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Letters by Sarah Vekasi
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April 8, 2010


April 8, 2009

Dearest friends,

            I am struggling to write this letter this morning because I feel so overwhelmed by the recent events here in West Virginia that it is hard to concentrate on writing, but I really value the responses I receive from each of you and appreciate the ability to share my perspective on events here, so here goes an attempt to communicate.

West Virginia and the coalfield communities of Appalachia are currently going through huge highs and lows. Last Thursday the Environmental Protection Agency announced new federal guidelines to regulate mountaintop removal coal mining!!! This is enormous news and I don’t want to gloss over it – it is a major (but certainly not final) step in ending this practice by upholding the Clean Water Act.

I will write more later about the impacts of this as the comment period is now open until December, however, most of us haven’t had much time to revel in this news or even understand it properly yet because the guidelines are long and complex and before we could finish the leftovers of Easter dinner and process the NCAA final four defeat, 25 underground coal miners were killed and 4 more are still missing (although the recovery team is searching underground as I write) in a horrific mining disaster at the Upper Big Branch Mine next to the Coal River about an hour from my house.

We all have come together in grief and solidarity with the families and friends of these dead and missing miners. Losing miners underground is the reoccurring nightmare of everyone in the region. The anger and sadness and intensity of emotionality is noticeable everywhere I look.

At the same time, many of the community members who have the bravery to really take a stand against mountaintop removal, many of whom know people or are related to people who work/ed in the Upper Big Branch Mine, are laying low right now, processing grief with families at home and a little bit in community but not speaking with all of the national media camped out in these small towns about all the various reasons we have to dislike Massey (many) because tensions are wound up so tight it is like a tinderbox waiting for a tiny spark to ignite. The grieving families have a lot of reasons to be angry at the company they worked for, and that is rough in a year where the divisions of company loyalty and industry-loyalty versus ‘siding with the tree-huggers’ (also their neighbors and family) has been fierce. I am guessing that it is confusing as well as overwhelming to be angry at Massey after a year of rallying for them in big and public situations that sometimes even seemed to me to be like mobs. We all search for understanding, and in a big tragedy, no one likes to be reminded of the warnings that they’ve heard for years now, embodied by the strong hearted women and men of the movement against mountaintop removal and the union organizers still around, who have been calling out Massey Energy for years and talking about how dangerous and hazardous the company’s practices are. So, for now, people lay low, but what do we do on Monday when the camera crews go home? Can these communities ever unite again?

This tragedy speaks for itself – twenty five people dead, four still missing in a severe mine explosion most likely caused by company negligence which has routinely put profits before people. Massey Energy, the corporation liable in this tragedy, has been the focus of the media’s attention, and for good reason. Massey is the largest coal company in the region infamously known for busting the United Mine Workers Union in the eighties and cutting every corner to turn a profit while racking up huge numbers of safety violations and repeatedly failing to comply with environmental regulations in the past year. Any time a company repeatedly violates environmental and safety codes there needs to be a huge red flag – and in this case – a flag as big as the bloody red sky, like the sunsets we’ve had all week since this disaster.

Unfortunately this isn’t the end of the story.

My friend Larry Gibson from Kayford Mountain often asks people the question – ‘would you rather die quickly or slowly – because either way coal will kill you.’ Occasionally something as obviously horrific as a mine explosion happens and we lose 25 people right away. Most of the time miners start to have a hard time breathing after one, five, thirty years on the job and find out that they have black lung disease which kills them slowly and painfully. The rest of us living in the coalfields notice just how many rare cancers and rashes, cases of asthma and diseases our neighbors and families have – and we realize that is from the water which has been irreparably polluted from underground and surface mining and the air which is hazy with toxins from the blasting of the tops of the mountains, the refining of the coal, the dust from trucking the coal and the pollution from burning it.

            Imagine if the national press came in and camped out at our local elementary school every time we reported that thirty men in our community were diagnosed with Black Lung and thirty children have missed an inordinate amount of days of school due to unidentifiable illnesses caused by drinking polluted water and breathing toxic air? This is a national emergency and the issues reach further back than just how this particularly horrible mine explosion happened to how a single industry has dominated this region and what we, as a national and regional community are going to do to change that.

Tuesday, the morning after the mine explosion, I gave a talk about eco-chaplaincy to a senior ethics class at the University of Charleston. We began in silence and reflected together about how this tragedy is impacting us. One of the key tasks for the class is to tackle big issues with ethical dilemmas and learn to see from all sides of an issue, hence, one of the topics they studied this winter was mountaintop removal coal mining. The class attended the debate I told y’all about in January which was hosted by their school between Don Blankenship, CEO of Massey Energy and Robert Kennedy Jr. from the Waterkeeper Alliance. As you can imagine, there were a lot of questions about my opinion of the debate – “Who did I think won? Were there any points made that I particularly appreciated on opposite sides?

