It’s been described as “the government-sanctioned bombing of Appalachia.” The controversial coal mining practice known as mountaintop removal has been used widely in West Virginia. The technique involves blasting off the tops of mountains and dumping the rubble into valleys and streams. Its use has expanded under the Bush administration. We speak with Ed Wiley, one of the leading activists behind the grassroots effort to stop mountaintop removal in West Virginia. [includes rush transcript]
It’s been described as “the government-sanctioned bombing of Appalachia.” The controversial coal mining practice known as mountaintop removal has been used widely in West Virginia. The technique involves blasting off the tops of mountains and dumping the rubble into valleys and streams. Its use has expanded under the Bush administration. With deep ties to the coal industry, President Bush has weakened federal regulations dating back two decades. But in a state where coal mining is an integral part of the social fabric, a grassroots movement is fighting back. This is an excerpt of the documentary Mountaintop Removal by Mike O’Connell.
JULIA BONDS: We pray that these little children, all God’s little children, will be protected and safe from human greed and from violent coal companies. We beg that You help the people in the coal fields and on Coal River have more courage that they might stand up against the evil and the violence from Massey Coal and from other terrorist coal companies that are blasting our homes, our communities, poisoning and terrorizing our children and destroying Your creation, Lord. Have mercy on us and forgive us of our sins. The people of Coal River and other coal fields and of Appalachia and of America and, yea, of the world will come together to beat this evil.
That was activist Julia Bonds of Coal River Mountain Watch from the documentary Mountaintop Removal by Mike O’Connell.
The film also focuses on the efforts of Ed Wiley. He is one of the leading activists behind the grassroots effort to stop mountaintop removal in West Virginia. Ed Wiley’s granddaughter goes to school in Coal River Valley, less than a quarter-mile from billions of gallons of coal mine toxic sludge. In 2006, Ed staged a forty-day walk across West Virginia to demand funding for a new school. He continues his campaign today.
Ed Wiley joins us now from our firehouse studio in New York. Welcome to Democracy Now!, Ed.
Thank you for having us.
Start off by explaining exactly what mountaintop removal is.
Mountaintop removal is where they come in and clear-cut the timber from the mountains. Then they come in with large machinery as dozers, and they start moving the overburden off, your loose rock, your good dirt, your good material. All this is being put into an adjacent valley field, which has streams in it that’s been running there for thousands of years. Once they get this overburden off, they start blasting. There’s over two million pounds of explosives being used in the Southern Appalachian Mountains each day. This is a large amount. It’s an attack on our mountains. And once they do the blasting, they start putting this rubble into the valley fields, and as they go down each layer, they come to the seams of coal, and they extract the coal, get it ready to process.
I want to turn back to the documentary Mountaintop Removal. This clip follows you and your granddaughter Kayla heading to the Governor’s mansion to demand a new school in your community. Kayla was interviewed by reporters before your meeting with the Governor.
REPORTER: And so, what do you have here? What is that?
KAYLA: A piggy.
REPORTER: What’s inside there?
REPORTER: Is it your money?
KAYLA: No. It’s money to build a new school.
REPORTER: And what makes you want to build a new school?
KAYLA: Because I don’t like having a coal mine behind our school.
REPORTER: And so, you’re a young girl, and you’re going to the Governor’s office. Are you nervous?
REPORTER: What are you going to ask him?
KAYLA: Build us a new school.
Moments later, Kayla and Ed Wiley held their meeting with the West Virginia Governor Joe Manchin.
Kayla has a little gift for you.
GOV. JOE MANCHIN: What do you have, Kayla?
ED WILEY: This is our campaign.
GOV. JOE MANCHIN: OK. Now, we’re — let me just, you know, because I know we’ve worked on this some and we’ve talked about it before. You’re talking about the school, right?
ED WILEY: Yes, sir.
GOV. JOE MANCHIN: Talking about the school. Where are we at with the local board of education?
