Meeting with people impacted by extraction

Cross-posted at We Are Powershift

Organizing on a college campus is a unique experience, and one that differs in many ways from classic “community organizing.” As part of our listening tour, we had the opportunity to shadow an organizer from the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition (OVEC) and get a good sense of what environmental justice organizing looks like in a rural area.

On Saturday, we went to a small rural community with an OVEC organizer to meet with residents who had just received the results of water testing. The effort was spearheaded by one family, the Pierces,* after the coal company went door-to-door asking people to fill out a water quality survey. Suspicious that the company wanted this data without giving any background on why they wanted it for, the Pierces contacted OVEC, which was able to provide free well testing for the Pierces and 10 of their neighbors.

The Pierces were fortunate enough to have clean water, but the same was not true for some of their neighbors. Many had high levels of manganese and iron, but at levels that would be covered by a home filter. The most serious finding was that several families had arsenic levels in exceedance of EPA standards. We learned that arsenic poisoning is frequently misdiagnosed as Crohn’s disease, and two people within a block of each other had been diagnosed with Crohn’s in the last year. Many folks in the area have also lost somebody to cancer in recent years. The impact of the extraction industry is measured here in lives.

The community is literally surrounded by extractive industries. A mountaintop removal mine, a valley fill, a filled-in coal sludge pond, and two natural gas wells are all located within several miles, so it’s hard to say exactly which site is causing the groundwater contamination. Residents speculated, based on the dates when their water started to taste and smell unusual, that the recently drilled gas wells might be to blame. More water testing and a hydrological analysis of the area will be necessary to be sure.

 As we discussed this information with the families, the OVEC organizer was careful not to push his own views. He explained that folks with high arsenic levels should not be drinking their tap water, and volunteered that OVEC could help the community organize to get the city water line extended to their homes, but he didn’t aggressively connect the water quality to the nearby extraction sites. When asked what could have caused the pollution, he gave the facts—that arsenic contamination is correlated with industrial mining and drilling activity. He explained to us that at this stage, the most important thing is to respond to the community’s needs. Many folks have a conflicted view of extraction industry, and it could be alienating to come into town with a clear anti-corporate agenda. For now, helping the community organize to improve its water is an achievable goal, and will hopefully lead to greater engagement with OVEC’s political initiatives in the future.

The next steps in this community are to confirm the test results with a second sample, and then decide what course of action to take. Organizing to get a water line put in is a likely option. Additionally, once the source of contamination is definitively identified, the community may decide to sue the responsible company.

Many of us in the fossil-fuel divestment movement wish for a fundamental economic transformation. We want a sustainable economy in which people, not corporations, assert control over their own lives. While we hold these aspirations, it is important not to lose sight of the all-important work that is happening to meet people’s immediate needs—for clean water, good health, and economic stability. The key to OVEC’s work is that it helps meet people’s needs, but it isn’t charity. OVEC empowers communities to realize their own political power, and in doing so diminish that of corporations and politicians.

As OVEC and other grassroots groups confront corporate power from below, we can leverage the institutional power of our universities to cut off corporate funds. All the parts of the movement can work together, as long as we acknowledge and listen to each other.

**Names have been changed to respect people’s privacy**

Working for a Sustainable Economy in Southern W.V.

Cross-posted from We Are Powershift.

This is the first of several blog posts that we’ll be filing along the Divest Coal Frontlines Listening Tour. We’ve been on the road for several days now, but Internet access has been sporadic, so sorry for not updating more frequently. We’ll try to do better!

We’ve spent the last two days with folks from Coal River Mountain Watch, a grassroots group located in the Coal River valley in southern West Virginia. CRMW has a variety of projects to empower communities fighting mountaintop removal, improve material conditions, and advocate for community-centered economic transition.

The last goal, a post-coal economic transition, is more relevant than ever, thanks to the dramatic decline in the coal industry over the last six months. The decline in coal production is a complex issue for CRMW for several reasons. We had a conversation with CRMW activists about how CRMW has been adapting to these developments. I want to highlight some what we talked about, in no particular order.

  • This is not the end of coal in West Virginia. Coal is certainly on the decline, but predictions of coal’s imminent demise have been overblown. West Virginia produced approximately 130 million tons of coal in 2011. Federal projections indicate that the total will remain over 100 million tons for the next several years, and then level out slightly below that. These projections, if realized, mean decades more of poisoned water and air for West Virginians. Organizers with CRMW say that news coverage of coal’s decline has led some folks to believe that the fight is over, and their energy is no longer needed. This couldn’t be farther from the truth.
  • The coal industry has been shutting down a roughly equal number of underground and MTR coal mines. This is somewhat unexpected, because underground mines are less profitable than MTR (because companies need to hire more workers, something they are loathe to do, despite their rhetoric of job creation). Organizers say it is partly due to the controversial nature of MTR, and increased legal barriers to permitting, that companies are closing MTR sites instead of exclusively shuttering the less profitable underground mines.
  • The downturn in coal is mostly due to the increase in natural gas production from hydrofracking. Whether you’re concerned with water quality or climate change, fracking is no better than coal. Though Pennsylvania and New York have gotten the most attention for fracking, it is also happening in West Virginia. The switch from coal energy with natural gas, though beneficial for some communities in West Virginia, continues to affect others. It is ultimately a displacement of the problem, rather than a solution. This emphasizes the need for a transition to truly sustainable energy—something CRMW is advocating.
  • Organizers say that the coal industry’s retreat offers an opportunity to educate about a fact they have always known—that coal companies don’t actually care about West Virginia. Though the industry projects a message of goodwill and economic prosperity when coal prices are high, it is the first to pack up once the business becomes unprofitable. It is the community organizations that will remain, organizing for the health and prosperity of ordinary folks, long after the industry has left.

