ACE: Serious Solutions in Appalachia

Something seemed to be missing from Jon Rockett’s “Mineland Reforestation” tour. Some 60 miles north of Abingdon, VA, up in Wise County, Rockett took a group of about 15 people to several sites on the Powell River Project, and talked about all the great things that he and the mine company had done with these model reforestation projects. At the first stop, we looked at two areas that had grown back into nice wooded areas. Just down the road, beyond the sign that alerted visitors to blasting signals, a coal processing facility churned the coal out on to train cars and dump trucks. Beyond the processing facility, off a ways in the distance, a mountain stood over the scene, dead and bare. Most of the mountain had been blasted by tons of explosives to get to the coal seems that lay underneath the once forested geologic formation. Rockett didn’t bring up the mountain, and kept showing us the nice regnerated former wasteland that he’d worked on over the years.

We got in our cars and drove past the processing facility and stopped at a field and meadow, directly under the active mountaintop removal (MTR) site. Rockett told us how the coyotes love the wooded area he made for them. He discussed the need to manage the land, for fear that the open areas would get lost to the hardwoods they’d planted a bit further away. Again, he dodged questions from sharp locals, chosing to avoid to discuss the “elephant” in the tour: the fact that he’s making woods on destroyed land like a Potemkin village. Running short on time, Rockett consented to showing us one other area by the stables, further down the road.

That last stop took about five minutes, but gave us all enough of an eyeful to last a lifetime. The active mine had created a huge rolling hill of blasted debris, which Rockett had seeded and planted with hardwood. What he didn’t tell us, was that that hill didn’t exist before the MTR started. The company continues to work on taking down the mountain, getting at the seams that were impossible to extract decades ago. And the coal company will conitnue to recontour hills of dead mountain, which Rockett will gladly reforest for good money. If the company doesn’t reforest, they won’t get their bond back from the government.

But it doesn’t answer the many questions about why we’re even on an active coal mine in the first place. Though prodded a bit, Rockett managed to not deal with many of the throny issues. His boss, the owner of the mine, hung out with the group for most of the tour. He was respectfully ignored but did answer a few questions. Virginia coal extraction peaked in the 1990s, but there’s 250 years worth of coal to still dig out of the ground. We might not have the atmosphere to live by then if we still burn coal, but that came up on the tour. What Rockett showed us was indeed a model rehabilitated and managed site, but the locals know that many other sites are lakes of sludge, half-ass projects, and all government approved. We know this story in many parts of the world. Big Coal (Oil, etc.) and governments who take the money.

But the ACE (Appalachian Community Economy) Conference isn’t about dealing with the anger and reactions from Big Coal. ACE, organized by the local communities who have organized against MTR, is a solutionary gathering. All the folks here, from many states and organizations in the region, want to focus on ways to end the mono-economy that affects coal country. From a “root digger” granny to Ph. D.’s and professors, folks here on the Abingdon 4-H Campgrounds (a former poor farm) are getting together to create a meta-network of multi-regional groups to create alternatives to working the mines.

Five of us at the Sustainable Living Roadshow have represented, and are here to offer any alternative perspectives we can. I think we’re also here to learn more about the local issues that affect the whole country. This morning, I attended several workshops. The first, facilitated by the U.S. Solidarity Economy Network, was about ways to confront the current system. My breakout group looked at five ideas about improving the economy and presented co-housing and community supported agriculture. I had Chris Carlsson on my mind when I suggested that the group consider what our relationship to work and labor was and if economies were even necessary.

The second workshop I attended focused on “Small Wind in Appalachia.” A large group attended this workshop, so several regional acitivists gave a panel on the topic. Wind power in this reagion faces battles from developers who don’t want a “spoiled view” as well as other well used tactics to keep wind turbines spinning. One group is proposing to put a turbine farm on top of a mountain, which is slated to get blasted to the ground for MTR. Coal River Mountain Watch has a great argument for putting wind on the mountain instead of destroying it. It’s another David vs. Goliath battle that the grassroots has to fight. The JOBS (Just, Open Businesses that are Sustainable) Project hopes to create turbine manufacturing in Appalachia and is working with Green Jobs Now to get the message out. Other ideas got thrown out as well.

Nick from the Roashow set up a table on mushrooms and has spent his free time discussing their restorative power with attendees. Marty set up an Eco-Info table and we all are connecting with Knoxville folks for the event at UT next weekend. I found stencils here and have also had a few great discussions about the art form with local folks. Most of the people at ACE are glad that we’re here from so far away, concerned about the impact that MTR has on the region. Nick and Marty have both expressed interest in coming back to Appalachia to bring their talents to help bring economic solutions to those that need it the most.

We’ll leave tomorrow evening, heading back to Knoxville for a week of pre-Roadshow production. My last week will begin tomorrow too. Off on other adventures after hopping off the eco-carnival bandwagon.