the conference.

Have We Learned Anything from Buffalo Creek?

Mountaintop removal, natural gas fracking and the rush to develop gas pipelines suggest it is ‘Business as usual’

By Michael M. Barrick

Look at the weather
Look at news
Look at all the people in denial
We’re burning time; bleeding grace
Still, we worship at the marketplace while common sense is going out of style
I thought that I’d be above it all, by now
In some country garden in the shade

But it’s business as usual
Day after day
Business as usual
Grinding away
You try to be righteous
You try to do good
But business as usual
Turn your heart into wood

From “Business as Usual” by the Eagles, © 2007

Forty-three years ago yesterday, 125 West Virginians died when the Buffalo Creek Mining Company waste containment pond dam burst at the head of Buffalo Creek, releasing 135 million gallons of water, sludge and mud to form a 30-foot high wall of debris that rushed through the valley below. In addition to the dead, several thousand people were displaced and approximately 1,000 homes destroyed. (For an outstanding, comprehensive story of that tragedy and its ramifications, see Brian Sewell’s account on the Appalachian Voices website).

Destruction at Buffalo Creek Photo courtesy of West Virginia State Archives

Destruction at Buffalo Creek
Photo courtesy of West Virginia State Archives

While I was only 15 at the time, I remember it well. That is because on the next day, a Sunday, the youngest priest in our parish – Immaculate Conception Catholic Church in Clarksburg, W.Va. – did not mince words in his homily. He unapologetically launched into a stinging criticism of the coal industry and state officials, who he considered complicit in the tragedy. His homily drove a wedge not only in the parish, but in many families. As an idealistic teenager, I found myself at odds with my dad, who was not pleased that the priest had used Mass to speak to a current event – especially in Coal Country. He and my mom had quite a donnybrook that afternoon after Mass. That they did was not surprising; dad had a business perspective, mom a social justice point-of-view.

I remained quiet, but it was at that moment that I began to question the propaganda of the coal industry. I still do.

Six or seven years after the tragedy, my girlfriend (now wife) and I were visiting another priest and close family friend who was stationed in Logan, W.Va. at the time. He took us on a “tour” of the area. Evidence of the devastation remained, and old mining houses with families living in abject poverty lined the dirt roads. I recall thinking that once the TV cameras and reporters with their notepads left the scene, the area returned to business as usual.

That is still the case.

The death and destruction resulting from Mountaintop Removal is thoroughly documented here and elsewhere. I have written here about at least a dozen reasons that fracking is bad for all living things. Additionally the rush by energy companies such as Duke Power, Dominion Resources, Consol Energy and others to build the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, Mountain Valley Pipeline and several others is trampling upon individual rights, threatening endangered species and unspoiled forest land. It also poses a clear and present danger to human life, as there have literally been hundreds of pipeline explosions since the turn of the century. You can read here about efforts of one group among hundreds across West Virginia, Virginia and North Carolina that are standing firm against the energy extraction industry.

Meanwhile, lawmakers in all three states are displaying an appalling lack of historical awareness, gutting laws that protect people and the environment from the deadly practices of the industry.

In short, it is business as usual. As we learned from Buffalo Creek, that is a disaster waiting to happen.

© Appalachian Preservation Project, LLC, 2015. The Appalachian Chronicle is a publication of the Appalachian Preservation Project. The Appalachian Preservation Project is a social enterprise committed to preserving and protecting Appalachia. If you wish to support our work, please consider becoming a member.

The Appalachian Preservation Project is also handling planning for the “Preserving Sacred Appalachia” Earth Day conference scheduled for April 20-21 in Charleston, W.Va. The conference sponsor is St. Luke’s United Methodist Church in Hickory, N.C. Our conference partner is the West Virginia chapter of the Sierra Club. Learn about it here.

Lent Offers Opportunity to Reflect Upon Environmental Stewardship

Our community role requires periodic, intentional reflection about caring for Appalachia

By Michael M. Barrick

In the New York Times bestseller, “Blessed Unrest: How the Largest Social Movement in History is Restoring Grace, Justice and Beauty to the World,” author Paul Hawken writes, “The way we harm the earth affects all people, and how we treat one another is reflected in how we treat the earth.” Hawken reveals that this was one of the earliest lessons he learned in researching the guiding principles of environmental and social justice movements.Morning 12

What is implicit in his statement is that we are each part of community, and how we live that role as stewards of creation – for ourselves and our neighbors, near and far – requires periodic, intentional reflection.

