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Know Nukes Y'All Summit

Learn about all aspects of nuclear energy and network with activists by attending the Know Nukes Y’All Summit in Chattanooga, TN from June 28th to 30th.  National experts, such as David Freeman and Dave Lochbaum, will be speaking at this Southern regional grassroots gathering.  The event is sponsored by 15 national and regional groups.  To register ($40 including meals), go to knownukesyallsummit.org or call 828-252-8409.

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Backyard Talk

Reflection on Women's Stories from the MTR and Climate Change Tribunal

Re-post of an article worth reading about the effects of Mountain Top Removal of coal.

Rebecca Barnes-Davies, Presbyterian Church Eco Justice

Reflections and words from my trip to Charleston, WV for the Central Appalachian Women’s Tribunal on Climate Justice

The Central Appalachian Women’s Tribunal on Climate Justice on May 10, 2012 was a powerful and meaningful event of local women lifting up their voices and engaging in action to protect the health and integrity of their families, their communities, and their land. I was honored and energized to be in this gathering of powerful grassroots advocates who are working hard to take care of the things they love. The speakers and leaders of this event were local residents who shared their personal stories of witnessing to the devastating effects of Mountaintop Removal (MTR) Coal Mining in their homeland of Appalachia. Some of these local women have won prestigious awards, gained national recognition, and/or been interviewed in documentaries for their great efforts. They come from a four state area: TN, WV, VA, and KY.

These women’s lives have been drastically impacted by MTR and I was convicted and inspired by their stories. Hearing their testimonies, I am ever more committed to continue to pray and work for an end to the destructive practice of MTR that is damaging this part of God’s creation. I hope you will join me in these efforts, both from reading these glimpses of local residents’ stories and from knowing our biblical, theological, and denomination mandate to care for God’s creation.

People of faith have every reason to engage this struggle as a core part of their Christian vocation and identity. As Presbyterian Church USA policy from 1990 says, “God’s work in creation is too wonderful, too ancient, too beautiful, too good to be desecrated.” God’s work in the mountains of the southeastern United States is: the work of these powerful women, this vital stand against MTR, and the beauty and health of Appalachian communities.

This gathering last week was one in a series of global tribunals that help to lift up the particular vulnerability of women to, and strength in the face of, climate change. These tribunals have given voice and recognition to women who live all around the world and are fighting for justice in their environment. Reflections from this Appalachian tribunal will go to the “Rio+20” United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development this June 20-22, 2012 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. I will be at the Earth Summit as part of the World Council of Churches delegation, and will be sharing with Presbyterians and others back home my sense of the developments there. This local Women’s Tribunal was a great first step to this important global conference and will influence my participation there.

Nearly twenty women shared their personal stories, testimonies, ideas, and demands related to Mountaintop Removal Coal Mining. While nothing can replace being in person to hear someone’s story, here are some of the words and stories I took away with me from local residents that I want to share with you. I cannot verify that my hand-written notes captured exact quotations, so although I will represent them (for clarity) in quotation marks, this is my disclaimer that the actual wording may have been slightly different!

“It’s not possible to destroy our mountains without destroying us. It’s not possible to poison our streams without poisoning our children….For all the voices you hear today, remember there are others who have been silenced or intimidated.” From a woman who can remember watching the blasting on the mountains from her bedroom window since she was 5 years old.

A 25 year old woman, who knows that the legacy of environmental degradation in her mountains is to “stunt Applachians’ health before they’re even born,” wants MTR stopped because she desires that it be “safe to birth my future children in my homeland…living where our families have lived for generations.” Knowing that in Appalachia “we need healthy babies for a bigger, brighter future,” she argues that we must undo the “shackles around our good health.”

A nurse takes note of “strange and serious illnesses” in her home territory (after going away for nursing training and then coming back home). She was particularly stunned by an extremely rare illness that took the life of her cousin (an illness with which only 20,000 people have ever been diagnosed) that is now the diagnosis for another person in her community and one more nearby. She says there is not one home located near coal mines that has been untouched by serious illness.

A woman whose 12 year old daughter lost a classmate to cancer—the same daughter having severe sinus troubles because of MTR (including the membrane in her nostrils being cut by the lose rock dust the family had to breathe)—shared her anger that her daughter’s health was being sacrificed to the energy demands of cheap coal in this country. This woman’s family stayed sick the entire time they were blowing up the mountain above their home. To add insult to energy, the reports from the coal company discounted the health disparities in these communities affected by MTR coal mining because the case studies didn’t take into account “consanguinity” (in-breeding)! (If anyone is looking for an example of environmental justice (i.e. environmental racism and classism), here it is! Outrageous!)

Coming from a family that has been in coal mining for generations, one woman shared that in her 20 year saga of trying to protect her land, it has been an ongoing battle that takes a ton of work, and unfortunately “people here are frightened of the industry.” In many families, people worry “they’ll take my pension…burn down my house” and she shrugs as she speaks, knowing their fears are realistic and part of the fabric of this struggle. She has fought long and hard, pushing politicians who often won’t do anything, which she recognizes is because “it is political suicide to try to do anything” against coal in this part of the country. Yet she has hope, even as there’s another round of fighting ahead (the coal company has yet again filed permits for the land near her home, permits that have been denied multiple times). She smiles and says, “Get all these ladies together and do what women do and that’s win the battles!”

