Theresa L. Burriss: Appalachia & Clean Coal

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There’s been lots of talk about clean coal these days. Have you seen any of the industry’s commercials? But what you haven’t heard much about since Robert F. Kennedy visited the region back in the day is where coal comes from — the Appalachian Mountains. His son continues to speak out about the region. Ashley Judd a long with many folks in her home state of Kentucky have been doing a lot of activism around mining and the disparities in the Appalachian Mountains there. Judd recently spoke out about a piece Diana Sawyer aired on 20/20 last week called “Children of the Mountains on Appalachian life in Kentucky — Diane Sawyer is also from the state. The piece sparked some reaction in the blogosphere from folks who have been in the trenches working on these disparities just about their whole lives.
I decided to ask Theresa L. Burriss, the Assistant Professor of English & Appalachian Studies at Radford University, about everyday life in Appalachia and what she thought about clean coal and Diane Sawyer’s piece. (Diane Sawyer did a follow-up piece last night on “Mountain Dew mouth”.)
Here’s Theresa…


From your research on everyday life in the Appalachian Mountains, how would you describe the economic and social disparities that often exist? And can you provide a brief historical context to this region of the country?
First, readers need to know that the Appalachian Regional Commission, a federal agency, identifies Appalachia as stretching from New York down to Mississippi. This designation is disputed by many scholars because it’s politically driven. My research/scholarship focus is on Central Appalachia, the area typically (stereotypically) known as “Appalachian.”
If I had to sum up the history of Central Appalachia it would be in terms of colonization. Basically, Central Appalachia is an internally colonized region in the United States. Take any colonial model, apply it to Appalachia, and it fits, from natural resource extraction and labor exploitation to cultural denigration. Coal extraction has ruled Appalachia for over 100 years and is one major, if not the major, reason for the poverty in the area. Coal companies intentionally have created dependent economies in the region, driving out any competing labor/career opportunities. And now, with the massive increase in strip mining, and mountaintop removal in particular, fewer and fewer people are needed to “mine” the coal.
My United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) miner friends, however, don’t refer to those who work on strip mines as miners — they’re heavy equipment operators. If you watched Diane Sawyer’s 20/20 focus on the poverty-stricken children of Eastern Kentucky, you did not get any answers as to why such poverty exists.
If these counties are some of the richest in the nation due to the natural resources located there,
why do they contain the poorest people in the nation? The disparity is telling. Just as the natural resources flow out of the region, so does the money that goes along with them. On top of that, politicians actually give tax breaks to these robbers — although the coal companies can’t go anywhere else to find bituminous coal. It’s not as if they can mine coal in Florida or Iowa.
What particular challenges do many women who live in the Appalachian
Mountains face?

