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Letters by Sarah Vekasi
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December 3, 2009


Dear Friends,

A remarkable thing happened yesterday – Senator Robert C. Byrd, West Virginia’s beloved statesman, wrote an open letter calling for tolerance in the coalfields and criticizing the coal companies and coal operators for using “fear-mongering, grandstanding and outrage,” rather than rational dialogue and flexibility to change. To put it lightly: this letter is a big deal.

I have a guess that in the future we will look back and see this letter as one of the turning points in the campaign that ended mountaintop removal mining. Looking back at the present from the future is a skill of the imagination I learned through Joanna Macy. By expanding our sense of time to include the possibility of a more sustainable and just future we can really test the boundaries of our determination and crack open a window, however small, for the possibility that our actions now will have an effect in the future. I have found this to be a particularly skillful tool for our toolbox right now because while there is so much momentum pointing toward an end to mountaintop removal, the threatening, intimidating and scary polarized social environment can make it seem impossible.

            Soon after writing my last letter, I traveled to Pipestem, WV for the annual meeting for Mountain Justice – a grassroots regional movement dedicated to community organizing and nonviolent direct action in defense of the people and mountains of Appalachia.  Mountain Justice was marking its five year anniversary and I had the privilege of working with a team to design the weekend gathering. We decided to weave reflective activities into each aspect of the meeting, and I opened up the meeting with an exercise from the Work that Reconnects. We sat in two circles facing one another – an inner circle of people sitting knee to knee with someone in an outer circle. Then I asked everyone to give themselves permission to use their imagination. The people on the inside of the circle were from the future and were able to travel back in time to meet with their ancestors at the 5th Annual Mountain Justice Meeting.

Let’s try it together. The exercise we did at the meeting was more involved, but try the following practice for just a moment if you are willing… Imagine that you are living approximately 200 years from now. Imagine that you live in a society that values life above all else and understands that all aspects of creation are interconnected. You know from the stories shared in history class and songs that are sung that there was a Great Turning generations back which ended the Industrial Growth Society – the era which irreparably polluted so much of the water, air and land and nearly destroyed life on Earth. You find it hard to believe that people were actually able to dynamite mountains to extract coal, and even harder to understand that there were a few people profiting and getting rich from the process while many thousands were being poisoned by it, but that is what you learned from history lessons. You also have learned that you have ancestors who were trying to stop this practice – who stood up for you and your life by working together to end mountaintop removal mining through all sorts of means: direct action, community organizing, political work, letter writing, financial contributions, prayer, moral support, etc. What do you want to say to this people – your ancestors who helped end the practice of mountaintop removal mining?

            Give yourself a moment to think about this. Since you are reading this and not sitting knee to knee with someone, write your answer down or just tell yourself in the air. When you are done, gently say your name out loud and say the date to help you come back to the present time.

I know from my own experience as an organizer that it is hard to take the time for reflection. It is even harder to allow room for the imagination to explore a healthy future because of all the grief involved. When I was organizing it was around the loss of the last ancient forests in the northwest, here it is the loss of an entire mountain range. These mountains will not grow back. The implications are long-lasting, so to think that life can continue, and possibly in a more sustainable fashion, requires a giant leap of faith. But then again – what are we working toward if not to sustain life in Earth?

That particular Mountain Justice meeting was incredibly productive. One friend who helped design the weekend told me later that she was super skeptical about this activity, she thought it was sort of cheesy, but as soon as the process began she felt herself drop into a space so powerful that she began to really believe a future was possible for the first time that she was aware of. Tears were shed, laughter shared, stories told. I heard in the feedback sessions at the end that the meeting was unlike any before it. We all went away with a solid strategic plan for the next year plus strengthened relationships and stronger commitment to the cause.

            Meanwhile, the work continues. I actually left the MJ meeting for several hours on Sunday to attend a Holiness Pentecostal Church service at a church less than half a mile from a proposed mine site. There was a public hearing scheduled several days later and the people in the town didn’t even know that the mountain above their homes was/is in jeopardy! I attended the service with Wendy Johnston, an inspirational local community leader who is staying up long nights trying to spread the word about this new proposed mine, her son, and Sage Phillips Russo from Christians for the Mountains, so that we could let the congregation know about the public hearing and the proposed mine. Wendy told me later that forty people went to the hearing! Of course, the general understanding throughout the groups fighting mountaintop removal is that these hearings are merely procedural since the public input is rarely or maybe never taken into consideration, but it is an important holding strategy while working to get federal help with protecting the land, air, water, and communities locally.

