Branch Out Alternative Breaks

Creating a community of active & educated individuals dedicated to the pursuit of social justice

Mountaintop Removal and Appalachian Justice

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I think it’s difficult to grasp the magnitude of social and environmental problems without actually witnessing them firsthand. Through Branch Out I was granted the opportunity to learn about mountaintop removal firsthand in Appalachia Virginia. Before the trip, my branch out team spent time learning about misconceptions and stereotypes of the Appalachian community as well as the devastation done by mountaintop removal (MTR) on the earth and the people. This wasn’t enough to fully appreciate the multi-dimensional and thickly complicated problem of MTR.

After spending 9 hours in a van with a spirited group of W&M students who had nothing better to do than head to Southwest VA for their spring break, we reached what I would fondly call a well-loved YMCA-style building. In other words, it was a little run down.

We spent the week ‘roughing it’ sleeping in the basketball court, eating communally made vegetarian dishes, and meeting throughout the day to learn non-violent methods of protesting as well as the issues created by MTR. We quickly bonded with other students who came as far away as Vermont and Florida—they drove, which is insane to me—and came to know the facilitators of the camp as they taught us how to organize campus events and what to do if a police officer comes up to you during a protest.  There were community service events as well—although they filled up quickly—as well as visits to town and most memorably an actual mountaintop removal site.

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That brings me to MTR. Seeing an MTR site in person is profoundly different than seeing a picture. The desolate moonscape that interrupts the lush Appalachian mountains is jarring and unspeakably ugly. This form of coal mining is particularly destructive in more ways than just being explosive. The process itself is done by literally blowing up mountains in layers to reach coal—think of a layered cake, rock then coal then rock then coal. The useless rock is then shoveled off by monstrosities of machines into the valleys and to then smother streams. The coal is collected then shipped to a processing plant. So far 500 mountains have been entirely leveled

This process decimates the biodiversity in Appalachia, which is considered a temperate rainforest very rich in species. The companies are technically responsible for returning the mountain to its previous glory—which is stupidly impossible, let’s be real—but vegetation other than grasses can’t grow because there is no top or middle soil to support growth. The dust from the blasts gives Appalachian residents near these sites a much higher risk for respiratory diseases.   The chemicals used seep into the ground to contaminate the locals’ wells and make streams unusable for fauna.  Most shockingly, according to Appalachian Voices, an activist group in the area, residents who live near sites are 42% more likely to be born with birth defects than other Appalachians. There are a whole host of other horrifying effects associated with MTR and they can be found at ilovemountains.org, which is run by the Appalachian Voices folks.

The entire experience was more eye-opening than any classroom could ever hope to be. Actually talking to individuals and families who were so strongly impacted by this—all so that we can burn coal to charge our iPhones and watch Netflix—was deeply moving. It seems as though most environmental movements and issues are on such a grand scale. Climate change, melting ice caps, carbon dioxide. How do we address these things? Are they really impacting my life? These are much easier questions to answer when dealing with MTR. We address MTR by protesting, loudly, and pushing legislation through Congress to actually regulate this kind of mining and hopefully someday make it entirely illegal. We address it by encouraging the use of green energy, particularly in Appalachia, to help the people living there break free of the coal company’s shackles. We address it by using less electricity in our own homes.

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The situation is bleak. But there is hope. I am incredibly lucky to have had this experience and see how passionately people in Appalachia are fighting, and be encouraged to fight and spread the word too.

Author: Melody Porter

Hello blogosphere! While I am a relative newcomer to you, I am a long-time fan of human connection. I used to say that my major in college (above my actual political science & religion double major) was in friendships. Conversations over long meals or late nights on dorm hallway floors have been transformative in my life, and it only makes sense to me to dip my toe into new ways of opening up conversation here. Some details about my life and role at W&M: I have worked at William and Mary since August 2008, and am Associate Director in the Office of Community Engagement. I spend my time fostering student leadership in the broad areas of alternative breaks and local anti-poverty initiatives. Doing so lets me fulfill what I understand my calling to be about: working for social justice in the world, and equipping others to do so with skill, sensitivity and great love. And my pre-W&M life... I earned my Bachelor of Arts in Political Science and Religion from Emory University in 1995. After graduating, I decided to get further into the world of community development and service. I served as a long-term volunteer for three years, beginning a job development program in Philadelphia and working with preschool children in Johannesburg, South Africa. I came back to Emory to earn a Master of Divinity from the Candler School of Theology in 2001, with a focus in religious education. I spent a frenetic and exciting year working four jobs - from TA'ing a preaching class with Tom Long, to catering barbecue, to managing a nonprofit family literacy program with immigrant and refugee families. I went on from there to be Associate Minister at First United Methodist Church of Germantown in Philadelphia, working in areas of social justice and community development, and directing an after school program that served more than 100 high school students. Finally, it was one more stop at Emory - where I served for three years as director of Volunteer Emory, a student-led department for community service. Through all of my professional and volunteer experiences, and life in general, I have seen how connected and interdependent people and communities are everywhere I believe in the power of mutual service to transform lives and create social change. I also love cheese fries.

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