One ideal time begins today, Ash Wednesday. It is the beginning of Lent on the liturgical calendar for those denominations that adhere to the customs of the calendar. It is a time of reflection and repentance. Even for those traditions that don’t officially observe it today, the concept of reflection and repentance is common to most belief systems. Because the concept of community is universal – and ancient – so are many of the characteristics of community. Two of those merge in this season – the concept of atonement and the role of the individual in community. This year, with numerous forces pushing for increased energy extraction activities that will accelerate environmental degradation, it is tempting to just fight – to react. And certainly, advocacy is always appropriate. Yet, it is also a season to set aside some time for reflection.

For those involved in – or concerned about – the environmental challenges facing Appalachia, in particular those areas overlaying the Marcellus Shale, it is an appropriate time to reflect upon our own roles in creating those challenges (what, in ancient terms might be called sins of commission), or failing to fight them as strongly and as wisely as we can (sins of omission).

The concept of repentance or atonement is, admittedly, ancient. Perhaps that is because it has proven to be beneficial for the individual as well as the community. One need not commemorate Lent to pause and reflect; one need only to care whether or not he or she is being a good steward of the environment. At the very least, spending a season reflecting upon our own shortcomings will remind us of the importance of extending grace and unconditional love to those who we consider opponents in the call to protect and preserve Appalachia.

It is a conversion of the heart. It begins with nothing more than an honest review of our motives, words, actions and attitudes.

It helps us recall the forgiveness that others have extended to us, making it easier to extend a compassionate heart to those with whom we battle and attempt to persuade. By reflecting, repenting and then responding with generosity that flows from a converted heart, we will achieve the first and most important task required in order to enjoy success in our objectives – we will develop authentic relationships that can provide unmatched loyalty from friends and respect from opponents.

As I consider how I might achieve this is my own life, as well as how my lifestyle impacts not only the environment of my own community, but communities around the world, I find myself asking myself several questions. Through the questions, I wish to explore if I have been the steward that I should be. They include:
1. Have I been a good steward of creation?
2. Have I been a good steward of my mind?
3. Have I been a good steward my talents?
4. Have I been courageous?
5. Have I lived consistently with my message?
6. Have I lost faith in humanity?
7. Have I competed instead of cooperated?
8. Have I treated our opponents with grace?

In time, the answers will come. Perhaps by Easter; more likely, it will be Earth Day and beyond. In fact, the answers are never complete. These are questions, I have discovered, I need to ask every day.

Of course, none of us has the luxury of reflecting only. Action is to flow from it. So, even as I challenge myself every day, I will also set aside yesterday, forgive myself for failures, others for offenses, and get back to work. Lent, I hope, will help me keep a proper perspective as I do so.

© Appalachian Preservation Project, LLC, 2015. The Appalachian Chronicle is a publication of the Appalachian Preservation Project. The Appalachian Preservation Project is a social enterprise business committed to preserving and protecting Appalachia. If you wish to support our work, please consider becoming a member.

The Appalachian Preservation Project is also handling planning for the “Preserving Sacred Appalachia” Earth Day conference scheduled for April 20-21 in Charleston, W.Va. Learn about it here.

More than Woods and Streams Destroyed When Wild Places are Defiled

Wild places and wildlife are sacred because they are evidence of a creator

By Michael M. Barrick

My love for the wildness of the natural world was kindled in the most unlikely of places – an urban neighborhood. True, it was a pre-interstate, small-town neighborhood nestled along Elk Creek in Clarksburg, W.Va., a main tributary of the West Fork of the Monongahela River. In addition, our house was one of only seven on a dead-end cobblestone street. Still, our neighbors were close. The one-mile walk back and forth to school was through neighborhoods with houses no further apart than the wing span of a small child. Narrow alleys dissected and intersected with the streets crowded with cars.

In the middle of all this, though, was my sanctuary. Our property included a swath of woods along the creek. High, steep cliffs marked the safe edge of our boundary, though that didn’t deter me and my friends from scurrying up and down them. Two ponds were under the tall canopy of trees; the foot-and-a-half wide path down to it from what we called our “upper-back yard” was overgrown with rhododendron.

Playing in a clean mountain creek. Clear waters such as these are in jeopardy from energy extraction

Playing in a clean mountain creek. Clear waters such as these are in jeopardy from energy extraction

It was a natural science laboratory that also served as my sacred spot – my place of meditation. It caused both wonder and wander. It offered insight into the rational and the mystical. Ultimately, it was a site of solitude.

