Grammy-winning country music singer Kathy Mattea says there’s a covert war in her beloved Appalachia to decide who holds the power, and everyone is scared.
She was speaking to 600 at the “I Love Mountains” rally in front of the Capitol on a frigid Thursday afternoon.
The event is sponsored annually by Kentuckians For The Commonwealth, a statewide environmental group trying to stop mountaintop removal through stream-saver bills (one in the Senate and two in the House).
Similar efforts in Kentucky have failed the last five years. No action was taken on the bills.
In mountaintop removal mining, forests are cleared and rock is blasted to unearth buried coal. The leftover dirt, rock and rubble are dumped into nearby valleys, sometimes covering streams.
Mattea grew up in West Virginia and her grandfathers were coal miners.
Coal and mountains have “shaped my life since the day I was born,” Mattea said.
“Since learning about mountaintop removal I’ve had an ache in the pit of my stomach, a deep yearning to advocate for these mountains I know so well and love so much.”
She said there’s a “terrible environmental destruction going on. But there’s a deeper human cost here as well, not just for future generations of Appalachians but for those living in the coalfields today.”
She gave examples of people “living in their own personal hell” – when black water runs out of their faucets, front yards have cracks from mining operations, and the air is “so filled with dust that it builds up inside a closed freezer.”
A man’s voice in the crowd yelled, “Immoral.”
Mattea said, “If the prosperity of some is built upon the exploitation of others, everyone loses. And if we simply exchange one group’s version of hell for another’s we still lose.
“The people who depend on the mining industry for their livelihoods cannot be tossed away either. We must consider all people’s needs as we try to find a solution to this problem.
“Everyone needs a safe place to live, a way to make a decent living and a sense of security for themselves and their families.”
Mattea said the way to move toward civil conversation starts with remembering, “we are not enemies. We are brothers and sisters in conflict.”
What is needed in Kentucky, West Virginia and other coal mining states and Washington, D.C. is leadership, Mattea said.
“We need leaders who care more about the long-term prosperity of their constituents than their own political careers.
“We need courageous leaders who are willing to step into the center of this vortex and hold the vision of the long-term solution through all the desperation and the noise and the rage and the fear so we can all stay safe as we try to find our way through this crossroads.”
Everyone is scared, she said.
“If my house has turned from a quiet sanctuary into an unlivable nightmare, I am in deep anguish. On the other hand, if I have a decent job and suddenly I’m going to be without a way to provide for my family, I am in deep anguish.”
She said she believes the solution to the problem starts with listening to each other.
“I believe we have to learn to sit still and open our hearts and hear the shared anguish we all have in common. And it starts with letting go of blame,” she said.
Mattea said she has strong opinions about her beloved mountains and the people who live there.
“I have moments when I get so frustrated I want to throw a chair through the window of my office.”
But she said she knows that won’t help.
“Everyone wants to feel safe where they live,” she said. “Everyone needs a way to provide for their family. Everyone needs a home and a place to live in peace, and yes, clean water.
“It is my constant prayer that we can find a way to refrain from taking our pain out on each other and continue to work toward a vision of an economy and an environment where all people in Appalachia can thrive.”
Frankfort resident Ruby Layson, a Harlan County native and retired journalist, said she attends the “I Love Mountains Day” rally every year.
She said she agrees with Mattea in that people in Appalachia need jobs and a safe, healthy environment.
Layson said she remains hopeful.
“I think each year it means more that this (rally) is going on,” she said. “More and more young people are attending and it’s wonderful to see them taking part and being concerned.”
Mountaintop removal mining has for years been a source of contention between coal operators, who say it’s the most effective way to get at the coal, and environmentalists, who say it has irreversibly harmed the mountains and streams.
The practice is widely used in Kentucky, West Virginia, Virginia and Tennessee, producing 130 million tons of coal annually.
Throughout Appalachia, environmentalists have been fighting to stop mountaintop removal, holding protests, filing lawsuits against federal agencies and coal companies, pushing for legislation at the state and federal level to ban the practice, and more recently through civil disobedience.
“Nonviolent civil disobedience is not the wrong thing to do,” said speaker Mickey McCoy, a retired teacher from Inez, Ky., and a member of Kentuckians for the Commonwealth. “We must stand ready to lay our bodies down.”
Opponents say mountaintop removal provides jobs.
The rally started with a march up Capital Avenue. Some of the signs in the crowd said, “We All Live Downstream,” “Move Over King Coal…Here Comes Queen Green,” “Clean Coal Is Like Dry Water,” “1,400 Miles of Streams Destroyed,” and “Topless Mountains Are Obscene.”
Last year’s keynote speaker was Ashland-born actress Ashley Judd. Internationally known environmental writer Wendell Berry from Henry County spoke two years ago.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.