Traditionally, Appalachia is rather conservative when it comes to gender expectations and roles. My friend Marat Moore, a former UMWA coal miner, documents the sexual discrimination many women coal miners faced when they entered the mines officially in the 1970s in her work, Women in the Mines: Stories of Life and Work. Because the work options are so limited in the region, many women are forced to work minimum wage service jobs that don’t provide health insurance or any other type of benefits. And just like the rest of the country, many women are single mothers trying to make ends meet.
Who are some of the Appalachian feminists or heroines? And who are some of the rabble rousers of today? What issues did/do they mobilize around?
Kathy Selvage of Southern Appalachian Mountain Stewards; Judy Bonds of Coal River Mountain Watch; Terri Blanton of Kentuckians for the Commonwealth; Marie Cirillo, co-founder of the Woodland Community Land Trust; Pauline Canterberry and Mary Miller, the Dustbuster Sisters of Sylvester, WV; Mary Ann Hitt, first with Appalachian Voices and now with the Sierra Club — all these women and many more are fighting to end the horrendous practice of mountaintop removal, a form of strip mining on steroids, that is destroying not only the natural environment and the surrounding communities, but also an entire way of life, a unique culture.
You also have women like Meredith Dean and Edna Gully, co-founders of the Appalachian Women’s Alliance, who seek to empower women, to end cycles of domestic violence, increase educational opportunities, and
protect the environment.
So, too, I think of the many Appalachian authors writing to make a difference. Women such as Ann Pancake, Denise Giardina, Diane Gilliam Fisher, and Marilou Awiakta are activists through their use of the written word, whether poetry or prose.
I think of Hazel Dickens, singer/songwriter, who has utilized her voice and musical talents to speak out against the many injustices Appalachians have faced and continue to face.
Mimi Pickering and Elizabeth Barrett at Appalshop in Whitesburg, KY, produce incredibly moving documentaries on the Appalachian region, showcasing the rich talent here but also highlighting the extensive exploitation and social injustices enacted on the people.
My friend Suzanne Stryk, an artist and naturalist, speaks out against the environmental devastation occurring in our region through her mixed media collages, drawings, and paintings. She and my colleague, Deborah McLaughlin, a dance professor here at Radford University, are collaborating on a performance piece that addresses mountaintop removal.
And there’s a host of other strong, committed, brave Appalachian women daring to speak out and willing to act.
Would you mind explaining mountaintop removal for our readers and how that differs from “traditional” coal mining? Is there a difference between strip mining and coal mining?
Deep mining or underground mining is the traditional practice of extracting coal. Miners enter the mountain through a “hole” they’ve created and use machinery to dig their way into coal seams. In this way, the mountain itself is not destroyed, although many abandoned mines exist throughout the mountains. They actually exist as natural aquifers because sources of water exist in them and the remnants of coal serve to clean the water. Think about your water purifiers — they contain carbon to purify the water.
Strip mining is where the extractors take out huge swaths around the mountain to get to the coal. If you were to view the remains from an aerial perspective, you’d see bare high walls where the coal was mined but no trees can grow back. As the name infers, strips are taken out of
the mountains’ sides.
Mountaintop removal mining is, as I noted in my other responses, is strip mining on steroids. The coal companies use explosives like Timothy McVeigh used in the Oklahoma City bombing. In fact, nearly 3 million pounds of explosives are detonated PER DAY in West Virginia alone. Then the guts of the mountain, what those in the industry refer to as “spoil”, are thrown into a valley fill. They literally fill up valleys with the mountains’ guts, destroying streambeds in the process.
An average valley fill is 250 million cubic yards. Over 470 mountains to date have been destroyed in Central Appalachia. Just this past Friday, February 13, the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, in my own state of Virginia, overturned a lower court’s ruling and has made the permitting process infinitely easier for coal companies seeking to extract coal through mountaintop removal.
The other part that’s necessary to understand is the “cleaning” of the coal. Before the coal is loaded in rail cars and shipped out, a soup mix of toxic chemicals is used to remove impurities. What’s done with this toxic mess when they’re done cleaning the coal? It’s either piped
down into abandoned underground mines, destroying folks’ drinking water (refer to my note above about natural aquifers) or it’s taken to a sludge/slurry pond that is only contained by an earthen dam. Over 300 slurry impoundments exist in the US. If you want to know what happens
when they fail, check out Appalshop’s documentary, produced by Mimi Pickering, on the Buffalo Creek Flood Disaster that occurred in February of 1972.
Recovery.gov is a searchable online database of all the stimulus package projects that will soon be under way to help the county stop and reverse the economic emergency we find ourselves in. What do you hope to see in store for the Appalachian Mountains?
First, someone needs to educate the current administration that there is no such thing as “clean coal.” It’s folly to throw billions of dollars at the research and development of supposed clean coal technology. And billions of dollars are earmarked for such a useless endeavor in the
stimulus package. Even if scientists perfect carbon capture and sequestration, which occurs at the end of the coal’s life cycle, namely once it’s burned at the power plants, nothing is being focused on the extraction of the coal or the front-end cleaning of the coal. Coal is dirty, plain and simple.
If the federal government is serious about helping Appalachia, then the players must stop bowing to the coal companies, who continue to buy politicians and run roughshod over the Appalachians. Money invested in education, diverse economic projects, sustainable eco-tourism, technology infrastructure and training, green jobs — this will be money
well spent in Appalachia.
Do you have anything you would like to add?
Yes, Appalachians are a strong, diverse, proud people. We are not a throw-away culture. Appalachia should not serve as a national sacrificial area. These beautiful mountains are the second most bio-diverse region in the world, second only behind the tropical rainforest. Why is our nation destroying them at the expense of so-called cheap energy, a source of energy that’s emitting the most C02 of anything in the world and the greatest cause of climate change? It
just doesn’t make sense. And it pisses me off.

