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