Environmental Justice, part 1 of 2

9 Aug

One of the largest environmental rallies in Kentucky state history was held at the Belvedere Plaza on Thursday, June 20, 2013. People from around the state joined with Unitarian Universalists from around the country. Together, we went down to the river knowing that it is time for us to build a new way; time to strengthen our demand for clean energy – energy that doesn’t harm our communities through its mining, through its transportation, through its burning or through its waste.

A short video was made of highlights of the event, but the entire rally can be viewed here.

As a part of this rally, several people shared their own stories about how the extraction industry has affected their lives. In addition, one couple was prepared to tell their story but were not able to due in part to time constraints. Here are their stories.  In part 2 of this series, coming soon, I will share what led me to participate in the rally and to begin to advocate for environmental justice.

David Miller, from Appalachian West Virginia
Jeff and Sharman Chapman Crane, from Appalachian Kentucky
Kathy Little, from Louisville, KY
Eboni Cochran, from Louisville, KY

David Miller from Appalachian West Virginia
My name is David Miller, and my family has been in WV a long time. In fact, we don’t really know how long. As far back as anyone can remember, the mountains have been our home. Here generations of my family have lived and worked, died and been buried. And some of those mountains aren’t there anymore. They’ve been blown apart. Decapitated. Ripped open to get at the coal inside that powers America’s electric gluttony.

I said we were buried in those mountains. Were. Many of the old graveyards are gone. Blown away. Where are my ancestors now? How can this happen and no one say anything? But it’s not just the dead we are destroying.

All that mountain goes somewhere. Much of the rubble is bulldozed into nearby valleys and creek beds, destroying them. Some of it is shoveled down into old abandoned mine shafts, where it leaks into the aquifers and into the wells that many families have relied on for generations.

Marie shows me pictures of the red liquid that pours from her faucets these days. It stains the sink brown. She says when she first saw the filth come out of her faucet, she thought of the verse from Revelation: “And the rivers turned to blood.” And it’s not a metaphor, when you think about it. In that blood-red cancer-causing brack is all that’s left of my ancestors. Their bones and ashes now mixed with this foulness that passes for water.

My grandfather, my PaPa, told me when I was very small, “Boy, never never NEVER believe anything the boss tells you. The company is NEVER your friend!” He used to tell stories of the many races and ethnic groups in the camps. Immigrants from all over Europe. Ireland, Italy, Hungary. African-Americans. Poor whites. Under the ground, he’d say, “We’re all black,” but above ground all the groups were in separate parts of the camp. They didn’t speak to each other. Papa said it was the company that spread the stories and rumors that kept everyone afraid of each other.

And they still do. They still pit us against each other. MTR (mountain top removal) means companies can make more profit with less labor. The lay-offs have been devastating. But the company convinces these communities that all the layoffs are the fault of environmentalists blocking mining permits, and so fear pits neighbor against neighbor, and as we fight each other the profits keep going up for the bosses.

There is a very popular bumper sticker where I live: “If you hate coal, then live in the dark.” There’s a truth and a lie here. The truth is that literally every time you flip a light switch or charge your smart phone you benefit from what happens in my mountains. You are bound up with the results of MTR just like I am. The company is banking on you not paying attention. Because the lie of the bumper sticker is that without the coal companies, everything would stay in the dark. There are other ways to get power – ways that don’t pit us against each other, don’t pit us against the mountains. Today, here and now, we are turning the light.

Jeff & Sharman Chapman Crane from Appalachian Kentucky
The first sounds you hear are the machines…the dozers, the end loaders, the massive dump trucks…Black Mountain being ravaged…The first shift change at the mine begins.

You take your asthma medicine, maybe your inhaler if the stress triggers an attack. You wake your son, who gets up coughing from the dust, or the smell of the water, or who knows what. You try not to think about long-term consequences.

You dress, start your routine…breakfast, vitamins, exercise. You wash the dishes, then brush your teeth, trying not to think about why the water is so cloudy and smells so bad.

You sit down to plan the day…a trip to town, work in the studio, mowing the grass. A college group to tour the gallery later…

You’re startled by the first explosion, which you feel before you hear it. The house shakes, the windows rattle…then the roar of the explosives and the cloud of dust. You remember the four-year old in Virginia, killed by a boulder crashing through his bedroom, or the people injured in Hazard when fly rock came through the roof of the Wal-Mart. You try not to think about it.

You work in the studio, and later you and your son begin the mowing. This time you hear the explosion before you feel it. You run toward the house as the valley fills with dust. Your eyes sting and your mouth and nose fill with grit. You make it inside, close all the doors and windows and wait for the dust to settle. The second shift change begins.

You start to town, passing your best friend’s house, and try not to think of how strained that friendship has become. You start across Pine Mountain, dreading the encounter with trucks loaded with 200,000 pounds of coal, and you hope the driver is not high on oxycontin, or driving too fast, or both. By grace you arrive safely and stop at the courthouse to get car tags. “Would you like a Friends of Coal tag, or maybe a Friends of Coal tee-shirt?” No thanks. Next stop, the bank, where the tellers all wear Coal Mining Our Future tee-shirts. You muse about the irony but keep it to yourself. As you head to Food City you read the sticker on the truck in front of you…”Save a Nation, Kill a President”. In the parking lot a dozen cars with Friends of Coal, Coal Keeps the Lights On, Coal Mining Our Future tags and stickers…then the pick-up with the fully equipped gun rack, and you hope the owner is not crazy enough to enact the message on his bumper “Save a Coal Miner, Shoot a Tree Hugger”.