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33 Comments

  1. ChristinaM
    Posted February 21, 2009 at 10:15 am | Permalink

    I lived for a time in Polk County, TN. The poverty is striking. And the scenery is gorgeous but for one large scar on the land–what’s left of the copper mine in Ducktown.
    This colonization has gone on for a very, very long time.

  2. Entomology Girl
    Posted February 21, 2009 at 10:24 am | Permalink

    Wow, this was really fascinating! Totally learned a lot just from reading this. And thank god she mentioned that there’s no such thing as clean coal. Right on, Professor Burriss!

  3. Dykonoclast
    Posted February 21, 2009 at 10:25 am | Permalink

    LOVE YOU for getting/posting this interview.
    Clean coal is a dirty lie.

  4. cristeanna
    Posted February 21, 2009 at 10:58 am | Permalink

    just a little fyi- its radford university, not ranford.
    great piece!

  5. Jacob
    Posted February 21, 2009 at 11:04 am | Permalink

    That’s why, if you listen closely, you’ll notice most lawmakers actually mention “clean coal” – it’s always “clean coal technology,” because while the technology can be cleaned up, there’s no such thing as clean coal.

  6. Jacob
    Posted February 21, 2009 at 11:04 am | Permalink

    That’s why, if you listen closely, you’ll notice most lawmakers never actually mention “clean coal” – it’s always “clean coal technology,” because while the technology can be cleaned up, there’s no such thing as clean coal.

  7. SaraLaffs
    Posted February 21, 2009 at 11:06 am | Permalink

    Part of my family is from Polk County, and my grandmother still lives in Ducktown. I can still remember when the whole Copper Basin looked like the surface of Mars – an effect of the open-pit processing of the copper. I was pleasantly surprised the last time I visited to see grass actually growing. It’s taken 60 years, but the area is finally recovering environmentally. A lot of the older residents, like my grandmother, actually miss the polluted, barren look of the land because that’s the way it looked when they were growing up, and it doesn’t feel right for it to be any other way.
    And you’re right about the economy there. The copper mines did exactly what Dr. Burris describes in the interview, elbowing out other businesses, so when they closed/downsized, there just wasn’t anything left. They’re starting to build up the tourism field, though, especially whitewater sports with the nearby Ocoee River and expanding the mining museum. But most of the good jobs are still a long drive away.

  8. SaraLaffs
    Posted February 21, 2009 at 11:10 am | Permalink

    This really is a great piece, and thank you so much for posting it. Appalachia doesn’t get much attention outside of its immediate area, so when people from other parts of the country think about us, it’s usually with the theme from “Deliverance” playing in their heads. For instance, it took more than a week for the national media to pick up on the sludge pond spill in Tennessee last December. If that had happened in, say, Southern California, it would probably *still* be on the news every night.

  9. Daktari
    Posted February 21, 2009 at 12:00 pm | Permalink

    I grew up in the area she’s talking about in this interview. There was one thing my father made sure we understood growing up. We were expected to go to college and never return. I remember countless times my father saying, “there is noting for you here. Just get your education and get out and you’ll be fine.”
    He was right. My high school buddies who stayed live a life I can’t imagine anymore.

