The Appalachian region boasts a long, proud history of resistance by individuals, organizations, and alliances working to stop strip mining abuses in the region, beginning in the 1960s. The Appalachian Coalition Against Strip Mining formalized some of these efforts in the 1970s by working with a national coalition of groups from coalfields across the country for federal legislation to ban the destructive practice. Groups fought against the inclusion of a mountaintop removal variance in the federal law and also worked for steep slope limits to mining and other protections for communities. Despite those efforts, the final bill that passed, the Surface Mining Regulation and Enforcement Act (SMCRA) of 1977, included a mountaintop removal variance and did not include other provisions like a steep slope limit. Experience told activists that coal companies would take full advantage of these loopholes and so many coalition groups called on President Carter to veto the legislation, to no avail.
Regional coalitions and alliances are hardly new for the region, but rather past collaboration provides a framework for political change that can be modeled on the successes and failures of the Appalachian Alliance, Save the Land and People, the Council of the Southern Mountains, and other similar bodies.
Over the past decade, organizations in Appalachia have picked up where these groups have left off, working together to fight the abuses of mountaintop removal made possible through SMCRA through grassroots organizing and leadership development, state and national policy work, state and federal litigation, extensive use of the media, and technical assistance. In many instances, the joint work has been informal, but because of the extreme political and economic power of the coal industry, groups fighting this battle agreed that no single organization could win alone. Thus, The Alliance for Appalachia was formed.
The first years of our Alliance were spent building trust across organizations and across state lines with groups who brought different strategies, perspectives, relationships, and histories to the table. From 2007-2010 we took on a federal-level campaign to pass the Clean Water Protection Act–that would ban the dumping of mining waste into our valleys and streams and significantly curtail mountaintop removal. We also used our collective strength to pressure the new administration to take a stand against coal-industry abuses by ending the issuing of destructive permits.With this effort came our largest national victory as a movement and one of the most significant environmental justice victories in our region in decades. The Obama Administration released the “Interagency Action Plan to Address Strip Mining in Central Appalachia,” a Memorandum of Understanding between the Environmental Protection Agency, Army Corps of Engineers, Department of Interior, and Council of Environmental Quality. The plan resulted in the suspension of 86 permit applications, 79 of which were held for further review. In the years that followed, many of these permits were withdrawn, expired, were vetoed, or remained suspended–gumming of the wheels of the coal industry’s efforts.
Since, our coalition has continued to support trainings and collaborative opportunities that strengthen relationships regionally and nationally. By way of example, we’ve brought together economic transition experts and leaders to map our regional landscape and discuss strategies for community based growth. We have also created opportunities for local leaders to participate at the forefront of historic movement events such as Appalachia Rising in Washington DC, the march on Blair Mountain, and the annual Week in Washington, which has brought hundreds of Appalachian residents and allies to DC over the years to lobby Congress and engage with federal policy makers.
Currently, the Our Water, Our Future campaign works to pressure the Obama administration to take action to end mountaintop removal and reinvest in Appalachian communities. We see this campaign and initiative as a key bridges that connect the ways in which we are 1) combating the dangers associated with new mining 2) mitigating the toxic legacy costs of coal industry abuses and 3) organizing for a transition to a sustainable future.
With support from the AppFellows program, and after years of hosting regional conversations on economic transition, we are building a new research project and campaign to reclaim Abandoned Mine Lands (AML) and address the toxic legacy of coal pollution. We anticipate this effort will turn into a regional campaign along with local pilot projects that engage diverse stakeholders and create real opportunities for our region.
As always, we will continue to provide regular gathering and strategy-building spaces that are pivotal to navigating the ever-changing landscape in Appalachia.