by Adam Moskowitz
This piece also appeared in Taking Root, the Earlham College Sustainability Office blog.
Waking up in a tent with my feet tilted slightly downhill, alongside seven other Earlham students huddling for warmth, is a very different experience than waking up in my bedroom on the relatively flat College Avenue. Not to mention that when we stepped outside our tent, we found ourselves in the autumn-colored hills of southern West Virginia, surrounded by smells of wood smoke and a camp breakfast cooking.
Myself and twenty-four other Earlham students were at the Mountain Justice Fall Summit, an event held every year to educate and organize around mountaintop removal coal mining, or MTR. Nearly 130 people attended the event, which was hosted at the volunteer house of a community activist group called Coal River Mountain Watch. For many of us, it was the first time that we were about to see the coal extraction that powers industries and homes all over the US, but leaves entire mountaintops reduced to flat, rocky expanses.
Most of the workshops and discussions at the summit were not about the ecological impacts of this type of mining, how it contributes to climate change, or how it affects West Virginia’s plants and animals, as important as those topics are. Instead, we were hearing directly from community members who have felt the impacts of the coal industry on their health, their land, their access to clean air and water, and their access to safe jobs. The summit was held just down the road from the former site of Marsh Fork Elementary School, which until recently was sitting just underneath an enormous coal sludge impoundment. Enough coal is mined and processed in this part of the state that its toxic waste material had to be housed right next to an elementary school.
Unfortunately, MTR is such a widespread practice that it is almost impossible to use coal-fired energy without somehow being connected to the practice. You can find out if your town is powered by MTR with this website. Our home in Richmond is not powered directly by MTR coal, but it does buy coal from companies that engage in MTR.
While it was an intense and sometimes emotional weekend, it provided a bonding moment for all the Earlham students who attended, and re-energized us for the work that we do back on campus. Whether its working on environmental projects with Student Sustainability Corps, learning sustainable practices with the Earlham Environmental Action Coalition, or trying to cleanse the college’s endowment of coal with the Responsible Energy Investment campaign, we all had lots to learn from the Mountain Justice summit. And as Earlham students made up about a fifth of the attendees, I’m hoping that Earlham can have a presence of solidarity on the frontlines of coal extraction for years to come.