  10. rumble
    Posted February 21, 2009 at 12:05 pm | Permalink

    Oh, this was a wonderful thing to wake up to. This is an issue near and dear to my heart, so it’s great to see it such a solid post dedicated to it.

  11. Naomi
    Posted February 21, 2009 at 12:37 pm | Permalink

    Thank you for this! I’m from Christiansburg, right outside of Radford, and so I was tickled to see a professor from my hometown speaking up about such an important issue.
    This post began with a mention of Diane Sawyer’s interview series, “Children of the Mountains.” I’ve been disturbed by the previews of the piece over the past few weeks, but only this morning did I sit down and actually watch the interviews. It was just as I suspected: although she’s bringing awareness to a very serious problem, she also relied on her subjects to affirm tired stereotypes about the people Appalachia. The stories she focused on were, of course, devastating. However, they were also, in all likelihood, outliers. They were the worst of the generally bad situations, rather than the standard story.
    Furthermore, Sawyer promotes the rhetoric of Appalachia as a place stuck in the past, without modern amenities or lifestyles–as if by choice. At one point, Sawyer actually states that a young girl looks like she could be straight out of a photos of Depression era, poverty stricken families. It is as if devastating poverty doesn’t exist in the “real world” outside of Appalachia now, in 2009!
    Finally, the complete lack of gender analysis is fascinatingly neglected. At least two of the interviewed families were composed of single parent households, with only the mother in the picture. The mothers faced problems of drug and alcohol addiction, and although Sawyer seems careful not to blame the women for their addiction, the narrative suggests that the women are the reason for their children’s suffering. The fact that the fathers are not in the picture is not mentioned.
    I do realize that Sawyer was probably (and within limitations) following this story with good intentions. However, the above are only the tip of the iceberg of problems I have with the series. I understand that this post is about Burris’ discussion of clean coal and the women involved with promoting it, and so I don’t want to steal the thread. But I would love to see a more in-depth discussion of “Children of the Mountains.” There’s a lot to say.

  12. Punchbuggy Green
    Posted February 21, 2009 at 1:59 pm | Permalink

    “I would love to see a more in-depth discussion of “Children of the Mountains.” There’s a lot to say.”
    That would be nice, but I’d be surprised if it happened. Just like SaraLaffs mentioned the lack of national interest for the sludge pond disaster in Tennessee as compared to disasters in California, Feministings’ “interest” with Appalachia will disappear in a few seconds.
    The fact that so many commenters felt the need to say ‘thank you’ for Feministing deigning to address such an issue is telling

  13. katarinaaa
    Posted February 21, 2009 at 2:57 pm | Permalink

    this is amazingly well-timed! i am writing my senior thesis on appalachian women in the 1930s, including a chapter devoted to the stereotypes that abounded at the time, and am thrilled to see something like this on feministing.
    i too watched the diane sawyer interview and was horrified that she was connecting four awful stories (which, i believe, could all have happened in any other place) with a stereotype that’s been beaten to death for over 100 years.
    thanks so much feministing!

  14. 3rdWoman
    Posted February 21, 2009 at 3:07 pm | Permalink

    Thank you! I know its been said, but thank you so much for drawing attention to this issue. This is actually a very timely article as well. Mountaintop removal is one of the major issues that led to the organizing of Power Shift, a climate change focused convention. It’s going on in DC this coming weekend, go to powershift09.org if you’re interested.
    Now, all that said, I am amazed at what seems like a very obvious omission to me. I live in Central Appalachia, West Virginia specifically, and I did not see my state mentioned once. Considering that West Virginia has the highest rate of mountaintop removal behind Wyoming, is known as the Mountain State because it is the only state entirely within the Appalachians, and is so negatively effected financially by a coal driven economy that it was voted fiftieth on Forbes’ list of best states to do business in, this seems like a pretty huge thing to leave out.

  15. nestra
    Posted February 21, 2009 at 3:13 pm | Permalink

    A bit off topic, but I’m from the area and I am so irritated by very nice activists mispronouncing “Appalachia” over and over again — and worse, when they correct the pronunciation of people who are from there!
    Hint, if you say it “AppaLAYsha” or “Appalayshia” you are insulting the culture.

