september 2009

Sunrise in the Appalachians

When The Appalachians Disappear...

'What if you knew that every time you flip on your light switch, a mountaintop in West Virginia just blows up?'

The Long Journey Home Advances A Cause, Education and Solid, Topical Bluegrass Music

By David McGee

It is an oft-told tale, how way down in the mine it's dark as a dungeon, where the danger is double, the pleasures few, where the rain never falls and the sun never shines. We hear of, and are duly horrified by, mining disasters on the order of the January 2, 2006, Sago Mine disaster, which claimed 12 miners' lives and (along with two other incidents that same year) led to Federal legislation, the Mine Improvement and New Emergency Response Act of 2006 (MINER Act), which updated the Mine Safety and Health Act of 1977 to improve safety, health, preparedness, and emergency response in U.S. mining. As it was in the wake of the Farmington Mine disaster of 1968, which ultimately claimed the lives of 78 miners who were trapped inside, so did post-tragedy legislation ensue to stiffen mine safety laws. This, too, is an oft-told tale, of failing to rectify looming dangers until something so horrific happens as to make it impossible for politicians and corporations to maintain the status quo.

This then brings us to Still Moving Mountains: The Journey Home, a CD compilation of new and previously issued songs. Dedicated to raising public consciousness about a looming threat aboveground in the Coal River Mountain mining country of West Virginia, the CD is released by Aurora Lights, a nonprofit organization founded and headed by activist/teacher/doctoral student/musical artist Jen Osha; its focus is on mountaintop removal and practical alternatives to it, as was the case on the organization's first such CD in 2004, which raised $6,500 in direct grants for local grassroots work. Mountaintop removal is exactly what it sounds like—the purposeful blasting away of mountains by mining companies seeking to get at the seams of coal hidden underneath. YouTube videos show this process in action, and it's as heartbreaking as it is enraging to see a pristine American landscape disappear in the seconds it takes tons of explosives to create a scene of unspeakable violence, like something you might see in a war zone. In effect it is a war zone down there, as a number of organizations are banding together not only to halt mountaintop removal but to promote, as an alternative use of the land, wind farming, which would bring a multitude of benefits in the way of environmental preservation, energy conservation and jobs at good wages for those who choose to avoid a life in the coal mines.

But these worthy efforts are being met with strong resistance from the coal companies: the most prominent employer is A.T. Massey Coal Co., which has a history of union busting (in 2000, a Massey lobbyist, K.O. Damron, speaking to the West Virginia Chamber of Commerce, included the United Mine Workers on an "enemies list") and rampant polluting (an article by reporter Mike Boyer published in the Cincinnati Enquirer, from October 22, 2000, charged Massey with "being responsible for the 250 million gallons of coal sludge oozing toward Cincinnati"). Massey's own website ( trumpets its environmental performance by noting that in 2007—two years ago, by the Gregorian calendar—"our company's subsidiaries achieved a 36 percent reduction in citations from state regulatory agencies," and adds: "Our Logan County Mine Services resource group—winner of Massey's coveted Green Miner Award for 2007—led the company with a 70 percent reduction in violations from the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection." When you herald your burgeoning environmental consciousnes by pointing out how much less you've been cited for violating the laws in any given year, you've probably been drinking too much of the toxin-filled water with which you've now blessed the community you purport to serve. The same YouTube clip that offers the horrifying spectacle of mountaintop removal as it happens also offers a clip of drunken, obscenity-spouting thugs descending on the June 23, 2009, Mountain Keepers Festival, an annual family picnic on West Virginia's Kayford Mountain that rallies supporters of the movement to end mountaintop mining. In between their profane tirades and threatening gestures, the invading horde (who are wearing Massey shirts, but were later found not to be Massey employees) yell, "You get off our goddamn mountain! This is ours! We was here first!" (Their unexpurgated blurtings are subtitled on the screen.)

Get flash player to play to this file

Mountain Madness—Invasion of the Coal Thugs

Not sure what the shaven-headed, bare-chested, overweight, tattooed thug was referring to when he said, "We was here first!" We? The people? Larry Gibson, who has been preaching the gospel against mountaintop removal since 1986, says his family has lived on Kayford Mountain for more than 300 years; now the coal companies are trying to force him and other families off the land so they can get at the wealth buried below, which is valued in the hundreds of millions of dollars. He claims his resistance to selling his property (he declined an offer of $140,000) has resulted in more than 100 acts of vandalism and violence against him and his home by coal thugs trying to run him off his land: in the clip he points out his bullet-riddled camper, which was awaiting him when he returned home after undergoing open heart surgery. Larry Gibson is not so easily deterred, it turns out.