This conversation reminded us of the deep complexity of these issues. Even successes for the anti-MTR community bring a new set of challenges. There are no easy solutions, and nobody here has tried to sell us any. What is clear, though, is that community power is the common denominator of positive change, and community power is what Coal River Mountain Watch is working to build.

Divestment listening tour connects students and anti-coal activists

by Will Lawrence and Kate Aronoff
From Waging Nonviolence, July 18, 2012

Picture courtesy of We Are Powershift.

Students from Swarthmore and Earlham College will be traveling to Appalachia this week as part of the Divest Coal Frontlines Listening Tour, which is the latest effort in a broader campaign calling on all colleges and universities to divest from the largest and most destructive U.S.-based fossil fuel companies. Arriving in West Virginia in time for the Mountain Mobilization — a regional gathering July 25 through August 1 that will culminate in direct action on a proposed mine site — the tour is meant to facilitate collaboration by connecting the divestment campaigns with groups that have been organizing against mountaintop removal coal mining in Appalachia for the past several decades.

Mountaintop removal (MTR) is just what it sounds like — a process in which the tops of mountains are exploded to reveal the coal seams underneath. Anti-coal activist and lifelong West Virginia resident Larry Gibson describes the practice as “raising the dead, while burying the living.” This method is less labor-intensive, and thus more profitable to mining companies, than underground mining. In regions where it is practiced, MTR results in poisoned water, deadly health impacts and economically devastated communities.

Engagement with environmental issues is nothing new for many colleges. Student-led initiatives have driven down institutional energy consumption in the past 10 years, placed wind turbines on campuses and taken coal-fired power plants off of them. While these efforts continue, students across the country are turning to divestment as a new means to confront the coal, oil and gas industries. Campaigns are currently being waged at Swarthmore, Earlham, UNC-Chapel Hill, University of Illinois-Urbana-Champaign, Cornell and Colby, with another six campuses planning to join in the fall.

In forming relationships with organizations on the frontlines of the struggle against MTR, students hope to more effectively act in solidarity with these groups and weave divestment, both symbolically and materially, into an ecology of resistance against the fossil fuel industry. Although it may be just a small part of the ongoing movement for climate justice, college divestment campaigns add a new element of strategy to the work being done to combat climate change.

By asking for divestment, students implicate universities in the destructive practices of the global economy, calling into question their positions as actors in an increasingly myopic financial industry. Like the corporations they invest in, university finance managers look for returns on a quarterly, not long-term basis. Such thinking paints coal, oil and natural gas as sound investments based on solid short-term financial returns, while failing to consider their negative long-term returns: poisoned watersheds, toxic ecosystems and devastated communities.

Divestment also carries a symbolic weight that challenges us to reconsider fossil fuel extraction and climate change as human rights issues. For many, the word divestment brings to mind the mass movement to divest from South African apartheid in the 1970s and 80s. More recently, divestment campaigns have drawn attention to human rights crises in Sudan and Palestine, as well as workplaces in the U.S. Calling for divestment from fossil fuels inevitably highlights these connections, and creates an opening to talk about the ways that climate change disproportionately affects poor communities, women and communities of color. Furthermore, it places the blame for the economic violence of climate change squarely on the companies that fuel it, rather than on those consumers who can’t afford to “buy green.”

Even though no schools have committed to coal or fossil fuel divestment yet, students say divestment campaigns have already proven effective as an educational device. “One year into our campaign, mountaintop removal has become a pressing issue at Swarthmore,” said student organizer Ali Roseberry-Polier. “It keeps coming up in unrelated contexts. For example, a professor made MTR the central moral issue in his Baccalaureate speech. This would not have happened before our campaign.”

History shows that ambitious campaigns can have a ripple effect beyond their immediate goals. For instance, many credit the noise and heat generated by apartheid divestment campaigns as a major factor spurring the U.S. government to apply sanctions to South Africa. “Even though our ultimate goal is to win divestment,” Roseberry-Polier explained, “we count increased awareness as a success, because it builds support for the movement that’s happening in Appalachia and other frontline communities.”

This is not to suggest that the goal of divestment is merely about raising awareness. Taking university money out of fossil fuels has the potential to morally and economically taint the dirty energy sector in the world of finance. Fossil fuel divestment from colleges like UNC and Cornell, whose endowments alone account for $7.5 billion, will send a message to not just the companies they’re divesting from, but to the investment firms who manage their holdings — firms that also handle the investments of other large institutional investors. Beyond sanctioning extraction, divesting can begin to correct to the feckless nature of finance culture, both inside and outside of the university.

With the fossil fuel divestment movement still in its fledgling stages, much more organizing, agitation and direct action will be necessary to overcome the inertia of university finance. The Listening Tour is the next step in that progression, helping student activists build connections within the environmental justice movement and further draw attention to the complex ties that enable environmental destruction. By doing so, they may yet succeed in building a similarly complex resistance.

Climate Change and Extreme Weather

DEMOCRACY NOW Special on Extreme Weather

Storify – Democracy Now on Extreme Weather