            The letter Senator Byrd’s wrote yesterday came at an important time because it can really help support people like Wendy and her community and so many of us living here. Remember those 79 permits that your letters helped the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) put on hold earlier this fall? Well, the industry is having a heyday blaming the EPA any time they downsize work crews and do layoffs, while actively stirring up fear that there is a “war on coal,” throughout the region. The coffers of the coal industry’s public relations funds have been opened in order to ensure polarity and civil unrest throughout the coalfields. Massive amounts of money have been poured into billboard campaigns and television commercials feeding the false dichotomy between jobs and the environment, the EPA versus the ‘good working families of WV’ and sickest yet ‘West Virginian’s versus environmentalists, which stings my friends the most as many of them are fourth, fifth or sixth generation West Virginian’s fighting to save their communities and mountains in the mountain state. These commercials are amazingly effective at capturing the public’s attention and stoking already smoldering tensions between neighbors on the issue of mountaintop removal coal mining.

The stakes are too high for the people living under the active and/or potential mine sites and downstream from the coal-slurry impoundments to give up the struggle. There is a normal ebbing tide of overwhelm, despair, apathy and cynicism, there also is strong determination and a collective tenacity to see this through. Here in Ansted, the Powelton Coal Company recently applied to renew its permits to mine Gauley Mountain above town, even though the previous permits are on hold due to a pending federal court case brought about by strong community organizing. Further south, Coal River Mountain is being actively blasted with dynamite near an obscenely large slurry-impoundment held up with a sketchy earthen dam. Like I said, the stakes are too high to give up: the life of everyone and everything nearby.

The urgency is clear, but the social environment is rough and tough and frankly, quite unappealing. As a new friend and deeply committed activist from the Coal River valley said yesterday, “who wants to live with the uncertainty of whether you can say hi to your nephew at Thanksgiving dinner or not without provoking violence?” I know I don’t. Do you?

This is why Senator Byrd’s letter is so important. He makes many points that these committed community leaders have been saying for years, by a person who has the power to be heard. His letter stems from your efforts helping make the issue of mountaintop removal national, and from the many years of organizing locally. Senator Byrd’s letter is long and articulate. The whole text can be found by clicking here. These are some highlights:

 …in recent years West Virginia has seen record high coal production and record low coal employment.

Let’s speak the truth. The most important factor in maintaining coal-related jobs is demand for coal. Scape-goating and stoking fear among workers over the permitting process is counter-productive.

      Coal companies want a large stockpile of permits in their back pockets because that implies stability to potential investors. But when coal industry representatives stir up public anger toward regulatory agencies, it can damage the state’s ability to work with those agencies to West Virginia’s benefit.

…Most members of Congress, like most Americans, oppose the practice, and we may not fully understand the effects of mountaintop removal mining on the health of our citizens. West Virginian’s may demonstrate anger toward the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) over mountaintop removal mining, but we risk the very probably consequence of shouting ourselves out of any productive dialogue with the EPA and our adversaries in the Congress.”

            Brace yourself friends, mountaintop removal mining may become history sooner than we think! Senator Byrd would not be writing anything about “most members or most Americans” if it were not for all of you helping make this an issue of national concern. Thank-you!

As I wrote in my last letter, the dynamiting and blasting on Coal River Mountain has continued, the last intact mountain in the Coal River watershed. Many people have been working for years to protect this mountain and Coal River Mountain Watch created an alternative proposal for a Wind Project which would create long term jobs and sustainable energy in lieu of short-term profit and terminal employment.

This coming Monday, December 7th there will be a large mobilization of supporters of Coal River Mountain and the Coal River Wind Project demonstrating in front of the WV Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) in Charleston. Residents of the Coal River Valley who have fought so long for their communities will be speaking as well as Bobby Kennedy Jr. and others. The request is first for an immediate halt to the blasting. Second is a request that the federal Environmental Protection Agency take over the failed WV State Department of Environmental Regulation (hence Sen. Byrd’s concerns), and third, to alternatively implement the Coal River Wind Project.

We would love your help! Please participate in this demonstration by calling or writing to the EPA and the White House on Monday, Dec. 7th.

EPA Environmental Justice Hotline: 800-962-6215,

White House Comment Line: 202-456-1111.

            I’ll send y’all stories and photos from Charleston in my next letter letting you know how it goes.

Meanwhile, I have been loving life in my cabin in Hico, and in the community of Ansted. Sage and I helped put up the town Christmas tree with our friends from the Ansted Improvement Motivators (AIM).  We hosted friends for Thanksgiving from Kentucky and my dear friend Loretta who first welcomed me here. We all cooked up a feast and soaked up the good company. The next day we enjoyed the first snow of the season. When we went hiking in the New River Gorge I knew everyone we passed on the trail! Slowly, slowly I am settling in and loving each minute of the process.

Please remember all of us here in your prayers this coming Monday. I have to tell you that when my new friends learn that I am able to live here and do this work through your generosity, they are as impressed and grateful as I am. It means a lot to be able to participate in this movement at this time, and I am full of gratitude for all of your help. Thank you!

If anyone wants to make a donation to my work as a Christmas or Holiday present to someone else, just let me know and I will make a special card explaining what I am up to and how their gift helps this cause. If you have been meaning to send me a donation but keep forgetting, feel free. You can always e-mail me, send me mail at PO Box 765, Ansted, WV 25812, or use my paypal account. Thank you to each of you! May our descendants sing praises about all we do!


With love,


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