"My mother give me birth, but this land give me life," Gibson says. "You know, mountain people have such a love for the land. Some would say they love the land more than they did their mother. Well, this land gave us life, this land gave us warmth, this land gave us food, this land gave us shelter. It's time for us to give a little bit back. In other words, to hold on to it so it won't be destroyed."

Get flash player to play to this file

Larry Gibson on Kayford Mountain, with students from James Madison University

Larry Gibson is not on Still Moving Mountains: The Journey Home, but the CD includes comments from other eloquent spokespeople. These include area residents Sylvia Bradford (who, more succinctly and less sanguinely than Gibson, explains why the mining company doesn't have enough money to buy her out of her property), Bo Webb ("I know what's at work here—greed. And we are the sacrificial lambs of that greed. We are the people that's in the way of money. We are up against a huge industry that is brutal, and our lives are in danger."), Debbie Jarrell, Gary Anderson and Danny Williams. Most moving of all is Ed Wiley, who recounts how his teary-eyed granddaughter, one of 230 students at Marsh Fork Elementary, one day said to him, "Gramps, these coal mines are making us kids sick." Marsh Fork Elementary sits in the shadow of a massive slurry impoundment. Slurry, the toxic-laden runoff from washed coal, is contained ("impounded") in an earthen dam. Should the dam be breached, it would spew forth an estimated at 2.8 billion gallons of toxic sludge, engulfing the school and poisoning the Coal River community. (At that, the impoundment pales in comparison to the 900-foot-high Brushy Fork impoundment, home to nine billion gallons of sludge). Wiley, who worked for a mining company, admits his own complicity in the problem, and in turn the evolution of his thinking with regard to what's going on in his own back yard and what it means for the rest of America: "I was one of the biggest polluters there ever was. I pumped millions of gallons of toxic waste in these mountains and really didn't pay no attention to what I was doing. It was always about the dollar bill and you never give it no thought. You work sixteen, seventeen hours a day, a lot of times, and seven days a week, and you really don't have no time to think about what you're doing unless it affects you personally. People around the United States needs to know the truth about the clean coal technology. There is no such thing as clean coal technology. If they're clean, what are they doing with the waste? They're puttin' it in our mountains, they're puttin' it in our hollers, they're pollutin' the nation's water supply. It's a time capsule release and it's going to pollute the whole system of the nation's water. Without these mountains we'll have no fresh water. We need to protect these mountains. These mountains should be recognized as national monuments just for the water issue itself."

Wiley's a hard act to follow, but both Kathy Mattea and long-time environmental advocate Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. pitch in with forceful statements about the multiple environmental threats posed by mountaintop removal and strip mining. Mattea asks, "What if you knew that every time you flip on your light switch, a mountaintop in West Virginia just blows up?" and points out how the devastation of the Appalachian Forest ("the most diverse forest in North America") is resulting in lost habitat, lost species, and water being contaminated by sludge ponds and the dirt blasted off the mountains. An emotional Kennedy, speaking at St. Mary's Episcopal Church in Harlem, in May 2007, describes the devastation occurring in West Virginia and Kentucky as an "atrocity," and adds: "If the American people could see it, if the press were doing its job in this country, there would be a revolution in this country. We are cutting down the Appalachian Mountains, these historic landscapes where Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett roamed, that are so much a part of America's history and cultural heritage." Equally important, Kennedy notes how the mechanization of this process is displacing human labor—"which indeed is the point," Kennedy says—and recalls his father, who fought against Appalachian strip mining in the 1960s, saying to him, "They are not just destroying the environment. They are permanently impoverishing these communities, because there's no way they can ever generate an economy from these barren moonscapes that are left behind. They're doing it so they can break the unions. And that's exactly what they did." Moreover, Kennedy adds, "It's all illegal. You cannot, in the United States of America, take rock and debris and rubble and dump it into a waterway, without a clean water act permit, and you could never get a permit to do such a thing. There is nothing radical about clean air and clean water for our children."

Get flash player to play to this file

Blue Highway, 'Clear Cut,' from Still Moving Mountains: The Journey Home. This performance is from Dobrofest 1998 in Trnava, Slovakia. The song appears on the band's 1998 album, Wind To the West.

