Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Images From Mountain Justice Fall Summit

All photos by Colin Bennett. To see the piece that accompanies these images, please click here.

Mountaintop removal from a distance
Surveying a mountaintop removal site on Kayford Mountain
Marching through the woods

Entering the MTR site

John Johnson at the rally
Planting trees

Quit coal

Planting trees

Walking onto MTR site
From left: Ken Hechler, Mike Roselle, Jesse Johnson, Larry Gibson

EAG Continues Fight Against Mountaintop Removal- Two Students Risk Arrest in West Virginia

This past weekend seven people from Mason traveled to Kayford Mountain in southern West Virginia to attend the annual Mountain Justice Fall Summit.  Mountain Justice Fall Summit is an anti-mountaintop removal event designed, according to its description, to give participants the chance to, “Stand up for the mountains and future of Appalachia.” This was the third consecutive year that Mason students attended the event. Two people from the Mason group, Allison Rutledge and Robbie Krieger, were among several dozen individuals that risked arrest by participating in direct action. Specifically, they trespassed on a mountaintop removal site to plant trees as a form of symbolic protest.

The three day event featured educational components including workshops, panel discussions, movie showings, and site tours of an active mountaintop removal site. It also included camping and live bluegrass music. “The festive air of music, campfire, and the really friendly people reminded me of the church mission trips I took every summer in high school,” said Mason student Krieger, “you always walk away fulfilled.” The week’s activities culminated with a rally and more direct action activities.

Speakers at the rally included Larry Gibson, a well-known, long-time mountaintop removal opponent; Mike Roselle, co-founder of Earth First!; Jesse Johnson, Mountain Party candidate for U.S. Senate in West Virginia; and Ken Hechler, former secretary of state and Congressperson from West Virginia. Many people in attendance cheered loudly when Hechler, a longtime opponent of mountaintop removal, proudly proclaimed, “I may be 96 but there’s a fire in my belly. I’m here to help save these beautiful mountains of West Virginia and put people back to work doing useful things.”

Ce Garrison, one of the Mason students who traveled to West Virginia, said, “I attended the event because I wanted to know what the people of West Virginia are going through. I wanted a chance to see firsthand what I had been fighting against for the past year.” She saw MTR sites before this one, but she was particularly moved by a panel discussion featuring coalfield residents, “The people were so open and honest about their situations, and it was heartbreaking. I cannot imagine having to get permission [from a coal company] to visit my loved one's grave sites.”

Now that the summit’s over, Garrison proclaimed she is more motivated than ever to end MTR and help the coal field residents. “Larry Gibson and the others were such an inspiration to me and I want to help them find a place in the world where their homes are safe from destruction and their bodies safe from poison. I want to find an alternative for people in West Virginia to work that won't have them choosing between their families and their jobs.”

Krieger feels as though he now has an idea of what the people in Appalachia are dealing with. He grew up in a log cabin where as a child he played with his friends. When he was 15 the area, “was ransacked in favor of multi-million dollar McMansions.”  He feels that after this experience he knows, “what it’s like to lose precious property.” Partly as a result of that he was one of the approximately 35 people to risk arrest by planting trees on the site. “At first I was nervous about the action's uncertainty, but after talking with like-minded people I felt I should go out and fight the good fight with my comrades.”

Emily Miles, another Mason student, said her favorite part of the event was, “seeing my friends bravely walking onto the reclamation site and being there to support them.” She feels the event was a symbolic action, “in which [we] are taking back the mountains and doing the job that the big coal companies are legally required to do, restore the ecosystems of the mountains, but don't.” She concluded, “I thought the action was a great way to involve a large group of people that want to abolish mountaintop removal.”

In addition to planting trees, several attendees unfurled a banner at the site stating, “Reclamation FAIL,” in reference to what opponents of mountaintop removal say is a refusal of coal companies to put sufficient effort into attempting to repair the ecosystems that they have destroyed.  Although security for the coal company arrived on scene and called the police, ultimately no arrests were made. Now that it’s over Krieger says, “though it was a long few days, West Virginia residents and their families are going to continue to be threatened by these hungry firms every single day. Now I just want to keep the fire burning and keep the message alive.”

