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Letters by Sarah Vekasi
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Dear friends,

I just returned from Appalachia, Virginia where Mountain Justice had a monthly meeting and we all worked with the Southern Appalachian Mountain Stewards doing cemetery clean-up in a large historical graveyard up on Ison Rock Ridge. This ridge is the protective backbone of the town, standing tall immediately above the town and next to homes in the hollow. To get to this graveyard we had to cross a river and drive and later walk up a crazy steep and gutted road up to a gas plant and then head into the woods. The forest up there was beautiful, full of diversity and it was clear that even though it is so hard to get to now, family members are still coming up with flowers and wreaths to honor their lineage. Our task was to clear away any brush or grown over plants from the graves and make the trails defined and easier to walk so that people can still come honor their lineages in their ancestors resting places. Why? Because this beautiful mountain immediately above the town is being threatened with mountaintop removal mining, and that old graveyard, as well as many others with it.

Since moving to this region I have participated in cemetery clean-up days over a handful of times, and each experience leaves a lasting impact. Something really clicked for me Saturday evening as I took photo after photo of the graves to help document the site. Just after our march on Blair Mountain, a scientifically peer-reviewed health study was published in Environmental Research: A Multidisciplinary Journal of Environmental Sciences, Ecology and Public Health.” linking the local health effects of mountaintop removal coal mining with higher rates of birth defects.  The study is called, “The association between mountaintop mining and birth defects among live births in central Appalachia, 1996–2003,” by Melissa M. Ahern, and Michael Hendryx, et. al.. This study is not receiving the attention it demands, most likely because of how inconvenient and absolutely horrifying the information is. For that reason, I want to share with you words from the press release and links so you can share it. It says:

The team studied more than 1.8 million birth records in West Virginia and surrounding states in central Appalachia.  They compared the prevalence of birth defects in mountaintop coal mining areas compared with other coal mining areas and with non-mining areas for two periods of time: 1996-1999 and 2000-2003.
     “We found that birth defects were significantly higher in mountaintop mining areas versus non-mining areas for six of seven types of defects: circulatory/respiratory, central nervous system, musculoskeletal, gastrointestinal, urogenital and ‘other,’”
Michael Hendryx, Ph.D., co-author of the study in the WVU Department of Community Medicine, said.
     “Overall, the prevalence rate for any defect was significant in both periods but was higher in the more recent period. In the earlier period the rate of birth defects was 13 percent higher in mountaintop mining areas and increased to 42 percent higher in the later period.”          
link to press release

In the midst of all the heartache that is involved with mountain people losing their mountains, there is scientific proof that it is also killing, hurting and damaging the future. There was a 42% increase in birth defects in babies born in the first three years of this century due to the impact of mountaintop removal coal mining. This is more than a tragedy, it is an outrage. Meanwhile, the resting grounds for the bodies of the deceased, the beloved family cemeteries of Appalachia are getting blown up along with the mountains, so not only is the future generation at serious risk of survival due to mountaintop removal coal mining, the past is being torn away as well.

            When we lose our future and lose the past, what is left? No wonder this movement feels uphill sometimes. My calling is to eco-chaplaincy, and what that meant in the cemetery was to pay attention to the beauty of the place and bring its story forward, and help draw us all together into a circle so we could be present in the fullness of what we were up to in that sacred space. What my work as an eco-chaplain means in this moment is to draw your attention to the enormity of loss and need for solidarity for a whole region of this country, and to thank you for all that you have done and are doing to help out.

Throughout all of the hard growing up our country has done and is doing in terms of calling out oppression and transforming our norms toward collective liberation, it is still somehow socially acceptable in movies and television and in mainstream culture to stereotype and caricature the “hillbillies” of Appalachia, all the while our babies are being poisoned before they are born and the resting places of the dead are destroyed. Do you want to know the response of the coal-company lawyers to this peer-reviewed scientific study? Hold onto your hats and remember what I just said about the degradations of Appalachian people in the media. The response, and I sadly kid you not, was, “The study failed to account for consanquinity [sic], one of the most prominent sources of birth defects.” Consanqunity means in-breeding friends. That is the response of Clifford J. Zatz, William L. Anderson, Kirsten L. Nathanson, and Monica M. Welt. You can read more about this from Ken Ward Jr.. You know jokes were never funny when that is how the coal industry tries to defend research showing elevated birth defects in babies at rates of 42%. This is a serious situation, and one that requires a great deal of solidarity and strength. Do we really need coal so much that it is worth it for 42% of the children being born near its extraction are born with birth defects? More to the point – do the owners and shareholders of the giant coal corporations need a profit line more than central Appalachia needs a future?