You cook supper, eat, take a bath, trying not to think about the water. You go to the gallery. Dave Cooper brings a group of 20 students from Ohio and Harvard. You give a tour and tell your story. The students are inspired and think you’re courageous and heroic, but you know better. You do what you can. It’s not enough.

You settle in for the evening, a good book or maybe a video, nothing too serious, because you’re up to your neck in serious.

The night descends. You brush your teeth, trying not to think about why the water is so cloudy and smells so bad. You get into bed. The third shift change begins, miners going to and from work, one way in, one way out. They know who you are, they know where you stand, they know where you live.

You try not to think about it. But you do. You think about the veiled threats, the poisoned water and the contaminated air, your family’s health.

You think about friends…estranged, injured, sick or dead. You think about Black Mountain, the highest in Kentucky, its beauty and vibrancy lost forever. Forever.

When the traffic diminishes a quietness settles over the valley. You begin to drift to sleep, and the last sounds you hear are the machines…the dozers, the end loaders, the massive dump trucks.

Kathy Little from Louisville, KY
I am Kathy Little, a mom and grandmother, and a volunteer Cane Run community organizer with the Sierra Club. Louisville Residents for Power Plant justice encompasses both the Mill Creek and Cane Run communities in southwest Jefferson County. Our land and our water has been and continues to be poisoned by burning coal.

I wanted to briefly talk about impacted communities in Western Kentucky. The strip mines in Utica and Owensboro to name a few. The stories are eerily similar. Everything is compromised. The explosions, the dust, and then the second round of dust dodging the coal trucks down a path of destruction, of the air, water and the health of people in these communities. Much of this coal finds its way up the river to the power plants here in Jefferson County to be mixed in with coal that has been mined through mountaintop removal.

Both the Cane Run and Mill Creek power plants have high hazard ash dams on their campuses. They are 40 years old and according to LG&E it is undetermined whether or not an engineer was involved during construction. They are approximately 36 ft. deep and hold fly and bottom ash. They are close to schools, daycares and local communities. If they breach, our babies die. In the meantime, both spew toxic sludge into the Ohio River.

Clean Air is a basic right, except when you live within 100 yards of one of the oldest and filthiest power plants in the United States. At Cane Run we smell sulfur most days and it literally makes you sick. Fly ash from sludge plant malfunctions, and ash blowing off of a huge dry ash landfill crosses LG&E’s property line and finds its way into our communities. We see it floating in the air, it’s in the inside and outside of our homes it’ss the consistency of talc, and it tastes of sulfur. We clean with ammonia based product to get it off of our furniture. What we worry about most though, is the heavy metal particles that find their way into our children’s lungs.

What is this doing to their bodies in the long and short term – will they die young? Many in our communities suffer from asthma, immune system disorders, and rare cancers. Our local Air Pollution Control District cites and fines the power plant but nothing changes. Our communities are not protected from this environmental injustice. We are human witnesses to the devastation that burning coal brings to nearby communities. I have been fighting this fight for 5 years. Though Cane Run recently announced that they will be transitioning to natural gas 2016, I know that this just moves the problem elsewhere, and someone else’s children and grandchildren will be poisoned. It is not fair.

Eboni Cochran from Louisville, KY
I am Eboni Cochran and I am a member of the faith community here in Louisville. I am also a member of REACT, a group of residents who live near or at the fence line of a cluster of chemical facilities commonly referred to as Rubbertown. There are numerous neighborhoods in West and Southwest Louisville that are adjacent to Rubbertown. I live in one of those. The Chickasaw neighborhood is one with tons of green space, a tree-lined parkway that connects to other parkways, beautiful homes and residents who like most people, care about where they live. There is only one thing that keeps my neighborhood from being top notch. It has nothing to do with crime, it has nothing to do with litter, it has nothing to do with lack of sidewalks. It has EVERYTHING to do with Rubbertown. It has EVERYTHING to do with Rubbertown. A place that SHOULD be one of exploration for my son is one of restriction based on how bad the air is on any given day. A place where my son SHOULD be able to fish is one tainted with dioxin, commonly referred to as one of the most hazardous substances on Earth. The recent hydrochloric acid spill speaks volume as to how communities surrounding Rubbertown have no clue as to what will happen from day to day.

The chemical facilities that make up Rubbertown bombard our communities with toxic chemicals associated with many diseases and a lowered quality of life. These chemical facilities are some of the top fossil fuel users, many being responsible for some of the worst fossil fuel atrocities. We are being poisoned by chemical companies that demand cheap and dirty energy that in turn is making a huge impact on climate change.

So we cannot look at the issues we all face as separate. We cannot pit the environmentalists against the environmental justice folks. We cannot pit the workers against residents. We MUST come together as one if we are going to protect the land, the animals AND the people. We MUST begin to connect the dots so that our movements can gain more momentum in changing public policy and personal habits. Let’s make a commitment here today that we will do better at connecting the dots by going beyond our comfort zones and reaching out to others who are fighting for what is right.

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