To see more pictures from the event, click here

Protesters trespassing on coal company property to plant trees.

Editor’s Note: This trip was part of Mason students’ active campaign to help abolish mountaintop removal. Their previous actions include raising awareness about the issue on campus, testifying at a recent EPA hearing on coal-ash disposal, lobbying at the state capital in Richmond, attending Appalachia Rising in Washington D.C., and participating in civil disobedience at the White House and at the EPA Headquarters. On Monday, the EAG cosponsored an event featuring, Tricia Shapiro,  the author of the just-published book "Mountain Justice: Homegrown Resistance to Mountaintop Removal, For the Future of Us All" to continue to bring attention to the issue. More events and activities will be taking place throughout the end of the semester and into next year; announcements will be made as they become available. Stay tuned for a video companion piece to this which will posted soon.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Mountain Justice Comes to Mason

Next Monday, October 25th, the GMU Environmental Action Group (EAG) and Mason’s Office of Sustainability will be hosting Tricia Shapiro, author of the just-published book "Mountain Justice: Homegrown Resistance to Mountaintop Removal, For the Future of Us All" at Mason. Tricia Shapiro has been covering anti-mountaintop removal activism as an “embedded freelance writer” since 2004. Her discussion will be in Meeting Room B of the Johnson Center at 7:30 p.m.

This event, which is sponsored by Campus Progress, is part of Mason students’ active campaign to help abolish mountaintop removal. Their actions previous include raising awareness about the issue on campus, testifying at a recent EPA hearing on coal-ash disposal, lobbying at the state capital in Richmond, attending Appalachia Rising in Washington D.C., and participating in civil disobedience at the White House and at the EPA Headquarters. This weekend the EAG will be attending the 2010 Mountain Justice Fall Summit on Kayford Mountain in West Virginia which, according to event planners “will build on the momentum of Appalachia Rising”.

Jason Von Kundra, co-chair of Mason's Environmental Action Group hopes this event will lead to more than increased awareness, "helping to end mountaintop removal has been one of our priorities for a long time and we are gaining momentum. I'm hoping that people come to this event get inspired to take action. As students, we have tremendous potential to make change," he concluded, "as more people at Mason learn about the issue, they inevitably feel compelled to do something about it."

Don Vanstory, a senior at Mason, has attended previous EAG events focused on mountaintop removal including the film screening of Coal Country. Don believes mountaintop removal is an example of “corporate elite’s greed triumphing the concerns of Appalachian residents”. Don admits he doesn’t know a lot about the topic but hopes the Tricia Shapiro event will teach him more about the issue.

Ms. Shapiro will be leading a free discussion on mountaintop removal, which is open to the public, describing the experiences of Appalachian residents living in communities effected by mountaintop removal, and recent efforts to end the devastating form of strip-mining including Appalachian Rising and Mountain Justice Fall Summit. She will also discuss her experiences with the Mountain Justice and Climate Ground Zero organizations while writing the book.

While Ms. Shapiro has been active in the fight to abolish mountaintop removal, her new book focuses on the accounts of other participants rather than her own experiences. According to Steve Fisher, editor of Fighting Back in Appalachia: Traditions of Resistance and Change, “Shapiro allows the participants in this battle to speak for themselves about their motivations, hopes, and fears. And it is from these voices that we come to understand that their fight is our fight too.”

Colin Bennett, Mason's Sustainability Outreach Coordinator is thrilled that Ms. Shapiro will be speaking at Mason, "mountaintop removal is an issue of growing concern among the Mason community, especially Mason students. Everyday more people are realizing exactly where much of our electricity comes from- coal obtained by blowing up mountains which destroys communities throughout Appalachia, including right here in Virginia. Having Ms. Shapiro at Mason, a person so obviously knowledgeable about mountaintop removal, will certainly raise awareness about the issue.”

