Saturday, March 28, 2015

Day 10: Final Reflections

As I reflect on our trip to West Virginia and Washington, D.C., a few things come to mind:

1. Things don’t always go according to plan.

Sometimes you get lost. You make a wrong turn on the highway and drive 15 minutes in the wrong direction. Sometimes you have to drive through D.C. during rush hour because you type “Georgetown University” into your iPhone and it directs you to Georgetown Law instead. Sometimes you get stuck in traffic because of a rockslide or you lose traction driving up a muddy slope on a mountain top removal site and start sliding backwards. Things happen and that is ok. What’s important is how you react. This trip taught us that keeping a positive attitude, staying calm, and remembering that everything works out makes even the most stressful and frustrating situations manageable.

2. Money and power rule the world.

This was iterated several times by coal miners, the President of AEP, Directors of the EPA, Bill McKibben, etc. Most of the people with whom we talked wanted to do the right thing. They wanted to comply with environmental regulations and provide people with jobs, but their hands were tied because of economics. The reality is that our representatives take contributions from diverse interests and this influences their decision-making. For example, the EPA could not pass regulations on mercury contaminants from coal-fired power plants for 25 years because the Bush Administration blocked them. I agree with Bill Mckibben when he says that the environmental movement will never win by fighting against big money. He will always lose because we have far less of it. But we can win, or at least slow down other interests, with numbers. We can take power away from big corporations by refusing to work, by changing whom we purchase goods and services from, by decreasing our consumption, by creating our own businesses, etc. But this is only effective on a large scale, and this is difficult when people have bills to pay and mouths to feed. Money inhibits our country’s ability to truly be democratic. This needs to change.

3. Acknowledge your bias and have an open mind.

Most of the people we talked to had expectations for our group. They assumed we would be liberal, white, upper-middle class students who cared solely for the environment and nothing else. As one man at New River Technical College said, “We thought you were gonna be a bunch of closed-minded hippies.” But we surprised them. As an excited Ruby said after our conversations with dozens of ex-miners, “you all just blew their minds.” This was possible because we went into each and every conversation with an open mind. We listened carefully and engaged in a dialogue. Most importantly, we encouraged everyone we spoke with to ask us questions rather than having it only be the other way around. This broke down barriers of difference and allowed us to be honest with one another.

4. Individuals matter.

One thing that became very evident on our trip was the fact that everyone in West Virginia knows Mike King. At the elementary school we visited on Tuesday, Becky asked the kids if anyone knew Mike King. Six kids raised their hands. I was amazed. Mike is an inspiration. He brings people together and motivates them to adopt a goal and to work hard to reach it. This has led to several successes such as the remediation of Morris Creek Watershed, cleaning up of Mike’s neighborhood, education on river ecosystems in local classrooms, job training opportunities at the New River Technical College, and more. Mike has touched so many people and will continue to do so. His example proves that one person can make a difference, especially if he is passionate about something.

5. It is far easier to place blame than to act.

People rarely take ownership over their problems. For example, several of the ex-miners we talked to were quick to criticize the EPA, government, and coal companies for laying them off, but they were reluctant to do anything about it. They feel powerless, and this makes me so mad. People should feel like they matter. They should feel like they are smart and capable. It only takes one person to motivate a group of individuals to act, to protest, to clean up a neighborhood. We need to give people the tools to do these things, and this begins with an understanding that they have power, that they have the ability to make a difference and change the trajectory of their lives.

6. Always bring an umbrella to D.C.

The sky might rain on you. Our group learned this the hard way as we walked to one of the congressional buildings in the Federal Circle. With squeaky shoes and soaked clothes, we met with one of Senator Manchin’s correspondants. This made our first impression less than ideal, although I think we made up for it with our active listening skills and intelligent questions.

7. Actions are not isolated.

Every environmental issue is nuanced; there are often several factors contributing to it. This makes implementing a solution incredibly difficult because fixing one problem often creates another. For example, the ban on fracking in New York has indeed preserved natural resources in the state. However, because those living in Manhattan continue to demand energy, exploitative practices will simply move to states with less power to prevent them, such as West Virginia. This is unjust, but it is the reality. Our actions have consequences. This doesn’t mean we should not act, but rather that we should consider all repercussions of our actions very carefully before implementing them. 

- Sam Parker '15

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Day 9: From Creek to Congress

After a week in the rural town of Montgomery, West Virginia, we spent the day in a radically different environment: the streets of Washington, DC. We exchanged homemade coffee from Morris Creek Watershed’s aged Keurig for a brisk cup of Starbucks. We exchanged our comfortable minivans for bustling metros. And we exchanged the offices of coal and electric companies for the offices of a senator and EPA official. 