Yet, it was also an essential part of our community. It provided a place for me and my friends to explore new things together, to take risks, to share secrets. We gathered along Elk Creek in a field as a tribe virtually every summer evening to play volleyball. Some of us even tried not to rotate from that creek side, hoping we could jump in the waste-high water, negotiate the rocky creek bed and retrieve an errant ball.

As I grew older, my childish ways gave way to very adult worries. At 18, I would spend hours in those woods pondering my future. Would the body counts from Vietnam mean that, I too, would be drafted? Why were peace-loving people such as Bobby Kennedy and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. murdered? Nobody, of course, had answers to these questions, making those woods a vital sanctuary as I sorted out adult problems in what had been a child’s world. In short, it was one of the few places where I was at peace.

Then, it was destroyed. Sadly, though the creek and woods were sacred to me and many others, they were not to the state of West Virginia. They were in right-of-way for a new highway. So, at 18, my roots were involuntarily ripped up as heartless functionaries for the state attempted to “help us replace” our home. As I watched my folks, in particular my mom, struggle with this loss, a loss resulting simply from our society’s priority to move cars faster, I quickly lost faith in our institutions. I found myself lost; sure, we had a new house, but my sanctuary was destroyed – forever.

Cold Creek in the Pisgah Forest of western North Carolina. This water basin is home to some of the most rare Southern Appalachian plant and animal life.

Cold Creek in the Pisgah Forest of western North Carolina. This water basin is home to some of the most rare Southern Appalachian plant and animal life.

So, I moved to the largest city in North Carolina to work as a paramedic. There, the flat land and the lack of mountains only served to remind me of my lost sanctuary. Fortunately, though, an uncle on my mom’s side had settled over a decade before in the Blue Ridge foothills about two hours from Charlotte. Growing up where I had, he too had a love and respect for wild places. So, he bought about 100 acres of pristine woods, far up the Blue Ridge Escarpment. There I was introduced to unspoiled views, with hills, valleys, woods, water basins and wildlife that offer an unending display of the rich Southern Appalachian eco-system. We could safely drink out of any creek, spring or stream. Spring days offered a beautiful new surprise every day. The night was when the critters reminded us that we were only visitors and the starlit, unobstructed sky reminded us of just exactly where we fit in the grand scheme of things.

We are not, I learned, the center of the universe.

It was an awareness that led, in time, to my deeper understanding of the natural world – that it is sacred. It is sacred because it supports the very life which supports us. It is sacred because it is delicate. It is sacred because of what it offers our hearts, minds and souls (if we will accept and recognize it). Wild places and wildlife are sacred because they are evidence of a creator.

In our modern, western world, these are lessons desperately needed today. As we sit in a room and watch friends and relatives peck away at small phones and computers, oblivious even to the person sitting next to them, we quickly lose sight of our smallness in place and time.

Meanwhile, with our faces glued to the latest electronic devices, our politicians ignore climate change and, unquestioning, push us further away from the wild lands which sustain us. The experience I had 40 years ago of losing my home is repeated daily in the Mountain State and elsewhere in Appalachia – all for “the progress of man.”

Action, then, is required. There is still land to preserve. We must be educated and unified. We must then speak truth to power, and we must prepare our children and grandchildren – for this is a multi-generational battle. First, though, we must realize that not all people will change. Enough, however, can be persuaded.

To persuade them, we must begin by asserting our morally superior position. While that may, at first glance, sound arrogant, it isn’t. Why? Because we have already established that wildlife and wild places are sacred. This assault upon the sacred is a clear and present danger to all terrestrial life. So, we must not concern ourselves with being marginalized or characterized as “tree huggers.” Rather, we should embrace our conservationist heritage. It is this heritage that gave us the national park system.

There are countless ways to do this. Perhaps you could start by attending the Earth Day conferenced scheduled for April 20-21 in Charleston, W.Va. With a theme of “Preserving Sacred Appalachia,” it will be a gathering of conservationists with one goal in mind – to deliver a unified message that Appalachia and all wild places are sacred and worth preserving. Join us. Embrace the label of conservationist or environmentalist. Live a life consistent with those monikers. Become the expert within your circle of influence. Most importantly, relentlessly spread the gospel of conservation. Will we prevail? In time, we can. We certainly, will not, however, should we shy away because of what others think or say about us. Let us not allow apathy, ignorance or greed guide our future.

© Appalachian Preservation Project, LLC, 2015. The Appalachian Chronicle is a publication of the Appalachian Preservation Project, a social enterprise business committed to preserving and protecting Appalachia. If you wish to support our work, please consider becoming a member. Learn about the Earth Day conference here.