Ten Residents of the coalfields of West Virginia, Kentucky, and Tennessee returned this week from the United Nations headquarters in New York where they represented Appalachian Coalfield Communities in the United Nations Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD), which continues to meet through May 12.|
WV Mountaintop coal removal has been featured recently in National Geographic and Vanity Fair.
The Appalachian Coalfield delegation met with representatives of the US State Department's Special Delegation to the CSD to give firsthand testimony of the impacts of mountaintop removal mining, valley fills, and coal sludge impoundments.
"How can you tell me this is sustainable energy?" said Larry Gibson of Kayford, West Virginia, as he addressed the US representatives. Gibson asked the State Department to respond to the suffering in the coalfields and to explain their time line for transitioning away from fossil fuels, which, he said, are limited resources that are causing damage across communities in Appalachia and the world.
The State department failed to address Gibson's question.
"I was upset to hear the U.S. government claim to be 'setting examples for quality of life in developing countries.'" said Pam Maggard of Perry County, Kentucky.
"They need to check out the quality of life for the people in the coalfields who have no access to clean water!"
At the first plenary session the coalfield delegates attended, a representative of the Pfizer Pharmaceutical Corporation stood to speak for the United States government.
Witnessing a corporation represent the United States at a United Nations meeting affirmed the resolve of coalfield delegates to represent the voice of people.
"It's a marriage between government and corporations," said Randy Wilson of Kentuckians for the Commonwealth from Clay County, Kentucky. "and we are not being represented."
"Instead of the talking heads in the big conference rooms filling us with the corporate talk of how great they are, they need to hear from real people who pay the real sacrifices for their profits," Said Bo Webb of Coal River Mountain Watch in Raleigh County, WV.
Students at Marsh Fork Elementary School, near Webb's home, go to school at the foot of an earthen sludge dam and next door to a coal processing plant.
The UN CSD is one of the few avenues through which civil society can speak at the United Nations. The coalfield residents had a strong presence at this year's CSD, which focused on reviewing policy regarding "Energy for Sustainable Development."
Walking the halls of the UN headquarters in New York in bright green and yellow t-shirts that read, "We are the Keepers of the Mountains," Coalfield delegates successfully raised awareness among international representatives and alerted other delegations of the sacrifices people are making in the coalfields.
They met with people from around the world who are paying the human costs for cheap energy including communities where energy is extracted from fossil fuels, hydroelectric dams, and uranium.
At the Partnerships for Sustainability Fair, delegates showcased stark pictures of the devastation caused by mountaintop removal and coal sludge. Donetta Blankenship of Rawl, WV, showed representatives of other countries and organizations the jar of dirty water that came out of her tap.
"The coal sludge injected underground has made its way into our wells," said Blankenship, "and has caused illnesses in the families of this community. We shouldn't have to fight for good clean water."
"Many of these folks say Mountaintop Removal sounds like something that would be going on in a third world country, not in the US." said Maria Gunnoe with the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition from Bob White, WV.
"The citizens of the world are realizing what fossil fuel extraction is doing to our earth, and they are not willing to accept this as a sustainable future for our children."
"People such as us have very little if any influence on the process at this time," said Webb, "but I do think that can be changed if we are willing to be bold enough to change it."