Image RemovedResidents of West Virginia, Virginia, Kentucky, and Tennessee—states directly impacted by mountaintop removal coal mining—led  Appalachia Rising in Washington, D.C. Photo by Yassine El Mansouri

Yesterday, 114 people were arrested outside the White House during a protest of mountaintop removal coal mining, a legal mining practice that involves blowing up the tops of mountains to get to the coal reserves within them. James Hansen, the NASA climate scientist who warned in 2006 that we have 10 years to take decisive action to avert catastrophic global warming, was among those arrested, as was veteran activist Reverend Billy of the Church of Life After Shopping. But so were dozens of ordinary Appalachian residents, including current and former coal miners—people who don’t have a history of protesting, but who are now taking a stand for a different kind of economy, built on more stable industries that don’t threaten their health and homes.

They came from West Virginia, Virginia, Kentucky, and Tennessee, and called the event “Appalachia Rising.”

“Being arrested? That’s such a small price to pay for being heard,” said Mickey McCoy, former mayor and lifelong resident of Inez, Kentucky, who started opposing mountaintop removal (or MTR) when the creeks by his house ran black following a breach in a nearby sludge dam in 2000. “My home and people are paying the real price for mountaintop removal. They are dying.”

Image RemovedScarred mountain near Rawl, West Virginia. Largely hidden from most Americans, a highly destructive form of coal mining called mountaintop removal has devastated 1 million acres in the central and southern Appalachian Mountains. People across America use electricity that is at least partially generated by mountaintop removal coal, but it is a small amount that could easily come from cleaner sources of energy. © Kent Kessinger. Appalachian Voices flight courtesy of Southwings.

The movement to stop mountaintop removal has long stressed the practice’s impact on human and environmental health: groundwater polluted with toxic mining waste; increased rates of emphysema, kidney disease, and premature death; and of course, the destroyed mountains themselves, which look like massive scars on the forest. Proponents of the practice typically point to the key role that mining still plays in depressed regional economies, and ask what would replace it.

But more and more, those fighting to stop MTR are the ones who bring up economics.

Far from enjoying unique access to jobs and security, “areas with especially heavy mining have the highest unemployment rates in the region,” according to researcher Michael Hendryx. The number of Americans employed by coal mining has been decreasing steadily since the ’80s (there are more than 60 percent fewer coal mining jobs now than in 1980). Meanwhile, jobs in renewable energy are on the rise; wind power jobs surpassed coal mining jobs for the first time in 2008.

“The message for the White House and for Congress was simple,” said JW Randolph, a Tennessee native and an advocate with Appalachian Voices, a grassroots organization that opposes MTR mining: “Stop mountaintop removal and let us bring economic diversification to Appalachia.”

Mountaintop removal, Randolph continued, “is keeping an entire region poor. It has meant a direct loss of tens of thousands of coal mining jobs in the region, and is 100 percent directly correlated with high unemployment, high poverty, and low economic diversification. We agree that Appalachia needs jobs, but we can create jobs without poisoning our communities. According to the Appalachian Regional Commission, we could create 15,000 jobs a year for the first five years by investing in energy efficiency.”

“Mountaintop removal is keeping an entire region poor.”

That message made me think about last summer, when a coal mining protest of a different sort was making headlines: Miners from West Virginia (encouraged by the coal companies they worked for) had announced that they’d boycott vacations to Tennessee (my home state) because Senator Lamar Alexander had introduced a bill that would limit mountaintop removal coal mining. No trips to Gatlinburg, the Great Smoky Mountains, or the Grand Ole Opry. Two coal companies even canceled company picnics in Dollywood, Dolly Parton’s Appalachian-themed amusement park.

In a region that’s known repeated hard times when key industries declined (think tobacco, cotton, lumber…), it’s easy to understand the desire to protect the status quo—even when that status quo is an industry that doesn’t provide the livelihood it used to, not to mention endangers its workers and their neighbors. The boycott, however, seemed more than a touch ironic: To protect a dwindling industry with a limited future (a study released earlier this year found that central Appalachian coal production last peaked in 1997 and will continue to decline), it targeted one that’s both stronger and more lucrative. In West Virginia, coal brings the state $600 million in revenues each year (though a recent study [pdf] found that much of that is then spent on coal subsidies and coal-related health care). Meanwhile, tourism—much of it driven by the still-intact mountains of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the most visited national park in the nation—brings Tennessee $1.2 billion in annual sales tax revenue alone.

Of course, tourism is just one industry that depends on an end to MTR. In West Virginia’s Coal River Valley, residents are pushing for a wind farm that they say will bring more jobs—not to mention higher paying, more secure ones—than mining. But blasting for an MTR coal mine has already begun on the mountain ridges that would support the turbines.

Today, Randolph is visiting Congressional offices alongside impacted coalfield residents, asking for help passing protecting their mountains and finding more secure jobs. What does it mean, I asked him, to say that Appalachia is rising? As coal’s economic power wanes, he answered, so does its political power—leaving a vacuum for the residents of Appalachia to fill. “The political clout of the coal industry has long outlasted its ability to provide job growth or sustainable economic development for the Appalachian region,” he said. “Just like the coal, that power is going away.”

And Appalachians are rising to take its place—in a more diverse, stable, and less destructive economy.

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Brooke Jarvis wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions. Brooke is YES! Magazine’s web editor. She grew up in east Tennessee, in mountains that have so far been spared MTR.