  16. jessmorgan08
    Posted February 21, 2009 at 3:44 pm | Permalink

    YES! I am so thrilled to see this on feministing. First of all, since I watched Diane Sawyer’s piece last week I have been so annoyed- so thank you for posting this and showing that there are layers to the struggle in Appalachia. I’m from Louisville KY and Lexington is close to my heart too, as are those mountains in the state’s southeast. I couldn’t believe that Sawyer thought it more important to mention Mountain-Dew-Mouth and to highlight the life of a single mom addicted to Oxycontin (I mean, seriously? Why not just reiterate some more stereotypes Diane…) than to mention Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, or Diane Gilliam Fisher’s writings, or the coal wars, or Appalshop!
    So, yes… thank you for posting this and showing the complexities of the issues. And connecting them to what’s going on at the state and federal levels. It pisses me off, too.

  17. marisa
    Posted February 21, 2009 at 4:19 pm | Permalink

    So thrilled to see the topic of mountain top removal on feministing! Can’t even believe the complete and absolute injustice to the earth and all the residents residing in the valleys below. Absolute insanity.

  18. Kala
    Posted February 21, 2009 at 7:20 pm | Permalink

    Here are my West Virginian, Appalachian, feminist heros: http://www.highrocks.org/hra/main.asp

  19. 3rdWoman
    Posted February 21, 2009 at 7:38 pm | Permalink

    My mother is from the middle of West Virginia and minored in Appalachian studies while receiving her teaching degree, and she has always taught me that both are actually correct. It is true that most people from the area say Appa-la-chuh, though, and I thought it was hilarious the first few times I heard people pronounce it differently.

  20. adag87
    Posted February 21, 2009 at 8:16 pm | Permalink

    I agree with you in the sense that the Sawyer piece sorely lacked any gender analysis, but I’m not sure I understand your other grievances. Is it wrong to focus on the least fortunate even if their stories aren’t typical? Even if her interview subjects are outliers, why is that a bad thing? Aren’t those people the most muted groups in America today?
    Also, speaking to the invoking of Depression Era poverty… People are doing that all over the country right now. It might not be accurate to say that we’re living in a Depression, but many people are comparing the layoffs and hardships people are facing today to Depression Era struggles. If you find a problem with the comparison in general, then I see your point… but I don’t think that it’s specifically offensive to the people of Central Appalachia.
    I’m also not sure that Sawyer is suggesting that Appalachia is stuck in the past by choice. I think, if anything, she is suggesting that more attention needs to be brought to the poverty stricken areas so that people can be presented with the opportunities that they deserve and sorely lack. There’s even a quote from the president of rural strategies that suggests the same thing “whatever opportunity is supposed to be there, it just hasn’t arrived”.
    The piece glossed over a lot of issues, yes, but I think the fact that any of these voices are being heard at all makes it worth watching.

  21. lenady_s
    Posted February 21, 2009 at 9:23 pm | Permalink

    There’s nothing wrong with focusing on the less-fortunate. However the problem I see a lot of people having, and the problem I have with it as well, is the fact that the same things have been said for decades and all that ever comes of it, it seems, is the same hillbilly stereotype. The 20/20 special showed little balance and a lot of people are afraid that it’s going to perpetuate the same old ideas. Most people I know are proud of the area they live in, and although they acknowledge the problems are there and need to be addressed they are also tired of these programs constantly showing the bad and almost never showing the good. People have worked very hard to counteract these problems, yet the work that we put forth is mostly ignored by programs like this. I found it surprising that it actually mentioned operation Unite. That’s part of the reason I’m so glad to see this interview posted on feministing today, as it names off many local people and organizations that are making a difference in the area.
    And there are problems with the concept of Appalachia being the place that time forgot, as Naomi mentioned. That wasn’t so much a problem with this program, but typically it makes the area seem backwards and archaic and as if we have to be pulled kicking and screaming into the current century. Often it can be very insulting, and although it wasn’t emphasized in the 20/20 program it serves as a reminder of when it has been.