After a twenty minute walk unfortunately in the rain, we were ready to meet with Sam Runyon, West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin's legislative correspondent on energy, environment, and agriculture. Sam assists Senator Manchin with day-to-day news updates, scheduling, and policy analysis. First, we talked about our involvement with Mike King and Morris Creek over the past few days. While she didn't know Mike (unlike most people we met last week), Sam's childhood, like those of most West Virginians', involved discussions about the future of coal. As a Charleston native, Sam understood a lot of our experiences with members of the coal and energy communities on both sides of the ledger.

We began the conversation by asking about the Senator's official position on coal. We learned that although he supports research in alternative energy, Manchin still believes coal is an essential part of life in West Virginia. With that in mind, his office believes that coal cannot be replaced as an economic driver, a lifestyle, or an industry any time in the forseeable future.

There are, however, possibilities for a gradual shift towards alternative energy and away from King Coal. Sam explained that Senator Manchin had mentioned the possibility of introducing a bill to the rest of the Energy and Natural Resources Senate Committee that would create a means-tested program of tax breaks for individuals who installed solar panels and invested in solar energy. While far from comprehensive, this plan would be a good first step towards a more economically diverse and sustainable West Virginia.

In the afternoon, we met with Alex Barron, the Environmental Protection Agency's Deputy Associate Administrator for the Office of Policy. For an hour, he explained the EPA's rule making process, talked about its standard operating procedures, and discussed the Clean Power Plan, a revised set of standards expected to go into effect this summer. The talk was an informative and helpful firsthand introduction into the workings of the most prominent part of the bureaucracy in the environmental policy domain!

- Abhishek Bhargava

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Day 8: Off to DC!

It was with a heavy heart that we left the Holler and Mike King in Montgomery, West Virginia. We began our travels to Washington DC, an important part of our service trip to learn about the policy side of energy and how it affects communities like Montgomery. Our host at Georgetown University helped to organize a symposium featuring prominent environmental advocate, Bill McKibben. His talk, “In Nature’s Wake,” was definitely today’s highlight! We heard him speak on the current environmental movement a quarter century after the publication of his book The End of Nature. He said that one of the great things about the environmental movement is that it is without clear leaders, but he is clearly one of its leaders!

McKibben said that the “battle” for climate is for power rather than reason—the scientific consensus on climate change is old news, yet the debate in politics rages on. Some governments deny climate change altogether: Florida's Rick Scott recently banned the phrases “climate change” and “global warming” in official communications. McKibben says we are fighting for “control of the zeitgeist,” the power to shape the perception of the present and more importantly, the future. Should we envision business as usual for the future?

Those who are on “the other side,” the fossil fuel proponents like the Koch brothers, have far more money than environmental groups, so McKibben says the environmental movement must rely not on monetary power but on passion and spirit.

How to tackle environmental injustice? McKibben suggests “gestures.” Gestures are symbolic, but they have physical impacts on environmental issues. Gestures, like protests by indigenous groups or colleges’ fossil fuel divestment, can have real, physical effects on policy. He mentioned the successful lobbying against the Keystone XL Pipeline. For creating gestures, McKibben says creativity is the greatest tool. He essentially equated gestures to art: effective ones can be creative and even beautiful. A unique point of his talk that resonated with me was about how older citizens make great activists. He said that if you’re twenty and have an arrest record, that could make finding a job difficult, but if you’re retired… you’re basically invincible! I learned earlier this term that the AARP is one of the most powerful and largest interest groups in the nation. After the talk, I asked him whether has partnered with the AARP to mobilize all of these potentially powerful environmental activists. He replied that it is hard to partner with the AARP, but he has written for the AARP magazine and there are environmental groups for elderly people.

While McKibben is compelling, our group felt that his rhetoric oversimplified the climate movement into “we” versus “them.” There are not only two sides, and collaboration between groups and individuals with different perspectives is certainly possible. We have witnessed the complexity of the problem while we were in West Virginia. For example, the president of the Morris Creek Watershed Association, which works to restore Morris Creek after coal mining damage, is also the vice president of Triana Energy, an oil and gas exploration company with practices that take environmental damage into deep consideration. Our group acknowledged that McKibben knows that the issue is far more complicated than his language suggests, and his rhetoric is a skillful and useful tactic for his message to access more people.

