Approximately ten cars full of mountain activists from cities all over the state of Virginia drove through what seemed like the only street in the town of Wise, up towards Black Mountain. We first stopped at a site which held the remnants of a house that once belonged to a small family. As Larry Bush, chairman of SAMS (Southern Appalachian Mountain Stewards) narrated to the crowd, a young boy had been laying in his bed one night as a dislodged boulder from the coal-mining above plummeted straight through the bedroom wall and into his bed, killing him instantly. This happened about four years ago. No one did anything. Strip-mining operations continued at all hours of the day and night. They declared it an "act of God."
Our caravan, consisting of multiple prii (pl. of prius), amongst other cars, moved on to a site of Mountaintop Removal (MTR) mining. To state it simply, MTR is a process which involves about ten workers who use heavy machinery to blast off the top layers of the mountain, dump it into the valley below, and shovel out the coal. They are expected to restore it to "the approximate original contours" after coal removal.
As we stepped out of our cars and leaned on the guardrail to look beyond at the destroyed mountain range, there were hushed reactions from the crowd. In the distance were tractors and bulldozers moving about like little displaced plastic Fisher-Price toys. Layers and layers of dark brown and black revealed themselves, stripped and bare, open wounds at one time, unsightly scars left behind. This was "approximate original contours?" I thought to myself out loud. No, this was utter perversion of a natural landscape. This was ecological decimation. "This was blasphemy," as my friend Julie, from Immanuel Church on the Hill, turned to me and said.
A few of us continued on to take part in a guided hike of a different part of the mountain, Roaring Branch, filled with canopies of trees and biodiversity. It was just before dusk, the air was cooler and the only sounds were the occasional chatting and the crunch of leaves beneath our footsteps. Our local guide, Anna, stopped us every few minutes to share an interesting fact about a particular plant species, or to hand us an edible leaf to try. The sun was lowering in the sky, soaking the fingers of the trees in golden light. As I paused and looked up at the rays piercing through the treetops, I couldn't help but be reminded of the hikes I took in the breathtaking rain forests of southern Costa Rica earlier this year. I also thought of the mountains I was surrounded by growing up in Western Maryland. “I will always be a mountain woman,” I thought to myself as I smiled at no one. I could never live among flatlands bereft of inconsistencies, of highs and lows … but what if I had to live through the mass deformation of the landscape I knew so well changing literally overnight?
An older man, Tim, who I had ridden in the car with earlier, was a local of Wise, and he had grown up here. He wore a t-shirt that said, “Who would Jesus bomb?” He was a maverick of a guy, sharing stories with everyone and lamenting over people’s apathy. He told us that growing up he never really paid attention to the strip mining that was happening in his hometown, that he thought “this was just the way we made our money.” Now that more people were seeing firsthand the adverse affects of mountaintop coal mining, churches and individuals in Southwest VA were mobilizing and becoming proactive about protesting against it.
Earlier a stranger had stopped me and exclaimed that I looked familiar and asked me which college I attended. I told her that she had probably never seen me before as I was from Northern Virginia. She revealed a mouth full of missing teeth as she smiled and said “Oh I know. I just wanted to talk to you and see where you were from.” We both laughed. I told her why I was there and she was taken aback by the fact that perfect strangers to the town of Wise had come to support the preservation of the Appalachian Mountains.
In my two days in Wise, VA I continued to meet locals and out-of-towners so eager and willing to share and exchange ideas and backgrounds and support one another. I was pleasantly surprised and truly humbled to see such a celebration of diversity in such a small town.
The following day about sixty of us gathered and donned our green bandanas in solidarity. In a few hours would start the hearing consisting of a panel of six members from the VA Citizen's Air Pollution Control Board. The issue at hand was the approval of a permit for Dominion (VA’s producer and supplier of energy) to move forward with a coal-fired plant being constructed in St. Paul, a town very close to Wise.
The first speakers were politicians and delegates who attested that this would be the “cleanest coal-fired plant in the US” with “one of the best technologies out there today,” that “Wise County needs this power plant from an economic standpoint and we need to stop foreign dependency on oil.” Dominion employees and businessman stated “Dominion was in the people business. We keep you warm in the winter and cool in the summer time. We’re not in the coal business; we’re in the people business.”
Turn by turn, individuals in opposition gave their three minute testimonies, stating how any level of mercury dumped into the air from MTR coal mining was not acceptable, how pollution would contaminate and affect both the environment and human health, contributing to global warming, that mountains were being destroyed and creeks filled up, that employment would actually decrease, not increase and it would only become more difficult for Virginians as electricity rates would increase. A young girl cleverly stated she decided to make a list of pros and cons about the building of the power plant, and she equally came up with pros for why we shouldn’t build the power plant, and cons for why we should build the power plant. Parents with children approached the podium and stated how building this plant two miles away from their child’s school was not something they wanted and they feared for the health of their children with the work of coal-mining and the power plant so close to them. People of various backgrounds stood up behind the lights and wires in front of that panel and spoke with heart: Wise county residents, citizens, scientists, nuns, engineers, young student activists, filmmakers, parents, non-profit board members, environmentalists, representatives from faith-based organizations, and the list goes on.
Giving my three-minute testimony (see below) was an absolute high, there’s no other way to say it. A little taste of activism for an issue that hit home so hard served to motivate me to continue involvement and activism, and a reminder that each person really, truly, can start to make a difference just by themselves.
"Hello. My name is Nadia Janjua. I am an artist and architect and I've come from Arlington, VA. I represent an organization called "Green Muslims." We are a network of Muslims in Northern Virginia and Washington D.C. proactively working together to implement sustainability and eco-conscious ways of living. As a Muslim, environmental stewardship is a vital part of my faith.
I am also an individual representing a generation of architects promoting and practicing sustainable design, construction and development. Although I am a relatively young architect, I have spent my working years in the affordable and low-income housing industry, and disaster relief housing. I traveled to Kashmir and Pakistan and led an operation working alongside army soldiers and local laborers in building alternative sustainable housing for victims of the earthquake. I have lived in underdeveloped areas and have worked and designed projects that are sustainable and sensitive to the environment while having less available resources and being in a community with less passion than what I've witnessed in this community here. Certainly, here, in this country we can come up with the creativity, the resources, the technology, the sensitivity, and the professionalism to be sustainable in our approach, to significantly lessen our environmental impact, to find ways of promoting jobs and a thriving economy without having to destroy the environment and dump out carcinogens that kill all forms of life around us in the process.
Seeing the devastation of the Appalachian mountain ranges has been shattering on a very personal level to me for another significant reason. I was born and raised in the Appalachian mountains of Western Maryland, in the small town of Cumberland. My parents immigrated there from Pakistan in the 70's, and still live there 30 plus years later. I cannot imagine how different my world view and upbringing would have been, had I not grown up and been surrounded by such a well-preserved natural landscape. Just a few weeks ago I was in Cumberland, hiking, and I wrote something in my journal which I'd like to share:
To continue with the building of this coal-fired plant, to continue mountain-top removal, to continue to destroy our mountain ranges, will be to continue to destroy ourselves ultimately. Please consider this in making your decision to pass or deny this permit. Thank you for the opportunity to speak."
* For those of you in the area, please come to our Interfaith event on July 16th where others (and myself) will share more experiences like this one!