The book, Mountain Justice, is available from Amazon....

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Is Mason America's Most Vegan-Friendly School? Not According to PETA.

Perhaps you missed it (most people did) but Mason was recently competing in PETA2’s Most Vegan Friendly College competition. The contest’s blink-and-you-missed-it first round ended yesterday and Mason was knocked out by our perennial rivals: UMD. The news here isn’t that we lost, it’s that we were even competing at all. Ask any vegan at Mason how they feel about their food choices on campus and you’ll most likely get a barrage of complaints against Sodexo and Mason Dining and the lack of vegan options at Mason.

The contest, which started in 2006, works like this: schools are put into one of three categories- small colleges, large colleges, or colleges in Canada. In both the small and large college categories, 32 schools are divided into eastern and western divisions and pitted against each other in pairs. Each school is supposed to get its fans to go the website and vote for it. Mason was put into the large college category in the eastern division, head-to-head with UMD. Perhaps not surprisingly, the Terps won. In some of the other match-ups, NYU beat Cornell, BU bested UConn, and the University of Florida topped VCU. UMD now faces off against Towson in round two.

Luckily, Mason’s populace hasn’t been hoodwinked into showing school pride where it doesn’t deserve it. The profile of GMU on PETA2’s website claims, “Prospective students wanting to be within a stone's throw of the U.S. capital and within arm's reach of delicious vegan food—look no further. Within the past year, GMU has really kicked its vegan offerings into high gear, in direct response to negotiations and discussions with students.” It even goes so far as to say, “it's easy to see why GMU has been called the number one up-and-coming university in the U.S.!” To many vegans, this seems like a slap in the face. According to oft-quoted co-chair of Mason’s Environmental Action Group Jason Von Kundra, “There are no good vegan options on campus and there is hardly any ingredient transparency at most dining locations. I, along with several other vegans at GMU, get all of our food outside of campus because it's so bad.”

While it would be nice to to actually be a vegan-friendly school, Mason still has a long way to. To have received recognition this year, even by simply making it out of the first round, would have been a step in the wrong direction as it would have allowed Sodexo to pat itself on the back for the few paltry measures they have implemented. Hopefully by next year, with the help of the Environmental Action Group and other concerned students, Mason will have something to be proud of in terms of its dining options. The EAG is currently pushing Sodexo and Mason Dining to adopt sustainable food practices, including offering more vegan and vegetarian options. The EAG is even demanding an all vegan/vegetarian eating establishment on the Fairfax campus. That would go a long way toward giving Mason something to be proud of.

Editors Note: When asked for the specific results of the competition, a representative from PETA2 refused to provide numbers beyond saying that last year, “more than 20,000 votes were cast in the competition.” It remains unclear as to how many people actually voted or how many votes Mason received.

Monday, October 18, 2010

More Sustainable Foods at Mason

Last Thursday the Environmental Action Group’s Sustainable Foods Working Group met with Mason Dining Services senior administration to discuss the use of more local, sustainable foods in Mason dining facilities. The group met with Sodexo Resident District Manager Denise Ammaccapane, Executive Campus Chef Peter Schoebel, and Mason Dining’s Dietian Lois Durant. The student lead group consisted of Environmental Action Group members Darius Salimi and Jason Von Kundra, GMU Organic Garden Association member Nya Jackson, and Sustainability Projects Specialist Danielle Wyman. The delegation claimed to be representing over three hundred and fifty members of the Environmental Action Group.

The largest concern of the student lead delegation was the lack of local, organic produce in Mason’s dining services. Executive Campus Chef Peter Schoebel responded to student concerns by stating that he does use local produce, when available, but “we [the students] just don’t know it”. Keany Produce Company, Mason’s produce provider, provides local fruits and vegetables by default when they are available. Due to Schoebel’s time limitations he stated that “I don’t have the time to go through the produce order list and create labels for which food is local”. The Sustainable Food Working Group will be working with two service learners, appointed to work with Dining Services, to assist with creating local food labels to be prominently displayed at Mason Dining facilities to make the Mason community aware of which foods and ingredients are being sourced locally. Denise Ammaccapane, Sodexo Resident District Manager, has also volunteered her marketing student interns, to help with designing labels for locally sourced produce.