ED WILEY: Let’s start all over, sir. Let’s back up a whole lot. We’re not going to get them involved. You took a sworn oath to protect the people in West Virginia.
GOV. JOE MANCHIN: Now, wait a minute. It has to go through this — wait a minute. It has to go —-
ED WILEY: We’re going through you today.
GOV. JOE MANCHIN: OK. I’m happy you are.
ED WILEY: We’re not going to do what we’ve been doing. You put a price on our children’s head.
GOV. JOE MANCHIN: No.
ED WILEY: Yes. When you started the [inaudible] in our state, you put a price. This is not an environmental issue. This is a little human being. I have tried for two years to work with you on this, and I’ve been ignored. Now, I don’t mean to put you on the spot here, sir.
GOV. JOE MANCHIN: You’re not putting me on the spot.
ED WILEY: But enough is enough. Enough is enough. We need to get this took care of. Your business with these coal companies is your biz and your politics. This is not about politics.
UNIDENTIFIED: We’re asking people for money all over this country. Today is our official announcement of it. So it just -— it’s just in its embryo stages. We are going to raise five to ten million dollars. It’s going to happen. We want you to be a partner of this. We want you to support our efforts. We want to help you do a better job.
GOV. JOE MANCHIN: Sure, and I appreciate that.
ED WILEY: And I don’t mean to be upset and aggressive, but if this was your child, would you not be?
GOV. JOE MANCHIN: Well —
ED WILEY: You know, enough’s enough, you know?
GOV. JOE MANCHIN: Yeah, and since she’s a beautiful little child, I wish [inaudible].
ED WILEY: We care about our children down there, and there’s serious problems. There’s a lot of issues, and I know you’re aware of them.
UNIDENTIFIED: And there’s intimidation going on there, a lot of intimidation. A teacher that spoke out last year now has been told he better shut his mouth. What are you going to do [inaudible]?
GOV. JOE MANCHIN: I’ll do everything in my power that I can.
UNIDENTIFIED: What does that mean, Governor?
GOV. JOE MANCHIN: That means that I’ll do everything in my power.
SECURITY: Guys, with that, we’ve got to move.
AMY GOODMAN: So, what came of this meeting, Ed Wiley?
Absolutely nothing. He did receive the money, the money come from the children here in New York City. We have now five schools here in New York that is participating and helped raise the funds. The Pennies for Promise program is a fundraiser to build a new school. We took it upon ourselves as parents, grandparents and just normal citizens. If the school board is not going to do it, and the Governor and our senators not going to do it, we as human beings and as citizens have to stand up and be a voice for these children and do the right thing. So we are going to build the school ourselves. And many, many children around New York City and abroad has gotten involved.
Absolutely nothing has become of that meeting. It was a sad day. My granddaughter thought maybe that why we was going down there, that the Governor was going to help us. She was a young girl, didn’t understand, a very brave girl. But it’s sad that they are doing exactly what I said they’re — the Governor, the senator, the school board, the state itself, has put a price on these little children’s head. It does not happen nowheres else in America, what’s going on there with these children.
Who gains from mountaintop removal?
Well, you know, everybody — you know, it is the only meal ticket in town. And we, as environmentalists and just plain good citizens, understand that. No, you cannot shut it down tomorrow, but we need to do — make the steps to improve ourselves. People got that work, and we know that.
But what people need to know about the Appalachian people, we are educated people now. We do have land lines. We do have communication. We do have computer skills. Our children have education now. And we just need people to come into our area and offer new jobs.
And we can certainly go to renewables. We have a project there on the Coal River Mountain Watch called the windmill project. We found out that that mountain there has just as much wind there as on the West Coast does. And we have people ready to put windmills up to make sense to the land company and the coal company that you don’t have a dime in this and you will profit from it, plus have renewables there for generations to come. This is what it’s all about, you know, building a good future for our children.