  22. SaraLaffs
    Posted February 21, 2009 at 9:55 pm | Permalink

    To be fair, IIRC Feministing did do a post on the Tennessee sludge pond spill.

  23. La Exigente
    Posted February 22, 2009 at 10:49 am | Permalink

    Thank you for posting this article. I work for Kentuckians for the Commonwealth and have seen how tirelessly people like Teri Blanton, and many many others work to bring the truth about clean coal and MTR to the masses. I am really really really happy to see an article like this on feministing. I don’t think that there is enough discussion about the intersection of gender and the environment. Finally, what really helps us to continue to do our work in Kentucky is people power. Please visit us online at http://www.KFTC.org to learn more about what we’re doing. You don’t have to live in KY to support us either! I encourage you to join Kentuckians for the Commonwealth because we’re all affected by this issue!

  24. Daomadan
    Posted February 22, 2009 at 12:03 pm | Permalink

    I lived in northern Virginia (Middletown) and would do touring theatre productions for low income schools in West Virginia in the Appalachia region and am sad to see it omitted as well.
    It’s a gorgeous state (if people would just stop stereotyping it). I loved driving on the ridges above Charleston and looking down at the gorgeous capitol building by Cass Gilbert who also designed my home state’s capitol building in St. Paul, MN.

  25. dangerfield
    Posted February 22, 2009 at 4:01 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for casting some light on an issue a lot of us would like to see actively examined on a national level!
    My family is from Charleston, WV, and this issue has split us right down the middle. For a lot of mountain-staters, Clean Coal is some sort of knight-in-shining-armor supposed to save the state’s crumbling economy, but a rational look at the science and tremendous negative impact of Mountaintop-removal-mining (its destroying the state’s mountain culture, environment, and the very industry that could save WV’s economy–tourism) debunks that kind of fantasy. We need to get that kind of rationality back into local, state and (with even President Obama’s support of “clean coal” technology) federal legislation.
    Check out the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy (wvhighlands.org) if you are interested in actively fighting for the mountains and Appalachian culture. They also sell the kickass “I (heart) mountains” bumper stickers.

  26. 3rdWoman
    Posted February 23, 2009 at 3:48 am | Permalink

    I’ve found that many supporters of coal in West Virginia are such solely based on the idea that it is providing jobs for them and their neighbors. It’s worth mentioning that mountaintop removal creates the least jobs of any method of coal extraction, providing less than 2% of our state’s jobs. I believe the percentage of economic activity generated by coal altogether in the state is 12%, but I’d have to double check that.
    Also, sorry for posting all through this thread! I’m actually working on a speech about the negative effects of mountaintop removal on our communities, our state, and our country now, and its a subject that is always very important to me as an Appalachian woman.

  27. 3rdWoman
    Posted February 23, 2009 at 3:49 am | Permalink

    I’ve found that many supporters of coal in West Virginia are such solely based on the idea that it is providing jobs for them and their neighbors. It’s worth mentioning that mountaintop removal creates the least jobs of any method of coal extraction, providing less than 2% of our state’s jobs. I believe the percentage of economic activity generated by coal altogether in the state is 12%, but I’d have to double check that.
    Also, sorry for posting all through this thread! I’m actually working on a speech about the negative effects of mountaintop removal on our communities, our state, and our country now, and its a subject that is always very important to me as an Appalachian woman.

