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Appalachian women put strip-mining on trial

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- It's been almost 35 years since Lois Gibbs became an environmental activist after she discovered her 7-year-old son's elementary school in Niagara Falls, N.Y., was built on a toxic waste dump.

This week, Gibbs was in West Virginia to hear the stories of women whose families live near mountaintop removal coal mining operations. Gibbs was one of three jurists in an effort by Appalachian women's groups to put the coal industry on trial.

On Thursday, women from across the coalfields of West Virginia, Kentucky, Virginia and Tennessee gathered in Charleston to talk about blasting, dust and polluted water.

"The evidence we heard was compelling," Gibbs said Friday during a meeting with Gazette staffers.

Among other things, Gibbs and her fellow jurists heard from Beverly May, a family nurse practitioner from Kentucky. She gave a rundown of the studies by West Virginia University researcher Michael Hendryx and his colleagues that point to links between living near mountaintop removal and being more likely to get cancer or be born with birth defects.

"All of the research points to what mountain people have known since strip-mining began," May said. "It is not possible to destroy our mountains without destroy ourselves. It is not possible to poison our streams without poisoning our children."

Ivy Breshear, 23, said she's worried about having children, given the proximity of her homeplace in Eastern Kentucky to mountaintop removal operations.

"If we don't stand up for ourselves, we must stand up for future generations," Breshear said.

Janet Keating of the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition said there has been a "deafening silence" from local political leaders about the WVU studies showing mining's relationship to public health problems.

"The industry has always said in the past, 'You just care about the mayflies and the salamanders,'" Keating said. "It's not just about mayflies and salamanders."

Coal industry officials favor mountaintop removal, saying the practice is the only efficient way to get at some thin seams of Southern West Virginia coal. The industry has also recently donated $15 million to a Virginia Tech-based project to produce reports that respond to scientific papers like those authored by Hendryx and by other researchers who have examined mining's impact on water quality.

Gibbs and her fellow jurors, Bolivian activist Elizabeth Peredo Beltran and Civil Society Institute energy analyst Grant Smith, recommended an immediate moratorium on mountaintop removal and more detailed studies on the practice's impacts on public health.

The Central Appalachian Women's Tribunal on Climate Justice was sponsored by Loretto, an international public interest group, and a variety of local organizations. Results of this week's tribunal will be delivered in June at the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development in Brazil, along with information from other women's group tribunals on other issues around the globe.

Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kward@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.


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