Earlier this month, former Vice President Al Gore presented the film Mountaintop Removal with the Reel Current Award at the Nashville Film Festival. Each year, Gore chooses the award for a documentary that provides extraordinary insight into a contemporary global issue. At the award ceremony, Al Gore paid tribute to Ed Wiley’s activism and connected it to the broader effort to fight global warming.
AL GORE: I was telling Ed that his campaign to get a new school and to get one because of the terrible impact of this mountaintop removal on the existing school and on the community is really part and parcel of the same kind of a struggle that I and many others have been involved in to try to get solutions to the climate crisis. It is the same fight, really, because today, all around the world, we will collectively put another 70 million tons of CO2 into the earth’s atmosphere, and the majority of it comes from burning coal without any thought to the consequences for future generations or for any thought to the consequences for us now.
That was former Vice President Al Gore, the Nobel Peace Prize winner. Ed Wiley, what does it mean to have this kind of recognition? How does it help you in your struggle against mountaintop removal?
It was a great honor. The movie speaks for itself, most certainly. They’ve done a really good job on that. And for Mr. Gore to recognize our efforts was a real pat on the back and a real boost of encouragement. We’ve done a lot of work trying to help these kids, and it seems like nowhere we turn — we run into a brick wall one way or another, and it’s usually over the money issue. And for Mr. Gore to recognize our efforts and our cause is very special. I thank him and the film festival and the people that made the film.
It was a boost that we really needed. Sometimes you feel down on your work, especially after four years trying to save little kids’ life and then realize that you’re — it’s more than that, it’s the nation’s little children. And what people need to understand out there is, you know, this is happening to our children now.
This is happening to our land now in our backyards. But for the nation and as Appalachia Mountains as a whole, the nation needs to understand we are the sponge of the water. We soak in the water, we filter the water, and it discharges the water. The Appalachia Mountains should be recognized as a national monument just for that reason alone. And there’s many, many other reasons there why it should be a national monument.
So, for Al Gore to recognize our cause for our children and for our land and how important it is to preserve our land and not destroy it in a way that we are going to destroy ourselves.
Ed Wiley, you’re a tenth generation Appalachian. What brings you to New York?
The children. We come here for the film festival. They did host it at the Lincoln Center. We had to be there for that. And I thought, well, I’m stuck here for a week, I might as well go back and see the children that’s been involved, the children that originally come up with the pennies three-and-a-half years ago. I’ll be speaking with them in their school today at 10:00. They have gotten four schools together. We just picked up two more schools here in Manhattan, and we’ll be visiting them. Some of the children has been down in our area. We come originally for the film screening, but I went — also made presentations around the town in different environmental groups, and just doing the work while we’re here for a solid week and saying thank you to the children and keep on educating and getting support.
Ed Wiley, why does the Bush administration support mountaintop removal?
Well, you know, I’m not really a political person, and I don’t know all the facts and all that. It’s basically, the way I look at it is, it’s all a big monotony game. You know, we have boys overseas right now losing their lives over oil, and we have Appalachians right now losing their lives over coal mining. And it’s not over. It’s getting worse.
You know, you talk about our generations. Last year, my grandmother just passed away. She was ninety-one years old, and her mother before that lived in her nineties, and her mother before that was in her eighties. What I’m seeing going on in our valley today is, people my age — I’m fifty years old —- and down are dying with cancers.
We are used to the coal being dug out of the mountains and the slate distracted from it. Then it was put on trains and hauled out. When they come up with this clean coal technology, they’re getting heavy metals from the coal. They’re just not distracting the clay. They’re distracting heavy metals, such as lead, arsenic, manganese, aluminum. The list goes on and on. And they have to have a place to store this stuff, so basically they’re damming up the front of these mountain haulers, and you’re using the slate, which is a weak material, and they’re putting the toxic waste there. Other ways they have to -—
Ed Wiley, we’re going to have to leave it there, but I thank you very much for joining us. And we will continue to follow the issue of mountaintop removal.