That said, there is more music than talk on Still Moving Mountains: The Journey Home, and all of it underscores RFK, Jr.'s assertion that "nature is the infrastructure of our communities." The land Larry Gibson cherishes is central to the songs here, for exactly the reasons Gibson cites: "This land gave us life, this land gave us warmth, this land gave us food, this land gave us shelter. It's time for us to give a little bit back." The hard driving bluegrass opener, "Long Journey Home," by Everett Lilly and the Lilly Mountaineers, captures the excitement of returning to the sanctuary of home after too much time away, feelings emphasized by the frisky solos from the Del McCoury Band's Rob McCoury (banjo) and Jason Carter (fiddle) (then-McCoury Band bassist Mike Bub is holding down the bottom) as well as a hot mandolin run from Everett himself. The entire Del McCoury Band contributes "Mountain Song," an uptempo appreciation of mountain life, from the group's The Company We Keep album, in a performance notable for Del's keening, expressive vocal. From its 1996 Wind to the West album, Blue Highway offers a chilling evocation of environmental havoc in "Clear Cut," noting, "hills without their timber is like a man without his blood/scars upon the land/those wounds will never heal/but a greedy man will never get his fill." You don't need a crying solo from Rob Ickes' dobro to make your point more emphatically, but it's here, and it's potent and memorable. In the austere blues, "Cabin Creek Hollow," Ben Gilmer, accompanying himself on guitar with mandolin and bass in tow, traces his narrator's transformation from dedicated mine worker of 15 years to union organizer and activist ("it's a hard livin'/but it's all we know/time to let somebody know"). This is the point when the album moves from light to dark, its songs now concerned with the miners' hard, dangerous lives working for dollar-driven bosses (the dirge-like "Made By Hand," by Andrew McKnight, Chance McCoy and Les Thompson), the soul-numbing drudgery of mining (Jean Ritchie's harrowing "Blue Diamond Mines," which explicitly references mountaintop removal, in a stirring performance by Kathy Mattea from her powerful, Marty Stuart-produced concept album, Coal) and man-made disasters by way of Debra Cowan's haunting "Who Brought the Flood"; Aurora Lights' Jen Osha's strutting, shuffling broadside, "Shumate Dam," a true folk song that tells the story of the slurry dam springing leaks and workers being ordered to kill some bear cubs in their dens rather than take time to move them to higher ground, leading her to wonder what would happen to the children "if tonight is the night this slurry dam will blow." "Shumate Dam" references an earlier slurry dam calamity at Buffalo Creek, and that is in fact the subject of the song following it, Mike Morningstar's "Buffalo Creek," a direct, Dylanesque (not only because Morningstar blows an angry harmonica) dissection of corporate and political complicity in the tragedy that claimed 127 lives. The coal companies' rapacity and hypocrisy get a good going over in the Lonetones' banjo-fired shuffle, "State of the Art." And exactly what Robert F. Kennedy asserted about permanently impoverishing the community after the coal is gone is forcefully, grandly expressed in Great American Taxi's "Appalachian Soul," which also belongs in a latter grouping of songs of defiance, of determination to hold firm to the mountain land, no matter what, in the certainty that it will somehow provide. It's in Alan Johnston and South 52's gritty "Sweet Appalachia," in Keith and Joan Pitzer's rousing workout, "Mountain of Blues," after which "Appalachian Soul" is kind of a topping on that cake.

At the end, using only their voices and a beat box, Leah and Chloe Smith, who comprise R.I.S.E., sing and speak their activist poetry in "Scale Down," a call to action and individual accountability in the struggle. Theirs is the final word, reinforcing the nub of Kathy Mattea's own appeal. To wit: "It is a complex problem. But if we can't discuss it because we are so married to the way things are, then we can't find a way to a solution. And we must. We are each a very important part of this solution."

Get flash player to play to this file

The Del McCourty Band, 'Mountain Song,' from Still Moving Mountains: The Journey Home. This performance is from the 2007 MBOTMA Summer festival. The song appears on the band's 2005 Grammy winning album, The Company We Keep.

Jen Osha, with Vida, her wolfdog companion: 'To use dynamite to blow up a mountain, to burn all of the trees, to kill every single thing on it and to leave it as rubble is ridiculous'

'Clean Coal Is a Dirty Lie'
An interview with Jen Osha, Aurora Lights founder

by David McGee

Jen Osha, who founded Aurora Lights, comes to her cause with an unassailable pedigree. Born and raised in Virginia in a family with roots in coal mining in southern Indiana, she is currently a Ph.D. candidate in geography at the West Virginia University. She did her undergraduate work at the University of Virginia and received her Master's Degree from the Yale School of Forestry. In addition to her academic and activist work, she has taught at Salem International University, at an Ecuadorian University, and part-time at West Virginia University in courses devoted to world regions and physical geographies. She has been an active part of the movement against mountaintop removal since her first trip, nine years ago, to the southern coalfields of West Virginia, where she has lived part-time for the past year and a half.