Signs for locally sourced produce wasn’t the only labeling issue discussed at the meeting. Environmental Action Group Co-chair, Jason Von Kundra, who is a vegan, expressed his discontent with the prominent labeling of vegan dishes at Southside. Currently, there is a binder with the list of ingredients that are present in dishes but Von Kundra doesn’t think this current system of labeling is convenient. “The list of ingredients should be directly in front of the dishes they correspond to not over in a corner somewhere” said Von Kundra. The Sustainable Foods Working Group also wasn’t satisfied with the current symbols used to identify gluten free dishes, and dishes containing soy, dairy, peanuts, and other ingredients students might possibly be allergic to. The student group will be working with Mason Dining’s Dietian Lois Durant, who is directly employed by Sodexo, to improve the allergy symbols used. Schoebel also claims to be working with Mason’s IT department to fix the labeling glitches.

The conversion of George’s to a vegetarian restaurant was also discussed during the meeting. Ammacaccapane said converting George’s to a vegetarian restaurant had been discussed in the past but there wasn’t enough support for the restaurant. Salimi expressed the need for a vegetarian restaurant on campus. “It’s crazy that I pay $9 to get into Southside to eat without a meal plan and only have one or two vegetarian options available to me. I want the same number of food options as non vegetarians” said Salimi. Ammacaccapane, Schobel, and Durant seemed open to the idea but asked for more information from the student group including where they would like to have a vegetarian restaurant on campus, what the menu and staffing would look like, and what students are willing to pay for a meal. Schoebel volunteered to do a cost analysis of a vegetarian restaurant to see if it is feasible.

Lastly the group discussed the use of garden produce in Southside. Last month the Organic Garden Association donated over 10 pounds of basil to Southside for them to use for their menu that day. The basil wasn’t used in the menu that day. Schobel stated that if the produce from the garden is to be used in Southside he needs advance notice of produce available from the garden that he can use in the next week or two. He also suggested that the Organic Garden Association consider using the garden produce in other dining facilities that have more flexibility in their menus since they are dealing with a lesser volume of customers.

The group will be meeting again in two weeks to discuss their progress and further areas where they can work together. Some members of the Sustainable Foods Working Group seemed optimistic after their meeting. Danielle Wyman, Office of Sustainability Projects Specialist, expressed her excitement after the meeting. “I feel very excited and encouraged that Sodexo seems ready to really move forward with what we all are asking for!” Others have chosen to wait until after some results have been seen to call the meeting a success. Von Kundra of the EAG had this to add. “At the 2010 Longwood Sustainability Conference I was impressed with all the sustainable initiatives Aramark, one of Sodexo’s biggest competitors, is doing at Longwood University. I was even more impressed when I learned that Longwood does not have any environmental group. At GMU, our environmental group has presented the issue and the ball is the hands of Mason Dining and Sodexo to make changes here on campus. I can’t consider [the meeting] a success until we see some changes made.”

If you are interested in learning more about the Sustainable Foods Campaign please contact the Environmental Action Group at

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Exciting Gardening Events This Weekend

By Nya Jackson, Senior Staff Writer

This weekend GMU’s Organic Garden Association (GOGA) will be celebrating the season with two exciting garden-themed events. On Saturday October 16th the group will be hosting a permaculture workshop from 10am-4pm in Research Building 1, Room 161. On Sunday October 17th from 4:30pm-8pm they will be hosting their first-ever Fall Harvest Festival in the Art and Design Building.

In an effort to teach the Mason community about sustainable agriculture GOGA is offering a permaculture workshop lead by expert Cassa Von Kundra. Permaculture is an approach to gardening that designs agriculture systems that minimize work, turns “wastes” into resources, increases productivity and yields, and restores natural environments.

