Rock Creek, WV — When the University of Michigan announced in April, 2012, that Maria Gunnoe, from Bob White, West Virginia, would be the 22nd recipient of the University of Michigan Wallenberg Medal, I made plans to attend the ceremony and public lecture she would deliver in Ann Arbor, MI.
Maria Gunnoe and Antrim Caskey after Gunnoe delivered the 22nd University of Michigan Wallenberg lecture in Ann Arbor, October
Maria Gunnoe has become one of the most powerful and effective voices in defense of the land and people of Appalachia. I first met Maria in New York City in May, 2005; she told me how Patriot Coal’s 1200-acre mountaintop removal site, in her backyard since 2000, had turned her life upside down. Three days later, I was at Maria Gunnoe’s home-place in Bob White, WV, to witness for myself.
Maria opened my eyes to the human and environmental costs of coal, particularly mountaintop removal coal mining.
Despite growing national awareness, he atrocities of mountaintop removal coal mining continues, 24/7. But over the past several years, a growing body of scientific studies has emerged, directly correlating severe human health costs to breathing the poisonous dust that comes off these sites.
Bo Webb and his neighbors have built a campaign around these health studies, more than twenty now that have been published in peer–reviewed journals. These studies tell us that a non-smoking pregnant woman who lives near a mountaintop removal site is 180% more likely to bear a baby with birth defects compared to a woman who smokes cigarettes during her pregnancy, but does not live underneath a mountaintop removal site.
Bo Webb and a small team have used the studies to educate our lawmakers over the past years. As a result, we have a bill in Congress that will end all new mountaintop removal coal mining, the Appalachian Community Health Emergency Act (ACHE), HR 5959. The ACHE team runs a bare-bones citizen lobbying campaign out of their Washington, DC-based office. Currently the ACHE Act has 27 sponsors, all Democrats.
“We want to approach the Republican side now. What better bill than the ACHE Act that the two sides can work together on. To show the American people. It saves lives and will save money,” said Bo Webb from his home in West Virginia. The ACHE team is planning a blitz on Washington, DC next week.
The first stop on our tour was Minneapolis, MN, where my dear friends Ariel and Jeff now reside with their two daughters.
We spoke to Ariel’s co-workers at Caldrea, as part of their monthly in-house education series,”Lunch and Learn.” We introduced them to Appalachian people directly affected by mountaintop removal coal mining — Maria, Ed, Judy, Larry, Bo and the places in West Virginia — Marsh Fork, Kayford, Rock Creek, and Bob White where they lived. Afterwards, almost everyone took a copy of Dragline. Some spoke up during the talk and described how surface mining has marred their local landscapes. We told them about the ACHE Act when they asked, “What can we do?”
Our next stop: Madison, WI, where my godfather Doug Moore is the current interim minister at the First Congregational Church, an historically progressive congregation, knew hardly anything about mountaintop removal coal mining.
On Friday, October 19, the church hosted a potluck dinner, a screening of The Last Mountain, and a Q&A afterwards. At Sunday’s service, we brought our message and the cries for help from West Virginia into the church.
I was invited to deliver a homily. Doug’s sermon spoke of the actions around good stewardship to the land.
The most poignant part of the service was A Time With Children, when the children gather on the small steps below the alter. We decided to tell them the story of Marsh Fork Elementary because these were children of the same age. As we sat just a few feet from their inquiring eyes, their beautiful faces, I could not speak — staring into the future that lay before us. Fortunately, Doug took over, he told the story of the children of Marsh Fork Elementary.
Our next stop was Ann Arbor, Michigan, where Maria Gunnoe would deliver the 22nd University of Michigan Wallenberg Medal lecture. This event was the reason we were on tour, openly advocating for the end of mountaintop removal coal mining through passage of the Appalachian Community Health Emergency Act ( HR 5959).
After a welcome cocktail reception and dinner, we all sat in Rackham Hall, the favorite building of the whole campus I was told, and listened to the extraordinary introduction and story of Raoul Wallenberg, followed by Maria Gunnoe’s slide lecture, followed by questions from the audience of the University of Michigan community. Many students in the audience had been shown the powerful documentary, The Last Mountain, in a number of different classes in the days leading up to Maria’s visit. Some of them were fired up; propelled toward action by Maria’s testimony.
On the train to Washington, DC the day afterwards, Maria told me how over the six days she’d spent at University of Michigan, she had spoken to almost twenty different groups of students. She told me that she was using Dragline as a tool to help educate and activate the students and she told me how she gave them the latest tool that could end the atrocities of mountaintop removal coal mining, she told them all about the Appalachian Community Health Emergency (ACHE) ACT.
Most people I met in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan had not heard about the human health impact of mountaintop removal coal mining, but they were outraged and concerned to learn that citizens were breathing the dust that contains diesel fuel, ammonium nitrate, silica dust and coal dust. And that 5.5 million pounds of explosives are used every day in mountaintop removal coal mining — forcing citizens to breathe this poison every day.
We welcome our new friends of Appalachia Watch. Please join us in our fight. Visit the ACHE Team today: learn more, sign the petition, and ask your Congressperson to support the ACHE Act.
Our last stop was Washington, DC to give a TEDxtalk on October 27 as part of TEDx MidAtlantic 2012. The video podcast of my TEDx talk will be available soon.
Thank you as always for your interest and your support !