Why Coal Divestment Matters: Reflections on the Mountain Justice Summit

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by Jocelyn Sawyer

Last weekend, I was fortunate to be one of five Earlham students who traveled to southern West Virginia to learn about mountaintop removal coal mining (MTR) at the Mountain Justice fall summit.  It’s been almost a year that I’ve been working with the REInvestment campaign and nearly two since I first learned about MTR, but in all that time, I had never seen a mine site with my own eyes until last weekend.

I am well-versed in the mechanics of MTR, the most aggressive and destructive form of coal extraction: mountain tops are blown up with dynamite to expose the coal seams below, and the rubble that was formerly known as the top 200-800 feet of the mountain is dumped into the neighboring valleys, burying and polluting streams.  Vital water sources are contaminated with carcinogenic chemicals, foundations of homes are cracked by explosions – these are consequences and terminologies in which I am also well-versed.  But to know abstractly is not to experience, and a visit to a mine site was long overdue for me.

548978_4845535615943_1983323521_nBut I wanted more than just to see a mine.  What I was really hoping for out of the summit trip was the chance to meet people in these frontline communities who are living MTR and fighting it, to hear their stories.  I had the opportunity to do both.  The summit was informative about MTR, surely, and the visit to the site was devastating – but the stories I heard made the strongest impact on me.  Just as no photo could ever accurately depict the tragic, shocking nothingness that a mountaintop leaves when it’s been blown to bits, no words could honestly portray the pain and the fury of the woman who allowed us visitors to tour her family’s land.  Her narrative of life in her frontline community – where cancer is rampant and even the dead are disrupted by MTR blasts that tear apart mountain cemeteries – is not one I will quickly forget.

While at the summit, I had the honor of meeting Adam Hall, a young Iraq veteran and anti-MTR activist who came to speak at Earlham two days later. At Earlham, Adam told again his story – one which, he stressed, is the story of thousands from Appalachia. Adam warned his audience that we would be left with two choices after hearing what he had to say: we could feel sad, or we could get angry and start asking ourselves what we can do to help.

I, for one, am angry – and what I’ve chosen to do about it is to work on the REInvestment campaign.

I’ve always felt that divestment is about more than just Earlham and our finances, our reputation. Now I know more clearly than ever that REInvestment is a solidarity campaign. By asking divesting from coal, we would be supporting those in Appalachia for whom MTR is an ever-present reality. I want to stand with them as they take a stand against the destruction plaguing their mountains.

I want Earlham to stop supporting this destruction, and I want it more than ever now after having been there.

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