Danielle Wyman, Sustainability Projects Specialist in Mason’s Office of Sustainability expressed her excitement about the upcoming workshop. “I am really looking forward to Mason's first-ever permaculture workshop! This will truly give Mason's community a full-circle understanding of the pillars and practical applications of sustainable agriculture." The workshop will include a discussion about sustainable agriculture lead by Von Kundra and a hands-on component to give participants a chance to get their hands dirty. If you are interested in attending this free event please register at Lunch will be provided to event attendees.

To celebrate its fall harvest the Organic Garden Association will host its first ever Fall Harvest Festival on Sunday. The festival will feature dishes prepared by Mason’s own CafĂ©-GMU made from fresh produce from the garden. There will also be live music and a garden tour at 5pm. The extra food harvested from the garden this fall will be donated to Food for Others.

Amanda Wall, GOGA President, is excited about having this informal partnership with Food for Others.“ The garden crew and Food for Others both have similar missions of providing our community with nutritional food during their time of need. The garden crew is excited to be able to donate fresh food to go with the other food given to clients”. In addition to the food the Organic Garden Association is donating from their fall harvest they are asking those who attend the event to bring a can of food to donate to Food for Others. A representative from Food for Others will be at the event to collect the donations. If you are interested in attending this event the Organic Garden Association is asking everyone to register at

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Mason to Visit Appalachia

This weekend people from Mason will be joining other folks from the Capitol region on a trip to central Appalachia. Specifically they will be traveling to Kayford, West Virginia, in the heart of the Appalachian coalfields. The purpose of the trip is twofold: to learn about and see the devastation caused by mountaintop removal firsthand and to celebrate Appalachian culture that is under siege from it.

The plan is to travel west on Friday afternoon, stopping at the Little Grill Collective in Harrisonburg for dinner. From there, the group will head into West Virginia and camp on Friday night. Saturday morning they will tour mountaintop removal sites and hear stories from coalfield residents that have been directly impacted by it. Saturday afternoon and evening will be spent at the Changing of the Leaves Festival on Kayford Mountain. The event, hosted by well-known anti-mountaintop removal crusader Larry Gibson, promises live music, a potluck dinner, and new friendships.

According to the website for Keepers of the Mountains Foundation Larry’s family has been living on Kayford mountain since the 1700's. Coal companies began stripping the mountain in 1986 and Larry has been fighting for his land ever since. Mason’s Environmental Action Group has been active in the struggle against mountaintop removal, educating the Mason community about the

On Sunday morning the group will head back to suburbia but not before stopping at Virginia Safari Park for some fun with animals.

All-in-all, the weekend promises to be a great time for all that attend. Although this is not an official Mason trip, anyone interested in attending is encouraged to send an email to for more information or check out the Facebook event: Awesome Appalachia Weekend. For people that would like to learn more about mountaintop removal and how to join the fight against it but already have plans for this weekend, there is another, similar event on October 22nd through 24th also on Kayford Mountain: Mountain Justice Fall Summit. Mason will definitely have a presence at this event as well so be on the lookout for more information which will be coming soon.

See a video of Larry Gibson from the recent Voices of the Mountains conference (which was part of Appalachia Rising): 

Obama Does the Right Thing: Solar Power to Return to White House

EaEarly Tuesday morning news broke that solar power will be returning to the White House. According to the AP, the panels will provide both hot water and electricity for the most famous residence in the country. This is good news for environmentalists and clean energy advocates that have been pushing Obama to reinstall the solar panels that were put on the White House by Jimmy Carter and subsequently taken down by Reagan.

Last month, organizers led by environmental author and activist Bill McKibben (who spoke at this year’s Fall for the Book) brought one of the original panels that graced the White House roof some 30 years ago to Washington with the request that Obama led the way in creating a clean energy economy by reinstalling the panel. At the time, officials from the White House denied the request.