In this first part of a two-part interview, she discusses how Still Moving Mountains: The Long Journey Home came together, and some of the issues Aurora Lights and other activist organizations are confronting in the Coal River watershed related to mountaintop removal. The unabridged interview with Ms. Osha will appear in our November issue, as part of an in-depth look at mountaintop removal in the Coal River Mountain watershed.

On Still Moving Mountains: The Long Journey Home, are the artists represented by tracks from previous releases all aware of the nature of the project?

Jen Osha: Yes, all the songs were donated specifically because of the focus of the CD. Kathy Mattea was the first big-name musician who agreed to be part of the project, and she agreed to be involved because she liked our focus on larger issues surrounding mountaintop removal and the educational component, like the website, as opposed to just focusing on the fight against mountaintop removal. Her perspective is that people need to learn about the larger issues, get involved and try to communicate about solutions that will involve healthy, sustainable jobs within the community.

So Kathy was the first one to step forward and get involved, then Vince Herman, who was with Leftover Salmon and is now with Great America Taxi, got involved. With his help and Kathy's we were able to start talking about the benefit CD with Del and others.

Get flash player to play to this file

Robert F. Kennedy, 'Coal is dirty and destructive in every aspect of its production and burning.

And the artists who recorded new material specifically for this project, were these people you were familiar with? How did they get involved?

Osha: We put out a call to musicians more than two years ago and received about forty submissions. A lot of it was word of mouth, a lot of it was working through the movement itself and reaching out to musicians who were interested and aware of the issue. Sam McCreery, our production manager, and I spent a good deal of time tracking down musicians through email or at gigs. It was easier this time around with the benefit of the contacts from the first CD. For example, I met Andrew McKnight through the first CD, and we became good friends. His song, "Company Town," headlined the last CD and was my favorite song on the compilation. For Still Moving Mountains, Andrew and I had a great dialogue back and forth about the issues surrounding mountaintop removal. He wrote the song, "Made By Hand," and recorded it in one day with Chance McCoy and Les Thompson.

You said you had more than 40 songs to choose from. What was the bottom line on what got included? It looks like you didn't pick these songs cavalierly. You picked them for a reason.

Osha: There are a lot of different things to take into consideration. I would say first and perhaps most obviously having the songs by Kathy and Del certainly raised the standard in terms of our quality of recording. It's a hard thing to find a song to follow Del—I mean, it's hard! Trying to figure out what order to put those songs in, that was a task. Thankfully, we had some experienced ears: Jeff Bosley, our technical director, is the stage manager for Mountain Stage and is on the board of directors at the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition. He volunteered all of his time of both compilations. First we decided generally on the story we wanted to tell through the music, and how we wanted people to feel at the end of the CD. We wanted to have a mix of big name musicians who will catch peoples' attention with local and regional artists who can speak firsthand about the impact on their lives. Then we sat around the kitchen table and listened, over and over, to the transitions between the songs and slowly pieced the songs into a larger story.

We arranged the songs to bring listeners on a "journey home" to the West Virginia mountains. The CD starts with Everett Lilly and the Lilly Mountaineers, who are actually from Coal River Mountain, talking about the long journey home, followed by Del's performance of "The Mountain Song," talking about the beauty of mountain life for people who might not know what it's like here. It's a good life, it's a good place to live and raise a family. Then you get to the middle, and songs like "Made By Hand" and "Cabin Creek Hollow," "Blue Diamond Mines," are really talking about the history of coal mining, the impact of union organizing and the larger situation in which families find themselves working in the mines or on the strip mines, trying to find ways to stay in their homes and have a good job. Then we move on to the slurry impoundments, which are really one of the most dangerous elements of life in southern West Virginia right now. Talking about the flooding, the song "Who Brought the Flood?" was written for this compilation by Debra Cowan from a child's perspective-why is this flood coming? These mountains have always protected us. Why are we threatened now? "Shumate Dam," about the slurry impoundment behind Marsh Fork Elementary, Mike Morningstar, who is a local legend here, singing about "Buffalo Creek" and the 127 people who died when that impoundment broke. Then towards the end of the compilation we wanted to move towards songs like "Appalachian Soul," which talks about working together, organizing, and love of the land. Vince Herman says, "So I'm going back home I'm gonna speak my mind / I aint gonna let 'em take no more." Hopefully we leave people with the feeling that burning coal from mountaintop removal is a serious problem that needs to be addressed, this is an important issue right now for the whole nation with our greater issues of energy, and that we can work together. It's more than possible-it's necessary to make changes in our lifestyles and our energy needs.

Coal of course is part of a larger conversation in this country about energy issues, and this takes us into Washington, D.C. and the new administration that has promised to be more environmentally sensitive than the previous administration. Have you had any contact with anyone, or do you have any contacts in Washington, working on this issue?

