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Letters by Sarah Vekasi
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August 5, 2009

Dearest friends,

            I am writing y’all from a small and beautiful cabin in Hico, West Virginia, which I have the privilege of calling my home for the time being. This cabin belongs to a new friend from the Episcopal Church in Ansted and Oak Hill, to whom I am eternally grateful. Imagine my relief unpacking my tiny car which has no air-conditioning after all those days living out of it!Hico Cabin!

Hico is five miles from Ansted on the north side of the New River. Across the river is the town of Fayetteville which won an award several years back as one of America’s “Coolest Small Towns,” a fact which is proclaimed with official road signs driving in and out of town. Personally, I think this whole county is pretty special. The New River is said to be one of the oldest river in the world! It flows north from North Carolina up to the Ohio River and into the Mississippi. Coal companies used to own this county but mined most of the coal from the underground mines and left decades ago. The county had to shift its economy toward recreation and tourism and now that there is renewed interest in mining here by way of mountain top removal there is vocal disagreement.

I live near the New River Gorge and the famous New River Gorge bridge as highlighted on the West Virginia State Quarter, in Fayette County. The mountain on that quarter is Gauley Mountain which is in the process of being destroyed through dynamite and surface mining unless the communities here succeeds in stopping it, which they are trying hard to do.Fayette County, WV

As you may remember, I moved to Appalachia pulled by my love of rural life and mountains and in horror over mountain top removal coal mining which I learned about through a video from Ansted, West Virginia. Two weeks ago the group that made the video - the Ansted Historical Preservation Society met at the Episcopal church for its monthly meeting. If I ever had any doubts about moving out here, which I haven’t had, they were erased that night. I witnessed a community organizing to protect itself and struggling to keep their mountains intact so as to ensure a working economy. Retired coal miners articulated exactly how the people mobilizing to end mountain top removal are being scape-goated by the coal industry as the ones ‘trying to end jobs’ while the companies plunder the land, steal the profit and are destroying the last bit of economic potential from this very poor region.

Meanwhile, people talked about the water quality in the hollows nearest the coal mining and a new slew of community water-testing was established. The water runs red and sometimes black, and sometimes clear which can be even scarier since it looks drinkable but is filled with cancer-causing heavy metals. The level of toxicity in the water and the air is overwhelming. These are the issues here – heavy metals in the air and water, a scarcity of jobs and a life-destroying industry bent on destroying communities in order to scrape up the last of the coal while taking the money out of state. Local organizing includes participatory research – which means door to door water and health surveys, restorative health trainings to help people learn how to counter act the toxicity in our bodies, water quality testing, outreach and education and co-creating economic solutions for the region.

The day after the meeting in Ansted, I left West Virginia for Knoxville, Tennessee for the regional gathering for Mountain Justice, the direct action / community based movement organized to support the land and communities of Appalachia by ending mountain top removal mining. While getting to know the people involved in the movement I also am learning about the whole cycle of coal – from mining to energy production and waste left over. The Mountain Justice meeting was hosted by the Knoxville based group United Mountain Defense which has been organizing support for the communities near Knoxville destroyed and contaminated through the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) last December in a massive Coal Fly Ash Disaster. When coal is burned to make power the heavy metals and other parts of the coal do not completely incinerate and the result is coal fly ash. The ash is kept in a slurry pond and sometimes made into asphalt or other materials but not all of it can be stabilized and is held in a toxic sludge pond. On December 22, 2008, there was a breach at the TVA plant in Harriman, TN and 5.4 million cubic yards or one billion gallons of coal fly ash poured out over 400 acres covering homes, cracking foundations and essentially destroying the water and air in the area. It was the largest industrial spill on record, far surpassing the damage caused during the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989, and creating an environmental health nightmare.

My Aunt and Uncle live in Knoxville so we decided to drive to Harriman to see the disaster for ourselves. What we saw was breath-taking. The scope of the disaster is enormous. At first it was hard to understand what we were seeing because there are miles and miles of it. There is dark black and dusty stuff covering the ground with some grass seed planted on top near the road and hundreds of train cars being loaded up with the stuff. Evidently the ‘clean-up’ plan involves shoveling the coal ash up and shipping it to a town in Alabama! Bring in issues of race, class, poverty, power and the pretense that we are dependant on life-killing jobs to survive. An old story I hate to say. The next day there was a rally in support of clean air in downtown Knoxville where several people from Harriman spoke. I was touched beyond words when my Uncle Bill arrived and walked with me in the march around the TVA building!

I was able to rest in Knoxville by staying with my family. I have never lived near Tennessee so it was sort of an unexpected delight to bask in the generous hospitality of my Aunt and Uncle. Learning first hand about mountain top removal and coal ash disasters and the death-cycle of coal is hard work. I didn’t realize how overwhelmed I was until resting in Knoxville

I am focusing on taking care of myself the best I can while all this information sinks in and new relationships gel. Moving into this cabin has helped a lot. Making friends and being with friends and family has helped a lot too. The weekend I returned to West Virginia the Appalachian String Festival began in Clifftop, a town near Babcock State Park by my new home. I spent four days soaking up Old Time music and dancing early into the morning with my new friends. We set up a table about mountain top removal but focused primarily on dancing, socializing and playing music. I decided I want to learn to play the fiddle, so if anyone has one I can use, let me know!

Right after the festival I drove to western Virginia to meet up with good friends from Olympia. Mary Margaret Fondriest and Rachel Goeke and I camped out for several nights. I was able to simply lay down in this part of Earth and listen, to fall more in love with this land in a relatively safe place. We hiked, talked, cooked and sang, and I loved it! Rachel just returned to the states from South America and is currently here with me in this cabin! It is a delight to have time to connect with old friends and let the experiences of this past month sink in for a moment. Tonight we are even having a dinner party for the organizer and interns with the group Christians for the Mountains!

Friends - new friends – old connections – bringing together all of my past experiences to tangible skills needed here - the beauty of getting to know strangers – that is my work these days. Loving life fiercely. Loving health fiercely. And navigating how I can be of benefit in this beautiful and beleaguered region.

Next week I am returning to Boulder for several days to lead a Restorative Justice training for Naropa University. I imagine the experience will help me integrate these experiences even more. I plan to use the time for self care and to plan a fundraising event for when I return again in September. As you probably have noticed, I have very limited access to the internet, so feel free to call if you want to get in touch with me quickly.

I hope you all are well. My mom suggested that I provide ideas for how people can help end mountain top removal and support the transition away from dirty coal (and all coal is dirty) in my letters. I love that idea and promise to do so in two weeks! If you have any requests or questions you want me to address in these letters just e mail me a line or give me a call. Your responses last time to my letter moved me so much! I go through ups and downs living in a new place where everyone and everything is new and feeling connected helps me continually embody the inspiration which drew me to this place.


In love and solidarity,

Sarah M. Vekasi, M.Div.