I Used to Love the Smell of a Campfire

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Image from “How to Destroy a Forest Habitat

For the past few days, stepping outside, especially first thing in the morning, the scent of a wood burning fire is on the breeze through the hollow.  I know my neighbors aren’t burning anything and there isn’t anyone other than the Senior Ranger for Kanawha State Forest upwind of us.  He’s not burning anything either.

I suspect that the Keystone Development #2 coal mine has stared phase one and is clear cutting all the timber and burning it.  I can’t prove this without trespassing on mine land.  Or checking Google Earth and seeing if there is a recent satellite image.

Typically, they cut all of the trees and bulldoze them over the side (filling the valley/hollow) and set them on fire.  The wood is not sold for lumber, mulched to feed the topsoil during reclamation, or given away as free fuel for residents in the area who still heat with wood burning stoves.  It’s simply burned.

But I’m not sure what they are doing at KD#2.  You see, the permit doesn’t allow them to fill the hollows/valleys surrounding the permit area.  Of course, that doesn’t mean that they aren’t doing so.  Often, according to the research I’ve been doing, they do what they want and simply absorb the fines into the cost of the job.  The fines are so minimal that they are not a deterrent.  There are no cameras on the work site.  So unless an inspector just happens to stop up there, if they are bulldozing the trees over the side, no one will know.  Honestly makes me wish I had access to a drone with a camera.

We can put surveillance cameras in the workplace.  At traffic crossings.  On our ATM’s.  But not on the property of a mining permit that has some very specific restrictions.  This makes no sense to me.

None of this makes any sense to me.

It breaks my heart to even think about the destruction of the trees.  I’m reminded of Treebeard from “Lord of the Rings”:

Treebeard: [after seeing the torn-down forest around Isengard]
Many of these trees were my friends, creatures I had known from nut and acorn…
Pippin: I’m sorry Treebeard.
Treebeard: They had voices of their own…

 

 

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Riding the MTR Pendulum

Any time spent not focusing on educating people about Mountaintop Removal coal mining, or on canvassing our community, calling elected officials, writing here on my blog or attending meetings feels like guilty, stolen time.  No matter what I’m doing, my activity, my thoughts are interrupted by something else I need to do to stop this mine and save our home.  Just now, I stopped writing to send a quick email to our attorney.  Every day, all day, is like that.  I’m doing laundry and making phone calls.  It feels like I’m doing everything (I’m not).  It feels like it’s all up to me (it’s not).  It feels like no one else is helping (patently not true).  I can’t do enough.

Or, I do nothing.  Awash in hopelessness.  “I wonder if I’ll be able to open our windows to the bird song and the breeze this time next year.”  “I wonder if I’ll be able to drink our water.”  “I wonder if my spouse’s COPD will flair.”  “I wonder if my father-in-law’s Asbestosis will flair.” “What’s the point.  No one wins against coal.” “The mine complex is only five miles from the state capitol building – kind of says it all.”  “WHY DOES NO ONE CARE?”  Self-pity and despair.  I loathe it.

All of us, me, my spouse and my father-in-law had a conversation where we all admitted to feeling this way.  Up one minute, and not just down, but all the way down, the next.  We committed to not taking it out on each other.  To remember that we’re in this together.  We’re driving each other in this struggle and making allowances.

But we’re not stopping.

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WV DEP: Who do they protect?

ImageIf you go out to the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protections’ website, specifically the page for the Division of Mining and Reclamation, you will notice that it says “Our Mission” and then nothing.  No mission statement.  It’s difficult to determine exactly what they do.  I know that by law they approve, regulate, and inspect the surface mine permits.  But what, exactly, does that mean for our neighborhood?

We requested a meeting with the DEP.  I called and expressed some of our most pressing concerns and the gentleman I spoke with said he would pull together some experts to answer our questions.  We were limited to six people.  Four of us went.  The DEP had, I don’t remember exactly, between eight and twelve people.

Our most pressing concerns were:

  • flooding – we don’t believe that their surface run-off analysis is accurate
  • contamination of our well water (all five homes are on well water)
  • damage from fly rock
  • damage from dust
  • damage from our rock wall becoming unstable due to vibration

The ridge (which we are calling Mt. Middlelick)  on which the mining site is located, currently drains into creeks running on both the eastern and western boundaries of this permit.  Those creeks feed into the creek which defines our hollow.  Our creek feeds into Davis creek, affecting the residents of Loudendale and Davis Creek.  The area is already considered a flood zone.  The permit only requires a “25 year flood” prevention plan.  But no one could tell us clearly how a “25 year flood” event is defined.  Common sense says if you remove all of the trees and undergrowth, and all of the topsoil, the rain water / snow melt has no where to go but into the watershed.  And there is nothing to slow it down.  No one at the DEP said it directly, but we were all left with the impression that nothing would change in the permit UNTIL it was proven to be a problem.  Lucky us.