  28. knitgirl
    Posted February 23, 2009 at 9:31 am | Permalink

    I grew up in rural Kentucky, left, and returned to the state although I now live in an “urban” area (a medium-smallish city). We discussed the Diane Sawyer piece in depth in one of my grad classes this week. Here are some fun facts:
    1) The producers of the piece worked with the University of Kentucky for about 2 years, following college students from the region and filming pieces about university-sponsored medical and dental programs in the region. This was all cut. All that survived was a few minutes with a history professor. This upset me, as I felt they were leaving out the positive things people in the state are doing to help their neighbors, as well as information about the kids who do pursue education.
    2) One of my classmates was actually interviewed by the 20/20 crew. He talked about his hopes that the Obama stimulus plan would include funds for renewable energy projects that could both provide employment in Eastern Kentucky, as well as free the area from the death grip of the coal industry. His interview was cut; I guess it didn’t go with their theme.
    3) The description “isolated pockets” is right. Within the same county, million dollar homes may exist less than a mile from run-down houses and trailer parks that play host to poverty and its related conditions. So it’s not even a question of widespread dire poverty so much as it is a question of why the economy makes a few people wealthy and leave a lot of people stiffed.
    4) Clean coal is a load of crap. Mountaintop removal is basically raping the landscape. We have to get off of coal as a country, and we HAVE to figure out a way to do it that doesn’t plummet more residents of Appalachia deeper into poverty. See: my classmate’s suggestion of employing the region in creation of alternative renewable energy.
    5) People who defend coal are not stupid or out to kill the environment. They just want their family to have jobs. It’s a structural problem, and we have to find alternate employment for these communities.
    6) I understand that you have to highlight the problems to bring attention to them. But it is possible to highlight cultural problems WITHOUT DEMEANING THE PEOPLE INVOLVED.
    Basically, in my travels across the country, I have found that Appalachians are the last remaining stereotype or group it is OK to demean and mock. Not to play oppression olympics here, but it is no longer permissible to make racist, anti-semitic or other offensive jokes in public. Telling hillbilly jokes is still A-OK in most regions.
    I was disappointed in the Diane Sawyer piece. She is from Kentucky, yes, but she’s from Louisville and I’ve never felt that she had a handle on the Eastern/rural Kentucky situation. I felt the first piece sensationalized poverty, “othered” the people of the region and did little to examine the systemic problems.
    On a personal note, I was told the same thing as the commenter above by my parents: get your degree and run far away. The problem is that when we all do this, nobody is left to contribute to the economic and cultural development of the region.

  29. juliarg
    Posted February 23, 2009 at 10:22 am | Permalink

    I had never visited feministing.com, and with my first visit, lo and behold, all this discussion of the Diane Sawyer piece as well as mountaintop removal.
    I have lived in Appalachia all my life. I live in Kentucky, and cross the river into West Virginia to my job, as a newspaper reporter. Our masthead, actually, prolaims we live in the “Heart of the Trillion Dollar Coalfield”. I was raised here, my father worked on the railroad, my husband was a coal miner and now a truck driver. So I feel I have at least as much authority to speak on these subjects as anyone who has posted so far.
    I have to say the comment by knitgirl is by far the most relative one I have read, including the interview which started this thread with Theresa Burris. I have the same problem with Ms. Burris as I have with Diane Sawyer, namely, don’t come from other parts of the country and explain what our problems are. We know what our problems are.
    They are, largely, the same problems that are facing the entire country: an economy which is lowering everyone’s standard of living, prescription drug abuse and the ‘dumbing down’ of the society, to name a few.
    I want to admit before saying more, I did not see the report. But, I have seen other pieces much like this one, and the problem I have is just as knitgirl said, there are beautiful homes and educated people and children with healthy gums living alongside the families who have children with “Mountain Dew Mouth”. (I don’t know any children with that particular affliction.)
    Bur I digress.
    As for mountaintop removal, yes it is horrific to look at. Yes, it is ruining our beautiful mountains. But, if the practice were stopped tommorrow, then what? If all coal mining stopped immediately, the effect on the atmosphere would be great, but the effect on the country, namely the life people live in the 21st century in our country, would also come to a screeching halt. People need to remember that. Do you not realize that you are bitching your brains out about coal using a computer that is running with electricty that is likely created with coal?
    I realize extracting and burning coal is a horrible practice, and I understand what you are saying, but even if this country stopped using coal, the rest of the world has even worse policies than we do (did anyone else notice the story of the Chinese coal mine disaster over the weekend?). You had better hope clean coal technology ISN’T a load of crap, the government had better sink money into it like they did the space race, because our need for energy isn’t getting any smaller, and we don’t have time to hook everyone up to a windmill before they want thier power. America wants its power now! We are too spoiled as a society to downsize, that is realistic.
    Yes, we need to reshape our economy here in the hills. Yes, we need to rehsape our thinking. Yes, prescription drug use and all the social ills that accompany it need to be a priority, but does that not apply to the entire country? To Ms. Burriss, Ms. Sawyer and others who feel pity for ‘those poor ingnorant hillbillies being exploited by the coal companies’: some of our people are poor, yes, but some of our people make a good living from the coal industry. Some of our people are addicted, but many are not, many go to work in the coal industry, or as doctors or hairdressers or signpainters or computer analysts or ever newspaper reporters. Do a fair report, don’t look at a few examples and use the media to tell the world the stereotypes are true. They may make good TV, but, it ain’t so.