Osha: I myself don't, but within the movement itself, yes, certainly. Through groups such as the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, Coal River Mountain Watch, Appalachian Voices, Alliance for Appalachia, Sierra Club, Earth Justice, and many more! One of the major strategies is to work with the current administration. So we've been trying to tackle this on all fronts. We were very hopeful when Obama was elected, because of his stance on mountaintop removal, that he would start to rectify the situation. So far we have not been impressed. I think part of the problem is this idea that "clean coal" is actually a possibility, and the best summary of that is "clean coal is a dirty lie." When you clean the coal, where does that waste go? It goes in the West Virginia hollers, in the slurry impoundments, it's not clean.

Now the proceeds from the album are going to be used for grants and other charitable purposes. Specifically, what are you trying to do with the money you can raise from album sales?

Osha: Our focus through this CD is to directly support community organizing and the grassroots movement against mountaintop removal. What we want to do with the money from this CD, and what I think makes it really special, is that the proceeds go directly to support what's happening on the ground. Usually we have to write large grants to make that happen, and it takes awhile to get that money. Our money will go to things like paying for food, supporting local residents who are standing up and speaking about the impact on their homes, and who might possibly lose their jobs or need some support in the transition. Every time we raise $500, we look for the greatest immediate need.

Here are a few examples. One of the grants from the last CD went to help build a new school. Marsh Fork Elementary is located under a 2.8 billion gallon slurry impoundment and surrounded by a processing plant. It's an unsafe school for the 230 children there, so some grant money from both the previous CD as well as our current CD supports building a new school within the community. Another example is that some children were getting harassed at the bus station because their mother was standing up against the coal industry, so we were actually able to provide for security as well as help her fix her truck, which was sabatoged.

Get flash player to play to this file

Kathy Mattea performs Jean Ritchie's 'Blue Diamond Mines' in Harrisburg, PA, April 17, 2009. The song appears on Mattea's Marty Stuart-produced Coal album and is included on Still Moving Mountains: The Long Journey Home.

Has there been any dialogue with the coal companies, or are they just pushing back against these efforts?

Osha: In the movement against mountaintop removal we have taken every approach that we can. So there has been some dialogue, but it hasn't been productive.

Are you understating the case?

Osha: Yes, I'm understating it.

Your website is a very active in that it not only has a lot of information but also offers an educational approach. How does that advance your aims as an organization and to whom is it targeted?

Osha: My primary means of making a living for my family is as a teacher. I'm constantly thinking about these issues in terms of how to share them in a productive way with more people and fresh young minds. The first CD ended up being used as an educational tool, even though I hadn't planned that. So with this current website project, we wanted to use the music on the CD as a vehicle to get people to go to the website where they could learn more about the issues that were raised in whatever song they liked. That's why we developed a portion of the website linking the lyrics from each song to specific areas on the website. For example, for "Shumate Dam," you can look at the lyrics and then go directly to the website and learn about Marsh Fork Elementary, the impoundment, and see a map of the MTR mine behind the school. I hoped to provide the facts and the information without shoving it down peoples' throats, so people who are interested can see the facts for themselves and come to their own conclusions. At the very end we have an activist website and an educational resources website. People can then find a group working in their area that they can get involved in. We also have a lessons plan page, so if you're a teacher you can print out these lesson plans and use the website and the music in the classroom to get students involved. So students can actually get involved in something that's really happening, right now, and be learning in a way that helps them develop their responsibility to their community in a and interesting and engaging way.

In the nine years I've lived in West Virgnia I have never brought somebody to the see the mountaintop removal mines that once they saw it for themselves did not say, "Why is this happening? What is going on?" The hard part is getting people to pay attention, to see it and realize that to use dynamite to blow up a mountain, to burn all of the trees, to kill every single thing on it and to leave it as rubble, is ridiculous.

Visit the Aurora Lights website at and the Journey Up Coal River website ( for a wealth of historical and educational resources pertaining to mountaintop removal in the Coal River Mountain watershed.

Still Moving Mountains: The Long Journey Home can be purchased at

This website is presented with financial assistance from the West Virginia Humanities Council, a state affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities

Founder/Publisher/Editor: David McGee
Contributing Editors: Billy Altman, Laura Fissinger, Christopher Hill, Derk Richardson
Logo Design: John Mendelsohn (
Website Design: Kieran McGee (
Staff Photographers: Audrey Harrod (Louisville, KY;, Alicia Zappier (New York)
Mailing Address: David McGee, 201 W. 85 St.—5B, New York, NY 10024