Another woman whose male relations are all in coal mining, and who herself was a stay-at-home mom, shared her story about being “thrust” into this movement by the coal company itself. How could she have a choice when this MTR coal mining “can turn lungs into concrete,” and when constantly “babies are wakened by noise” and when a toddler in his bed was crushed by a boulder falling into his house from the mountaintop above? Sludge gets into the water. She declares, this is “equivalent to a war zone.” She wants her children to know that they have choices. So when her legislator, agreeing with her in principal but nervous to take action says “we have an awful lot of coal” she retorts “we also have a lot of sun and air.” She is clear that “they mine coal where we live, not we live where they mine coal.” Families and communities come first. And, besides, “Nothing else matters if we can’t breathe the air and drink the water.”

Telling a story about an old preacher who laid a dollar over the scripture selection about it being hard for a rich person to get to heaven (and then asking someone who wasn’t seeing the point, “well, can you see it now?!”) another woman focused on following the money in this debate. She has seen the medical expenses in her community, the cost of roads (driven on by too-heavy coal trucks) go into the creeks, the flooding in her community and wants these economic costs to be part of the discussion. When people talk about the economic boon of coal mining, do they consider these things that matter to local residents?

When discussing the effects that MTR coal mining has on the local community, one woman shares that the coal mines “after they ruin your community and quality of life, then they come in and offer money to buy you out.” She has seen 30 communities dry up and disappear in her 44 years of living in the area. She says “you can’t have Mountaintop Removal and communities…it’s one or the other.”

Another woman talks about the chemicals in water, air, and land. One family reportedly has a continuous flame in their well because of the explosive methane that seeped into their water supply from mining. Birds and fish are dying, she explained, and property values plummet because homes are covered in coal dust. Mountain ginseng and mountain flowers are buried. Family cemeteries are sometimes made inaccessible because of coal mining. One cemetery was pushed over by a bulldozer. All of these things break the sense local residents have of belonging to the land.

A woman who started standing up to the coal company in her town started explaining how the fabric of community is torn by the coal company: “fear.” If her truck was in her neighbors’ driveway, her neighbors got in trouble for associating with her. She lost her best friend. She stopped being asked to serve on volunteer organizations because the coal company wouldn’t give donations to any local organizations that activists, like her, were a part of (even if they didn’t have anything to do with the struggle against coal mining). People were afraid and felt controlled, and they got alienated from each other.

The long-time custom of “porch sitting” is another example of how communities are harmed by coal mining, says another woman. You can’t sit on your porch with the huge trucks going by, coal dust spewing, she explained. MTR coal mining also reduces the labor pool, so that creates tension. Drug use has gone up, the more people get depressed and look for outlets to escape.

A “stubborn holler dweller” (as she was called by the EPA) stood up to the coal company in her area and received serious death threats. Encouraged to move to a hotel, she stood her ground. With a 6 ft chain link fence, security cameras, and attack dog, this local woman would “not be put out of my grandfather’s home,” even when people were caught sneaking into her property. It is her home and she has a right to stay there.

“Mom and Dad’s chimney was pulled away from the wall” and they “lost access to water” because of coal mining, another woman said. When her parents lost access, the coal company graciously brought a barrel of water over, pouring bleach in it when it was obviously full of things you could see floating around in it. This woman, not trusting anything, took a sample. Her sample showed the water was not fit to drink. This struggle sometimes is just “too hard… people decide to move.” Her parents stayed, but one huge blast and shaking of the house brought a heart attack to her Dad. A year later, after having been moved away, her Mom died “crying to go back home.” This woman tells us “I feel like an orphan…People have no idea what we go through.”

A local pastor reports that the local river isn’t one where you can put your feet in or catch fish from. “No baptisms in this river,” she says. Meanwhile the receiving chairs on her porch are covered in coal ash. The prayer concern list at church has “so many health problems.” She believes in the statement from Martin Luther King, Jr. that the church should be the headlights, but that in this case, the church is the taillights in standing up for the people in Appalachia against coal mining companies.

At first in denial over the devastation of MTR, having bought land and built a dream house, another local woman was forced to accept it when her well water turned bright orange. She shares resigned disbelief that the burden of proof was on her (and her pocketbook) to prove that it was the coal company’s fault. This was a “huge wake-up call,” she says. She quickly came to realize that many state officials have a kind of culture of “customer relations” with miners that they don’t have with residents. Meanwhile, she found that when she sampled her water, she had to send it 70 miles away (refrigerating it that whole time) because the company’s water tester will “switch your samples for tap water” so again, “the burden of proof is on me.”

These women are strong, wise, and courageous. I was honored to be in their presence and hope that you will join me in prayer and action to help them protect their homes. In addition to the strong stance that the Presbyterian Church USA has long taken—that low-income communities not be disproportionately impacted by negative environmental practices—in 2006 the PCUSA General Assembly approved a resolution to abandon the use of mountaintop removal coal mining. We believe that the earth is God’s, and all people and all parts of creation are to be valued, respected, and tended with care. I pray that we will indeed join our hearts, minds, and bodies to this faithful call and work for an end to MTR.