I told the students that even the notion of a two-sided debate around mountaintop removal coal mining was a set up because there are never just two sides to an issue – just like this mine disaster. I said that there are so many perspectives that I have a suspicion that we would all end up in a circle for the sake of sanity and to be able to hear one another if we ever tried to have a discussion including someone taking each view.

I know the class was pretty evenly divided in their opinion about the practice as I received nearly five pages of questions from the 40 students ahead of time which helped me get a read on the audience. Many of the questions were about how I ended up in West Virginia and how Buddhist practice, tree-sitting, and traveling in Asia has informed my life, but some of the questions I found very informative when looking at the situation West Virginia is in right now.

The questions I want to share were all false dichotomies – set up in a polarized worldview where the answers were supposed to be either/or answers. (Either jobs or the environment, health or livelihood) Two of my favorites were:

·           “Given the tragic mine explosion last night and the obvious danger involved with underground mining, isn’t it safer to do surface mining?” and

·           “Looking at this issue from a business perspective, how can you argue that a business shouldn’t minimize costs while getting the same results by using mountain top removal? If it is because of the health risks to nearby communities, would you rather risk the lives of underground miners or the health of nearby communities? Who should we be more concerned about?”

I guess we always do come back to that question about which came first – the chicken or the egg. Which is better for West Virginia – dangerous working conditions present when mining underground which employ a high number of people in good paying jobs at the literal expense of their life – or surface mining which is also highly dangerous but doesn’t employ many people as one seven-story dragline took the job of hundreds of miners, hence not showing up statistically as ‘dangerous’ and resulting in killing people throughout the entire region by contaminating and filling in watersheds? Yikes! No matter how we look at it, these stakes are too high and the questions nuanced. We do not live in an either/or world – this is a both/and world where it is not possible to separate the health of miners with the health of nearby communities – we are interconnected.

We are in relation so intimately through the air we all breathe and water we all drink and quality of communities we seek which relate to livelihood and environment and so many factors that it will come to no surprise to you that we are all grieving with this mine explosion.

Tragedies have a way of helping us pause and come together in the moment. So why is it, given all of the hazards and health impacts and disaster wrought by this mono-industry that most of the time issues of coal and how coal is mined and the impact on the environment and our health has done the opposite and divided communities so deeply that many of my organizing friends are laying low right now? I can not answer the question for everyone, but I have a guess that it is precisely because of the false dichotomy between jobs and health, livelihood and mountains.

There have been moments of unity through this tragedy, and I am grateful the national media is beginning to scrutinize Don Blankenship and the practices of Massey Energy as they definitely need to be held accountable for all of the environmental and safety breaches they caused. However, I fear for this region. I fear that the aftermath will not be a united front against greed and corporate monopoly, but a civil war dividing communities further as the EPA decision is more understood, permits are blocked and the industry is forced to change.

I told that class that my favorite part of the Blankenship/Kennedy debate was when their University President Dr. Welch began moderating the event by expressing his goal of getting both men beyond their entrenched views into real dialogue. It didn’t happen then, and it wasn’t really a situation which fostered dialogue, but there is so much local knowledge and potential for true change in this region that I lift up the possibility of true dialogue because we need a culture of civility here and that comes when we learn to see each other past our opinions and ask open questions about the past and future that do not rely on a false dichotomy.

I spent the past few years in Boulder, before I moved here, working in the field of Restorative Justice facilitating dialogue in circles between people impacted by crime and violence – offenders, victims, families, community members. I sat in enough circles to know for certain that a lot can happen when people are able to sit down together – but the premise of that work is voluntary participation in doing the big work of being open to opinions and stories different from your own. Can we have big listening circles in the Coal River Valley to help process this tragedy? I can help train local people to facilitate… Any takers?

I look forward to the day when members of the impacted communities of Appalachia’s coalfields, the political decision makers, coal industry representatives, environmentalists and national stakeholders in the precious Appalachian Mountain range sit down voluntarily. I know that these conversations have begun in pockets, so I hope the net widens ever more. I like to imagine a culture of civility and dialogue – where Appalachians can lead the country in its new energy future by developing locally sustainable jobs that will benefit the country as much as coal has. Sound good? I know that dialogue can be facilitated in communities to harvest the vast wealth of local intelligence and creativity about how to revive, restore and heal the coalfields of Appalachia – the question is – will it? Or will communities continue to fight eachother while men like Don Blankenship take home over $17,000,000 a year?

I pray for my new friends and neighbors as we go through this disaster to stay open to the power of reconciliation, dialogue and healing. I ask for help from all of you to help us keep Massey Energy accountable for its role in this disaster and the destruction of communities and watersheds throughout the region. And I send gratitude to all of you who have taken the time to think about the big picture of these issues and moreover to the many of you that have helped make it possible for me to live here through your financial and emotional support. May we all find new possibilities to open up to gratitude and compassion these many days.


In love and solidarity,

Sarah Vekasi, M.Div.