We were told to mark measurements on our bridge into the hollow, to keep a daily journal and make note daily of the water level in the creek.  And to purchase a rain gauge.

We are very concerned that our well water and ground water will become contaminated because of the watershed issue.  They will monitor our well (our well is the monitoring well) every three months.  They won’t be monitoring for heavy metals, which I don’t understand.  If our water should become contaminated we have to prove that the mine contaminated it.  WE have to prove they contaminated it.  If anyone spots chemicals in the creek water as part of our daily monitoring, a call can be made to DEP, but unless a DEP inspector actually SEES the contaminant, well, nothing happens.

At the meeting we asked about Fly Rock – the debris that can fall from the explosives used to get to the coal.  DEP gave conflicting answers.  We were told that we shouldn’t expect any.  We were also told that debris can fly as far as 3000 ft.   They also told us that 1000 ft is considered the minimum safe distance.  Finally, we were told that by law nothing is to leave the permit boundaries.  I’m still researching to see what the truth is regarding fly rock. But they agreed that three of the hiking trails at Kanawha State Forest would be at risk for hikers, bikers, horseback riders to be struck by fly rock.  We were stunned!  We asked them how they were going to make certain that users of the Forest were safe?  The DEP said that was the responsibility of the mining company, not them.

And if our homes are damaged by fly rock, or by blasting vibrations, we have to prove that the mine is responsible and that we (or our insurance companies) have to sue the mining company.  The issue would go before a third party insurance examiner who would determine if it should go to arbitration.  If the claim goes to arbitration, there is a $600 fee which is split with the coal company.  DEP is not involved.

So.  We monitor our own creek levels.  If we want to make sure we don’t have heavy metals in our water we either have to fight to get the DEP to provide monitoring equipment, or find a way to get it through another agency.  If we believe our groundwater is being polluted we have to first prove that it is being contaminated and then prove the contamination is due to the mine.  If we believe our air quality is polluted from dust, same thing.  Plus, unless an inspector visually sees an excess of dust from the mine, personally, the DEP will do nothing.  Videos, photographs, are not considered valid proof.

Are you noting the pattern here?  The burden of protecting our homes, our health and the health of our community and environment is on us, the citizens.  So, who does the Department of Environmental Protection protect?  Not this:

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Meeting Mt. Middlelick

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Tonight, members of the Loudendale and Davis Creek community met at the Kanawha Trail Club which sits at the foot of what will be the KD#2 mine extension, or what we’ve begun calling Mt. Middlelick.  I wish I could fully convey just how beautiful the log clubhouse, wooden footbridge and campfire area are.  Or how my heart ached just thinking about how everything, just at the top of the ridge directly in front of me, will be gone.  Stripped.  No trees.  No topsoil.  Not even torn earth – torn rock.  How can that devastation possibly be so close and not destroy this green idyllic place?

The moon reminded me just how small, how insignificant I am.  Small and insignificant I may be, but I’m going to do all I can to save Mt. Middlelick.  It looks like more and more people are going to help.  I am hopeful.

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Learning About Mountaintop Removal Strip Mining

I have always considered myself environmentally conscious.  I am an unabashed tree-hugging-dirt-worshipper. The focus of my consciousness was always my own home, my own community.  Our household recycled. Our spiritual group annually picked up trash on Earth Day for our local park paths in Ohio. Mindfulness and making conscious decisions about not wasting resources was a way of life. I was proud of my efforts and my ethos.  Moving to West Virginia has humbled me and shown me: I’ve been deliberately ignorant.  Awareness is uncomfortable.

Not long after moving to West Virginia I was playing around on Google Earth, trying to find our house.  What was that pale area southeast of our house?  Zooming in, it looked like a moonscape.  Zooming out, it is impossible not to notice that the West Virginia landscape is riddled with these pale moonscapes.  It looks like someone took a grinder to all of the high spots. So I asked my neighbor, did she know what I was looking at?  Until that moment, I was clueless that a mountaintop strip mine was so close by.

ImageI needed to be educated.

The local library provided DVD’s,  On Coal River, The Last MountainRise Up West Virginia. These documentaries are difficult to watch.  I cried.  I got mad. I felt helpless.  I still feel all of these emotions.  Daily.  I found organizations like OVEC (Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition), Keeper of the Mountain, iLoveMountains, and Appalachian Voices. Hours, days were spent researching, trying to catch up, so that I could talk about the subject intelligently. It wasn’t personal. It just seemed like something I should really know about, here in my new community, my new state.

And then we found out: Keystone Development #1 mine was expanding (marked in the graphic above).  It was a done deal.  Now it was personal. I knew it could be fought – these groups were fighting these mines all over Appalachia.  I met with the Kanawha Forest Coalition.  They gave me some starting points, gave me information packets.  I was hopeful.  After all, we live just across the river from the state capitol.  Surely, Governor Tomblin wasn’t aware that this was happening this close to the state capitol, bordering a state forest! Making sure he was notified would produce some response! (I am so naive sometimes.)  Calls to the governor’s offices revealed that he had people answering the calls and keeping a tally of “for” or “against” the mine expansion.  And that’s all.