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Fracking Waste is Too Toxic For Niagara Falls

We’re not selling out future generations of our children for corporate greed.

This was a statement made by a Niagara Falls Council Chairman who at one time attended school in the Love Canal contaminated neighborhood.  It is refreshing to hear someone who has learned from our society’s past mistakes and takes steps to avoid the same problems in the future.

Niagara Falls has recently gone on record against treating wastewater from hydraulic fracturing, with elected officials saying they don’t want the city that endured the Love Canal toxic waste crisis to be a test case for the technology used in gas drilling operations.

The City Council also approved an ordinance Monday that prohibits natural gas extraction in Niagara Falls, as well as the “storage, transfer, treatment or disposal of natural gas exploration and production wastes.”

This does not mean that the Niagara Falls Water Board, who owns the treatment facility can’t agree to take the fracking waste, despite the city council decisions.  However, they would have to air lift the wastes in which would be costly, because the City will not allow it to be transferred or stored.

After celebrating this proactive and protective decision by the city council I realized that years ago a similar policy was passed in the city of New Bedford, MA.  In that situation the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA) wanted to place a portable incinerator near the shoreline and burn the PCB wastes that were going to be dredged from the harbor.

When the city said no and passed a similar policy, the USEPA said we can air lift the incinerator on to the site.  The city countered by saying they would refused to give them permits for water and electricity. The USEPA came back with, we’ll air lift the incinerator, a generator and water tanks.  This became a big scandal and EPA backed down.

The lesson here is — believe the unbelievable when it comes to greed at any costs.  The city of Niagara Falls needs to watch carefully to make sure that their proactive intentions of protecting public health and the environment are in fact accomplished.

As a former resident I have to say that I am proud of the recent decision and foresight the city has demonstrated. If only Ohio could see the problem in the same light. They’ve had earthquakes and other related problems with waste disposal already. When will they ever learn?

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Grassroots Environmental Groups Are The 98%

The environmental movement has spent the last five years trying to protect laws and regulation we have and stop the roll back efforts, while also moving new regulations and policies. However, we are failing. For example, millions of dollars were invested in Climate Change legislation and we failed to move any agenda forward. One reason, according to surveys and polling, is that the American people didn’t know what to do to make a difference (beyond changing their light bulbs) or didn’t see how the issues they cared about connected to climate change. A recent report, published by the National Committee for Responsible Philanthropy, provides some insights of why the average person might have had problems connecting the dots.

The report says, “The movement hasn’t won any “significant policy changes at the federal level in the United States since the 1980s” because funders have favored top-down elite strategies and have neglected to support a robust grassroots infrastructure. Environmental funders spent a whopping $10 billion between 2000 and 2009 but achieved relatively little because they failed to underwrite grassroots groups that are essential for any large-scale change.” Without resources to hold meeting that bring leaders together at the local level, provide training for media opportunities, learn how to develop a strategic plan or provide resources to join other organizations efforts, local organizations cannot sustain themselves nor move beyond the issue that brought them together.

Interestingly, according to the IRS filings, while less and less money is being provided to grassroots effort, grassroots environmental groups are emerging at more than twice the rate of other non profits sector.

More than half of all environmental grants and donations are given to 2% of all environmental groups all with budgets over $5 million. This 2% of really large groups receives more than 50% of all grants! This leaves 98% of environmental groups with less than half the available funds.

This is a serious problem. In movements throughout history, the core of leadership came from a nucleus of directly impacted or oppressed communities while also engaging a much broader range of justice-seeking supporters. In other words, successful movements for social change — anti-slavery, women’s suffrage, labor rights, and civil rights — have always been inspired, energized, and led by those most directly affected. Yet these are the very groups within the environmental movement that are starved for funds.

As the highly-successful right wing in the U.S. can tell you, social movements grow large and powerful only when they are served by a deep infrastructure of organizations offering technical assistance and know-how. Local groups need to be able to find each other, share strategies, develop leadership, communicate their message, identify allies, and gain a wide range of skills. Such an infrastructure requires sustained funding and without it no movement can succeed.

Clearly, CHEJ is not a funder but is an essential part of the infrastructure. In the report NCRP strongly supports infrastructure using CHEJ as one example. “CHEJ provides everything from technical assistance on local advocacy campaigns to small capacity building grants. By nurturing emerging groups and providing ongoing feedback and coaching for more seasoned organizations, while convening meetings and alliances for all groups to connect and work together, CHEJ helps till the soil and spread the nutrients in which grassroots organizing and movement building thrive.”

To create real systemic change somehow we need to figure out how to communicate with those distributing funds that there needs to be a balance. Yes the large groups are very important but in they are only as powerful as the base they represent and can advocate at the local level. All politics, all change are local. It’s not an issue of supporting  either the large groups or the grassroots groups. It is critical to support both with balanced or none of us succeed. My question to the network is how do we communicate this message? Ideas anyone?