This news comes on the heels of an announcement made last week by the White House that, “a company called BrightSource plans to break ground this month on a new, revolutionary type of solar power plant [in California]. This will put about 1,000 people to work building the facility. And once completed, it will power up to 140,000 homes, making it the largest such plant in the world.” Obama takes credit for this step toward creating a clean energy economy claiming that his administration’s clean energy incentives made this project possible.

The AP reports that “the plans will be formally announced later Tuesday by White House Council on Environmental Quality Chairwoman Nancy Sutley and Energy Secretary Steven Chu."

See a video of the announcement:

Monday, October 4, 2010

Mountaintop removal: Students rally to help Appalachia

By Holly Smucker

The piece originally appeared in Broadside, George Mason University's student newspaper, on Monday, October 4, 2010.

On Monday, September 27th more than 2,000 people from all over the nation gathered in Washington, DC to protest mountaintop removal in a movement called Appalachia Rising. Preceding Monday’s events there was a two-day conference held at Georgetown University consisting of workshops, speakers, and live music preparing participants for the day of action. Several Mason students from the Environmental Action Group attended the conference and march. Three students, Emily Miles, Jason Von Kundra, and myself, along with more than 100 other people got arrested while trying to bring attention to the issue.

Occurring specifically in the Appalachian Mountains, mountaintop removal (MTR) is an extremely destructive form of strip mining where coal companies clear-cut the forests on mountaintops then blow them up with explosives to get to the coal that lies underneath. The solid debris from this is then dumped into the valleys burying the forest and streams. The liquid waste from coal washing is stored in slurry impoundments which contain heavy metals that are toxic to human health. These impoundments have frequently leaked into the streams and into ground water, harming and depleting the indigenous species. Since many of the residents of Appalachia depend on wells for their drinking water, families throughout the region can’t drink the water from their taps. Many people have died, or have been become extremely ill from the combination of polluted water and coal ash disposal.

Several different workshops were offered at the conference over the weekend, including sessions on coal ash, climate change, post-mined land use, and mono-economies. Unable to attend them all, I chose to attend sessions on natural gas hydrofracking, direct action, and non-violence trainings. In the hydrofracking session we discussed what it is, how it’s done, and the effects it has on the environment. Hydraulic fracturing is a process of fracturing rock in order to release the natural gas within the shale formation. While not directly related to MTR, natural gas hydrofracking is still an environmental crisis because it too contaminates ground water. In the other two sessions we debated on what the best form of direct action is and were shown how to act when encountering the police during Monday’s protest.

At the protest I was joined by a vast array of people coming from all over the US and even Canada. Many residents from the Appalachian Mountains spoke to us about their first-hand experiences with MTR and lead the march to the White House. Starting at Freedom Plaza, we marched through the streets of DC to the Environmental Protection Agency Headquarters where we demanded they “do their job” by enforcing the Clean Water Act. Next we stopped and chanted outside PNC Bank because they fund MTR projects. The march ended at Lafayette Park where several Appalachian residents spoke a few last encouraging words before those who chose to risk arrest headed toward the White House.

My friends, Lianne Roe and Allison Rutledge, who are also Mason students that participated in Appalachia Rising, were there supporting me at the White House on the other side of the police tape. Deeply concerned about MTR, Lianne told me, “I was willing to participate for three entire days and in the rain because I love the mountains. My family is from the region and we're at risk health-wise due to valley fills and sub-standard coal ash disposal practices. It simply isn't right that the most bio-diverse, beautiful, and environmentally essential places in our country are being destroyed.” Allison, also very passionate about the issue, asserts “There are people out there who don't have clean drinking water because of it [MTR]. More than 500 mountains have already been obliterated and over 2,000 miles of streams have been buried forever. This has to be stopped and it’s why I to continue the fight.”

Helping to end mountaintop removal is one of the Environmental Action Group’s priorities this year. They will be taking several trips to Appalachia in October to see the devastation caused by MTR first-hand. To learn more or to get involved, send an email to or visit

Over 100 people got arrested at the White House for protesting against mountaintop removal.

Photo copyright Lauren Peery