Tonight something very strange and wonderful is happening here on this warm fall evening. The sidewalk in the front of the Harry’s Bar at the aging and slightly dilapidated Hotel Harrington is alive with the sounds of mountain music. It is so loud the sound is drowning out even the noise of the downtown traffic. The banjo player is wailing and the guitar player is picking, strumming and belting out ancient hillbilly ballads. A small crowd is gathering around the musicians, their curiosity getting the better of them. These are not your normal buskers or your normal Washington street musicians. Rather than facing the audience, the musicians are ignoring them, facing each other, staring at each others fingers in order to detect the next chord change. They are reaching for that high and lonesome harmony that is as much a part of the Appalachians as the rivers and mountains themselves. You can hear them hollerin’ over two blocks away.
As we listen, a slew of young activists circulate through the audience and pass out literature and campaign buttons to the passers-by explaining to them the dangers of strip mining in the Appalachians and why we they had come here to Warshington, as the denizens of Appalachia pronounce the name of our Nation’s Capitol. We are all here for Mountaintop Removal Week with over 60 citizen lobbyist from 13 states who have traveled here to work for passage of H.R. 2719, the Clean Water Protection Act, a bill sponsored by Rep. Frank Pallone that would prevent the dumping of mine waste into streams and curtail mountaintop removal. Most of these folks came to town on their own dime and by this evening had held over 50 meetings with members of congress.
This morning, Floyd and I, along with Ed Wiley, a West Virginia grandfather and former coal miner, and over one hundred supporters marched the final mile of Ed’s epic 455-mile walk from Marsh Fork Elementary School in Sundial, West Virginia to the steps of the Senate Office Building. Ed left Charleston on Aug. 2 to raise awareness about the school’s location next door to a coal refuse pond and preparation plant; and to build public support for the construction of a new school in a different location.
Marsh Fork Elementary School is on the front lines of the controversial practice known as mountaintop removal coal mining. It’s students are becoming the casualties.
An active 1,849-acre mountaintop removal coalmine surrounds the school area. Marsh Fork Elementary sits just 225 feet from a Massey Energy coal-loading silo that releases high levels of coal dust and saturates the air in the school. Independent tests have shown that coal dust is hazardous to the health of school children. And a leaking earthen dam holding back 2.8 billion gallons of toxic coal-sludge is also located above the school site. What’s more, Massey Energy wants to build another silo. Much to the chagrin of people like Ed Wiley.
One of the more exciting developments in the fight for Marsh Fork School came last month, when the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection denied a permit from Massey Energy to build the second coal silo beside the school. For the residents of the West Virginia coalfields, this was a big victory for the community, the kids, and the larger fight against mountaintop removal. The West Virginia DEP has twice denied the application to build another coal silo next to the elementary school. The existing silo has been found to be even closer to the school than company maps had indicated. Suddenly Massy no longer seems invincible.
To help pay for a new school, Ed Wiley began a local fundraising campaign called Pennies of Promise in an attempt to raise $5 million. He now has a vanload of pennies in jars and plastic jugs. Ed will find the five million even if he has to ask five-hundred million people one at a time. Because of Ed’s campaign, and the support he got from folks in West Virginia and along the way, he has become something of a symbol, even a hero of the struggle. No one is more qualified than Ed Wiley to talk about the effects of mountaintop removal or to represent the people of Appalachia.
At the press conference, which was well attended by members of the Washington media. Wiley was joined by U.S. Rep. Pallone (D-NJ); Lois Gibbs, the Love Canal housewife who alerted the nation to the dangers of toxic communities, now known as the mother of Superfund; Teri Blanton of Kentuckians for the Commonwealth; and Mary Anne Hitt of Appalachian Voices. The press conference was featured on news broadcast across the state of West Virginia, where over two-thirds of the residents are opposed to Mountain Top Removal.
Eariler this morning Ed had hoped to meet with West Virginia Sen. Robert C. Byrd. One of the purposes of the walk was to seek help from the powerful Senator. Outside his office Ed announced to the media, "Senator Byrd is an honorable man and a true Appalachian who cares about the people of West Virginia," Wiley said. "I hope he will stand with us to help the children at Marsh Fork Elementary School, because our children have been sacrificed long enough."
Ed had an appointment to meet with Byrd’s staff, but not with the Senator himself. But after a few minutes meeting with the staffers, he was summoned into the inner sanctum of Byrd’s spacious office. The two spent nearly forty-five minutes talking about the school, mountaintop removal and other issues. Before the meeting was over, both of the West Virginia natives were on their knees in prayer. Senator Byrd promised to do what he could to help move the school. He also issued a press release in which he stated, "I admire the determination and dedication that Ed and Debbie Wiley have shown, the Bible teaches that if we have faith of a mustard seed, we can move mountains. I believe that the Wileys have that faith."
Ed Wiley didn’t talk to any consultants. He didn’t even hold a meeting. He just got up one morning and told his wife Debbie that he was going to walk to Warshington even if he had to eat grass and drink out of a ditch. Along the way, he rallied thousands of supporters, garnered media attention in each town, and received the support he needed to continue his journey. Now Ed and Debbie are sitting in downtown Warshington and tapping their feet to some raucus mountain music and having a well-deserved beer. I think I’ll have one with him.
To learn more about how you can help out, check out the best web site and activist tool ever created for the Internet; www.iLoveMountains.org. The site features the National Memorial for the Mountains, an interactive, online memorial that uses Google Earth technology to show the locations and tell the stories of the over 450 mountains that have been destroyed to date. The Memorial is the first comprehensive source for penetrating the secrecy of these city-sized operations, according to Mary Anne Hitt, executive director of Appalachian Voices, the nonprofit organization that developed the site. It features overlays that bring home the enormous scope of these mining operations: just one, for example, is comparable to the size of the entire Washington metro area.
Visitors can watch a video of entire mountains being blown to pieces. It also has an interview with actor Woody Harrelson and a download of a new acoustic version of Bob Dylan’s "Blowin in the Wind," performed by music legend Willie Nelson. Harrelson and fellow actor Edward Norton are among the many supporters of Wiley’s walk to Washington.
Lenny Kolm, my good friend and someone who has organized over thirty lobby weeks on issues ranging from the Arctic Refuge to logging Old Growth forests confided to me that of all the events that he has organized or attended, Mountain Top Removal weekend topped them all when it came to the dedication and enthusiasm of this group of people. I had to agree. It seems to me, with just a few thousand dollars, Ed and his friends have accomplished more in a few months than anyone has been able to in the years that Coal Valley residents have demanded action on this issue. Ed is also working to build the kind of movement necessary to address not only mountaintop removal, but the damage that mining and burning coal does to our planet.
Log on to iLoveMountains.org and see how you can get involved.