The Department of Environmental Protection has offices locally.  Environmental Protection.  They are the folk who issue the mining permits and monitor the mine sites to enforce compliance.  Surely they would listen.  Surely they would help.  Right?

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So, Our New Neighbor is a Mountaintop Removal Mine

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Thursday. May 1st.  I was catching up on Facebook when I saw a post from a local news station: “DEP Issues Mining Permit for Surface Mining Operation Located Near State Forest”.  But what really caught my eye was the attached graphic (above).  My house is just to the left of the “M” in “Mountaintop” in the graphic.  This was how I found out that our new neighbor, 2000 feet from our house, was a Mountaintop Removal Mine.

I’ve been asked, “How could you not know?”  It’s actually not that hard to be in the dark.  You see, this permit has been in the works since 2009.  We didn’t move here until 2012.  Further, my father-in-law who has lived here since 1966, nor my other neighbors knew either.  Why?  By law, the DEP, the Department of Environmental Protection which governs these permits, only has to post notice in the local newspaper.  In the classified section.  They look like this:

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If you don’t get the paper, or read the classified section daily, you won’t be notified.  Oh, there is one other way: sign up for email notices from the DEP directly (which I now am).  I don’t read the paper every day.  My father-in-law does, but not the classifieds.  We didn’t know.  Once it’s published in the newspaper you only have thirty (30) days to oppose the permit.  My neighbors and I did not oppose it because we didn’t know about it.  Apparently they did have a “community” meeting, sponsored by the DEP regarding the permit.  They held it in Belle, WV.  Not at the local DEP offices.  Not here in the community that will actually be impacted by this mine.  I have no idea where the notice regarding the meeting was posted, but I’m betting it was in the newspaper – in the classifieds.

Maybe we should have known when our homes were inspected in what is called a “pre-blast survey.”  They did this in July 2013 and sent us the results in November 2013.  We still didn’t know.  We honestly believed that they were doing surveys of our home and well water quality as a form of “insurance” because we had been complaining about hearing and feeling the blasts from the existing mine (of which the new mine is an extension), approximately three miles away.  We thought they were doing the surveys as a baseline for potential future insurance claims by us, the residents.  Well, they were, but for the new extension.

Ignorance is bliss.  I moved to West Virginia not knowing much about the coal industry or how prevalent mountaintop removal for coal has become.  I posted my dismay about the mine on Facebook and was immediately attacked by supporters of the coal industry.  That didn’t bother me so much as the complete and total lack of compassion and disregard for the effect of this mine on our lives, our well water, our property values.  We were sacrificial lambs on the altar of coal jobs.  “If you don’t like it – MOVE.”  Really?  The moment the permit was issued our property values dropped…are you ready?  Fifty (50) percent.  I’m not exaggerating.  We’ve been told that once the mine is active that number will jump to eighty (80) percent.  We couldn’t move even if we wanted to.

I don’t want to.  Luckily, that same day – or maybe the next – the Kanawha Forest Coalition posted a page on Facebook.  I contacted them and my education began.  And so did my fight.

 

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A New Journey

 

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This is the view outside of my kitchen window.  I live a simple life in a small home in a tiny hollow outside of Kanawha State Forest in West Virginia.  I moved here almost two years ago to help care for my elderly father-in-law.  I gave up my home in Ohio, most of my belongings, my community, and my children and grand-children.  Thank heavens for the phone and internet; they keep me in touch with that old life.

It’s been hard adjusting to life here.  We are thirty minutes from everything.  No pizza delivery.  No ever driving home without checking the gas tank to make certain you don’t need a filling – because you’re 10 miles from the nearest gas station.  There are no straight roads, hence the thirty minutes to anything.  Any storm, wind, or heck, a bird landing on a power line can cause a power outage.  Cell phones don’t get reception unless you can link a network extender to the internet.  Friends, family and service repairmen can’t find us on GPS or Google maps.

I’ve had to learn about well water, septic tanks and generators.  I’ve had to learn about the politics of coal.

On the positive side, I have terrific neighbors.  And it’s beautiful.  Stunningly beautiful.  We have two different kinds of owls who sing most evenings.  So much birdsong throughout the day that it’s amazing.  And I swear the forest sings.  We have a frog symphonies in the evenings.  I have connected with some people here who truly decorate my life and keep me sane.  I am building a life here and I’m working to make it a good life.

So imagine my horror at learning that there is a Mountaintop Removal Stripmine expanding to within 2000 ft of my home.  Really, there are no words.  I’m numb.  I’m furious. I’m grieving.  I vacillate between activism and soul-numbing apathy.

I’m going to make it a goal to blog about the journey here.  This is just an introduction.  I don’t know who will read it.  If anyone will care.  But I need to document the journey.

So here goes.

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