  30. nestra
    Posted February 23, 2009 at 2:30 pm | Permalink

    Good points, juliarg. I think it’s also important to note that just because a group of people do not live how you would want to live does not make it bad. I listened to a recent NPR news story on a neighborhood in New Orleans that was uncomfortable with the rebuilding because of the emphasis on economic growth. Wealth was not a value that they put much emphasis on. In fact, neighbors who were too wrapped up in making money were looked down on.
    I see that in parts of Appalachia, too. I have cousins who live in conditions that other people would find deplorable, but they see it as freedom. They have nothing tying them to a house if they want to spend a few weeks camping and wildcrafting. Most of them have held good paying jobs (did anyone catch that the least experienced coal miner was pulling down $65,000 a year?), but the structure did not appeal to them. If it looked like a good hunting day, they did not want to be at work.
    This may sound very blaming the victim or whitewashing the conditions to outsiders who no doubt think they know more about the area than people from there, and it is definitely not a universal, but it is there.
    I also find the assertion that the area’s economic future depends on ecotourism as patronizing and classist. I spent my teenage years catering to the whitewater tourists with pity in their eyes, coming to gawk at the poor Appalachians and give their fake gasps of delight over the charm.

  31. Dawn
    Posted February 23, 2009 at 2:51 pm | Permalink

    I live in West Virginia and am in complete agreement with Professor Burriss that the culprit is coal. The poorest areas in WV continue to be in coal country. McDowell County, WV, has about a 50% high school graduation rate among all adults.
    Even though the industry runs pretty ads about “Clean, carbon-neutral coal,” there is no such thing. Coal is filthy, and the idea of clean coal is just that–an idea. Try to read up on clean coal technology and you’ll find out there is none. Now is not a time to invest in clean-coal technology; now is the time to invest in sustainable energy production technology: yep, windmills.
    The Sawyer show was disappointing. I can look at the problems of drug use, low education, and poverty in any part of the country (inner city Baltimore, maybe?) but how about a report on the political influence of coal money? Or a look at industrial contamination, or even a look at the nation’s power plants that burn the coal. American Electric Power facility bought out a whole town in Ohio a few years ago because they couldn’t make it clean enough for people to live in (Cheshire, Ohio).
    20/20 picked its themes for shock value, I suppose. Shallow, but hey, that’s entertainment (& not analysis or news).

  32. Meredith
    Posted February 23, 2009 at 5:28 pm | Permalink

    Remember to boycott Bank of America, which funds Mountaintop Removal.

  33. johnsmth.smith15
    Posted June 18, 2009 at 2:27 am | Permalink

    Mountaintop removal mining is a destructive form of coal mining that has already contaminated or destroyed nearly 2,000 miles of streams. The mining poisons drinking water, lays waste to wildlife habitat, increases the risk of flooding and wipes out entire communities.
    John from wireless broadband

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