by Madeleine Boel

Mountaintop removal was not something I was aware of until I joined William & Mary’s Student Environmental Action Coalition (SEAC). Members of SEAC has been to Mountain Justice Spring Break, and told us about the devastations of mountaintop removal. This form of resource extraction blows the tops off of mountains to get to coal seams. It’s cheaper and less labor intensive than traditional mining, but way more destructive to the environment. When Branch Out and SEAC announced that there would be a Mountain Justice trip to Appalachia, Virginia, I knew I had to go and see this for myself.

My trip was made up with people with different experiences with environmental issues; some, like me, were Environmental Policy majors, but many others joined the trip in order to spend the week amongst mountains. As the week progressed, we bonded as we learned that mountaintop removal isn’t just a problem for the environment–it’s a problem for the vibrant community of Appalachia.

Organizers from the group Mountain Justice and community members highlighted the human issues that have to do with mountaintop removal. We learned about Appalachia’s long history of fighting against exploitative coal companies, and learned that many families have a proud history of mining. Faced with mountaintop removal, the community is conflicted as people are offered less permanent jobs and young people are leaving the area. Mountaintop removal also inflicts tragedy; several years ago a boulder loosened by mountaintop removal killed a child who was asleep in his bed. However, immediately expelling coal companies from Appalachia could create a vacuum of jobs in the community. Mountaintop removal is a many-faceted issue that goes beyond environmental concerns.

One of the most important things we learned on this trip is that the community is always the authority on what is best for the area. In my favorite workshop, we learned how to go door to door and do listening projects. These projects function to build trust and learn about the strengths of the community, as well what the local people would like to see change. As enthusiastic college students, we may have the energy and resources to aid a community. However, we do not have the knowledge of what would be best for it. Mountain Justice does these kind of projects to gain knowledge and figure out the best way to combat the side effects of mountaintop removal.

Another important part of the trip was the workshops on oppression and privilege. We learned that environmental movements have historically been most inclusive of white middle class people. When an environmental issue is on the agenda, it is also important to focus on social issues. Minority groups should be strongly represented in these movements; for example, the land of Native Americans has often been destroyed, and it is typically poorer communities that end up with contaminated water or the like. Realizing this, and trying to dispel oppression while working on a campaign, became a central topic of our trip.

As an environmental policy major, I spend a lot of time learning about environmental impacts and large non-profits. This trip highlighted the fountain of knowledge in impacted communities and the importance of recognizing intersectionality in all issues; it also taught me the power of listening skills that can be applied in a campaign and in daily conversations. I’m grateful that the organizers, community members, and other students on the trip were able to expand my knowledge and show me how to be a more gracious and aware person in fighting environmental issues.