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Letters by Sarah Vekasi
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October 16, 2009


Dear friends,

            These have been fiercely full weeks. Tensions are cranked high in Appalachia right now and hope and fear are in the air. Mother Jones is probably rolling in her grave as the coal industry’s PR groups organize workers to voice opposition to environmental concerns and scapegoat the environmentalists for ‘destroying the economy of the region.’ The polarities are as thick as the fog over the New River Gorge, while just as solid.

-Last week the EPA put all 79 pending mountaintop removal permits on hold another 60 days as a result of all our letters and years of hard work!

-This Tuesday I ended up on the ‘wrong’ side of an angry mob of coal supporters at a public hearing hosted by the Army Corps of Engineers in Charleston.

-Last week I sat in a court room witnessing a judge rule in favor of our citizen group in Ansted in support of Gauley Mountain and against the coal company.

I am reminded daily of the choices we have when things get tough. A tenet of the Great Turning, a name for a shift toward a life sustaining society, is that rather than contract into tighter, smaller and meaner beings when resources get scarce – we choose to expand further, open up more and use collective creativity to work through issues. Please join me in a prayer for Appalachia that rather than stay hooked to the extreme ups and downs of hope and fear we can ride a middle wave of equanimity with a shared local intelligence, or at least civil discourse without anymore violence.

The leaves are a brilliant mass of reds, gold, oranges and browns. The snakes are sleeping for the winter and my pantry is full of homemade applesauce and jam for the winter. I discovered a great quilt shop down the road from my cabin, and the mornings are as crisp as fall mornings should be. Meanwhile, tensions are soaring as the movement to end mountain top removal seems to be succeeding.

Last time I wrote I began with a supplication for everyone to write to the EPA to encourage them to deny all of the 79 pending permits on mountain top removal throughout Appalachia. Well – it is working! I received a lot of e mails from you saying that you had commented. Thank you. A few days later the papers were full of the news that the EPA put all 79 pending permits on another 60 day delay while they review all the letters and research the evidence! With more pressure all 79 permits may even be denied.

I didn’t realize the personal impact of this decision until after writing yall and sending my own comments to the EPA. A few days later I returned to Jones Branch just north of my home to continue doing listening work in the community where I went before with the toxic water below an active coal mine. One of the men I had previously met passed away since the last time I visited, so I baked a chicken pot pie from scratch to bring the family. After a few hours of chatting I was shocked to find out that the mountain above the hollow was still standing only because the EPA put the permit on hold! I had no idea that mountain was one of the 79 we all wrote about. It is a small steep mountain right above their homes. Dynamiting that mountain would be a tragedy. Filling in the valley would be the end of their home. The conversation wandered to all the cemeteries that have been bulldozed and dynamited, lost forever. I still find myself holding my jaw wide open in disbelief. I live here and see the effects of mountain top removal all around but still find it hard to believe!

At any rate, letters thanking the EPA for this decision and encouraging them to deny all 79 permits and ban mountain top removal mining are appreciated now. However, if you are like me and think you only have one letter in you today, please consider this request to write to the Army Corps of Engineers appreciating the proposal at hand to abolish the Nationwide Permit 21 process and instate an individual permitting process for each valley fill.

The reason this is important enough for me to use up my letter time on is that I tried to testify on this account the other night at a public hearing and instead it turned into a violent mob of pro-coal supporters threatening our lives. Our voices were silenced through force the other night and I am asking for your help making sure we are not just silenced by it.

Here is the background as I am learning it:

Last June, the three regulating agencies that allow mountain top removal to happen, the EPA, the Department of the Interior and the Army Corps of Engineers signed a Memorandum of Understanding which included an ‘Inter-agency Action Plan’ developed to reduce the adverse environmental impacts of surface coal mining in Appalachia. (Read the MOU at http://www.usace.army.mil/CECW/Documents/cecwo/reg/mou/mou_final_mtm.pdf) The public comment period for the EPA was a part of this process and seems to be going strong.

The Army Corps of Engineers is in charge of overseeing the health of the water as it relates with the valley fills from this kind of mining. For years they have fulfilled that duty by issuing a “Nationwide Permit #21” which basically says that any water quality issues which result from filling in headwater streams are negligible and can be solved through a blanket mitigation process. This is now in serious question and the Corps sent out a proposal to terminate the NWP 21 and instate an individual permit process for each valley fill. Here is a link to the actual proposal from the Federal Register: http://edocket.access.gpo.gov/2009/pdf/E9-16803.pdf Ending the Nationwide Permit 21 and requiring an individual environmental and community impact statement for each valley fill is a sane and appropriate move on behalf of the Corps.

To put it bluntly – this could help save the Appalachian Mountains and communities because I can not imagine that blowing up mountains and filling in streams and valleys can actually be legal in the Clean Water Act.

The coal companies clearly know this and have decided this is the time to rally the workers and point the blame at the local residents fighting for their lives. There was a hearing by the Army Corps of Engineers in Charleston, WV this past Tuesday and it turned into a violent and terrifying scenario where free speech was drowned out by severe heckling, jeering, threats, shouts and a lack of security. The industry front groups turned out nearly a thousand people and many of the West Virginians opposed to mountain top removal were prevented from entering the building or chose to stay home. Here is one video from outside the hearing. Click here.

I actually made it inside the hearing and surprised myself by testifying in the most hostile and openly threatening situation I have encountered at a public forum. The room was packed with people wearing mining uniforms and yelling. The mob was a scared and angry throng of miners and mining supporters who did not seem to know what the permit hearing was about but were keen to yell at, scream over and threaten violence to anyone recognized as a ‘tree-hugger.’

Sound familiar? It is an old story and an old tactic – dividing the “us and them,” and vilifying whoever happens to be ‘them.’ Well this time I was a ‘them,’ and it was terrifying to hear the threats and see the lack of safety in the room. It was also sad to see how much fear was there in the alcohol-filled bodies of the neighbors shouting down my friends. The testimony given by the so called Friends of Coal and the coal miners all had to do with saving “Coal” because there are no other jobs, no other choices. The despair in the room was noticeable even while being verbally assaulted and physically threatened. The fear is also well-founded as the coal companies have owned the coalfields of Appalachia for the past century and have kept any other industry out so effectively that there really are no other jobs to be had. Soon there won’t be jobs or mountains left.

The Corps said public comments sent in will be accepted with as much weight as verbal testimony at the meeting. Well, our testimony barely made it on the record because the yelling was so loud and we were all scared. We have until October 26th to send in letters in support of the proposal to end the Nation Wide Permit 21 process and instate both the interim and long term proposal of establishing an individual assessing process for valley fills. Please write a letter to send via the internet or snail mail. It will help a lot!

            On and on it goes. My work as an eco-chaplain helping mediate conflict, inspiring a culture of self-care and facilitating dialogue is clearly cut out for me here. Want to join? J

Meanwhile, today is my dear friend Sage’s birthday and we are off to southern Virginia for some Old Time music and dancing at the Carter Family Fold. We played music together up at Kayford Mountain and then in the pavilion in downtown Ansted for the Mayor last weekend. I even played the two songs I can squeak out on the fiddle already!

I am signing off with a hearty thank you to all of you who have sent me support by means of letters or money or both. It means everything to me. I love hearing from all of you and even just knowing you are doing your work in the world and sharing in this work keeps me warm inside.

In love and solidarity,

Sarah Vekasi,