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June 19, 2013

Strong Grassroots Activism Helps Defeat Mountaintop Removal Scheme in Virginia


Even in coal country, Big Coal is being met with grassroots resistance it hasn't experienced before.

Last week, the Virginia Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy (DMME) upheld an earlier decision to deny a permit for a mountaintop-removal mine on Ison Rock Ridge in Wise County in southwest Virginia after an appeal by the A&G Coal Corporation. The opposition was led by activists from the Southern Appalachian Mountain Stewards (SAMS) and the Sierra Club, and residents fed up with the destruction and devastating health effects from mountaintop-removal mining.

"I'm so pleased to finally see the DMME stand up for the people they are supposed to represent," said Sam Broach, president of SAMS. "The people living in the areas affected by surface mining can sleep well tonight knowing that the mountains above them won’t be blown up, and the air they breathe will be a little bit cleaner. This courageous decision will save our waterways, too."


The permit would have threatened to decimate nearby Callahan Creek -- already considered legally impaired by pollution -- and affect the health of families in the area. Nearly two dozen peer-reviewed studies have confirmed high rates of cancer, birth defects, and heart and lung diseases in people who live near mountaintop-removal sites -- a fact ignored by Big Coal. 

"This is the best decision for our community, and the best news for the town of Appalachia in a long time," said local resident Adam Hooper. "No one should be asked to sacrifice their health, water quality, and the beauty of their surroundings for a handful of temporary jobs. It’s time to start rebuilding our economy around our state’s natural beauty in a way that is both useful and sustainable."


For years, residents have urged the EPA and the state to deny the permit. In 2011, hundreds of Virginians rallied in front of EPA’s headquarters in Washington, D.C. At the rally, SAMS Vice President Jane Branham said, "We're fighting to protect our homes and our families. The state has given A&G Coal permission to blow up our mountain and poison our streams. We're gathered today to send the EPA the message that we need them to intervene. The risks are too serious."

Since then, the state had become increasingly concerned with Southern Coal -- the company that owns A&G -- and its dubious record. During the permitting process, the company was asked to resolve at least four outstanding mine permit violations in Kentucky, West Virginia, and Virginia.

"Coal executives already realize that Appalachian coal production is going down, and markets are drying up. Surface mines like those operated by A&G have already taken too high a toll. It's time our leaders woke up to what’s happening, and get behind efforts to build a sustainable economy in the coalfields. Until that day, community activists will stand up to protect the mountains, our homes, and our lives," said Marley Green, a Sierra Club organizer based in Wise County.

"We are thrilled to be working with Southern Appalachian Mountain Stewards, a group of local residents who have fought tirelessly and courageously to protect spectacular Ison Rock Ridge and their community from the horrors of mountaintop removal mining," said Aaron Isherwood, a Sierra Club attorney who works closely on Appalachia issues. "The DMME's decision to deny the permit is a powerful example of how local residents working together can take on the powerful coal industry and win -- even in the heart of coal country!"

Congratulations to the families of Virginia for this hard-fought victory!

-- Brian Foley


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