            I know this is a heavy letter, it is a heavy issue. So let me also tell you that I left Ison Rock Ridge full of joy. My heart was overflowing, because even though this report has come out about the serious health implications to our unborn children and the resting place for the dead is in jeopardy, I was working side by side with twenty or so other people from all over the region, the country and the world who have dedicated this day, this month, in some cases, this life towards the work of creating a more healthy, livable Appalachia, and that is inspiring. None of us had to hike up that steep mountain and work in the soaring heat with plenty of yellow jackets and mosquitoes around, yet we did. Sometimes I look around at the people I am honored to provide eco-chaplaincy for and I think, wow – I am so lucky! I am in the service of ‘bodhisattvas’, of big-hearted and hard-working individuals who care about more than just themselves, and who deeply care enough about themselves to understand the need for a healthy environment and sustainable communities in Appalachia affects us all.

            Every now and then I get to just soak up the wonder that are the brave people I get to work with and for. Last weekend for example, I went up to West Virginia for the annual Keepers of the Mountains Festival on Kayford Mountain for the 4th of July. Larry and Carol Gibson graciously invited all of us up to their family reunion yet again, with the understanding that anyone committed to ending mountaintop removal coal mining and working towards a sustainable Appalachia is family one way or another. We ate fried chicken and had a great potluck, shared stories, stayed up way too late around a campfire, sang songs, heard great ballads and old time and new wave an rock and roll musicians and soaked up the beauty of one another, all the while, camping out on what used to be a valley and is now the only part of a mountaintop left standing surrounded by strip mines and valley fills. We all missed our friends who could not make it to the mountain this year, and those who have passed away this year, particularly Judy Bonds, and we celebrated being together.

            Now, going forward, there are a myriad of activities happening nearly simultaneously. Have you read the book edited by Silas House and Jason Howard called, “Something’s Rising in Appalachia”? Let me tell you, it is aptly named (and well worth the read too). There is a lot going on in terms of efforts to save Ison Rock Ridge, and more information is available online through the Southern Appalachian Mountain Stewards at: http://www.samsva.org/. My old stomping grounds in Fayette County, West Virginia are currently threatened with over 27 surface mining permits that will seriously impact the New River Gorge, the Gauley River and all the surrounding communities. There is a permit hearing tomorrow morning at the WV Department of Environmental Protection Office in Kanawha City at 9:00, meet up in the parking lot at 8:30 if you can. The newly formed and totally inspiring Mountain Health and Heritage Association is asking that as many people attend as possible and there is a press conference following. Meanwhile, there is a movie traveling around the country called “The Last Mountain” with a lot of footage from Mountain Justice actions and the RAMPS collective, and long term organizing by the Coal River Mountain Watch. It is a great outreach tool on a national stage telling the story of the efforts to save Coal River Mountain, as well as the region really.

            I am grateful for the opportunity to work within this region, and love shaping a field of eco-chaplaincy. The Eco-Chaplaincy Initiative has 501c3 status, and any and all donations are deductible from your taxes to the greatest extent of the law. If you are able to donate to the Eco-Chaplaincy Initiative, please be assured that all contributions go directly into this work. To donate online with a credit card or paypal, please go to www.ecochaplaincy.net/donate. To donate through the mail, please send a check or money order addressed to The Eco-Chaplaincy Intiative, PO Box 890, Swannanoa, NC 28778. Any donations over $150 will receive a homemade piece of pottery made by yours truly. Thank you all so much.

Love and Solidarity,