- Savannah Liu '18

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Day 7: Fish and Fracking

We started off our day at Pratt Elementary School, where we spent time with the 5th grade members of "Fish Club," who were participants in Morris Creek Watershed's "Trout in the Classroom" program. The program provides trout eggs to elementary school children in and near Montgomery. The students then spend months caring for and raising the trout until they are ready to be released into Morris Creek. Our group spent about an hour talking with the kids about the projects and their perspectives on the environment and West Virginia. A highlight for me was speaking with one of the girls who told me how she first learned about mountaintop removal. She was on a field trip to the state capital building, and there was a protest out front against mountaintop removal. She then went home and asked her dad what it was. Her response was: "They shouldn't do that, first because it's ugly, and also because it's gonna kill all the things that live in those mountains." It amazed me to hear her intuitively voice some of the major concerns of the environmental movement: damaging our planet's natural beauty and destroying ecosystems. It was also interesting and heartbreaking to hear how many of these kids had a parent with cancer. It was purely anecdotal evidence to support the belief that mining practices are driving up the risk of cancer, but anecdotes are really all the region has a lot of the time because not enough studies are being done, which is its own form of injustice and neglect that Appalachia faces.

We then went to visit the WV Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), escorted by Glenn Nelson, a DEP biologist who focuses on water quality. A handful of DEP employees talked to us about the many diverse roles their agency plays from monitoring non-point source pollution, to stream habitats, to fracking. Immediately afterwards, we met with Eddie Grey, who is both the President of Morris Creek Watershed and the Vice President of Triana Energy, which is an oil and gas exploration and production company. According to Mike, Triana is doing "about as good a job as they can" and have set many industry standards for fracking practices. Eddie spent nearly two hours with us giving a presentation of fracking and answering our many questions. Our whole group walked away feeling like we had absorbed a ton of information. I, for one, found the information to be incredibly thought-provoking because I am realist who knows fossil fuels are going to be a part of our energy production for at least the foreseeable future. Given that, the question becomes: what is the cleanest, safest, least destructive, and most just fuel source to use? Having just visited a mountaintop removal site two days earlier, and sitting there listening to a leader in a company that demonstrates how fracking can be done in a reasonably responsible manner, I did feel a pull towards believing that natural gas may be the answer, given our limited array of options at the moment. I definitely will want to do some more research and thinking on the topic, and I think a lot of us felt the same way, which I think is a sign of a great learning experience.

After driving back to Montgomery from Charlestown (which took more than twice the time it should have due to a rock slide and subsequent road closure!), we filled up on a burrito dinner and had a wonderful closing conversation with Mike and Wanda, in which we discussed everything from gun control to how the lovely couple first met. Mike also left us with a sparkling piece of wisdom in the form of "if you have to eat a turd, swallow it, don't nibble at it" for our last night in West Virginia.  

- Catherine Feuille '15

Day 6: New Expectations and Reputations

Today was my favorite day by far (which is why I'm writing the blog tonight), and it was because of a multitude of people. 

We got up before dawn to blearily drive an hour away to New River Community and Technical College to speak with students of Mike's. Originally, I had assumed that they were students our own age. However, most students were those who had already had a number of careers, but had been laid off and come to New River to be retrained. 

The first three men we spoke to were all in training to get their Commercial Driver's Licenses. All had been laid off from previous mining jobs. All spoke openly about their perception of coal, jobs, and health. One man in particular saw the coal mine owners as being exploitative of their labor force. For them, he said, men were the same as the machines.One of the men, Bob, mentioned that because of their ages - all were in their late 50s - they were usually passed over in favor of younger hires for truck driving jobs. However, there is such high demand in the trucking world for drivers that even "us old guys" get hired. 

We then sat down with three women in one of the classrooms. The purpose of meeting them was originally to talk about their roles at the college. But it shifted after a time to a conversation about their lives as miners' daughters, granddaughters, and wives. Two women had had husbands in the mines - one who been permanently injured in a mine accident, and another who'd finally had to retire after 30 years of wear and tear on his body (and two fingers lost over that time). Both said that without hesitation their husbands would go back to the mines if they could.

Mike then sent in a couple small groups of linesmen trainees to speak with us. The age range varied a great deal, from one man was in his 40s (and had done 13 years with the military, 9 years in the mines, and was working on what he hoped was a career with some longevity) and another man had graduated high school last year. The latter essentially summed up that this is what he felt was his best option to create a life for himself and for any family he would be raising in the future. We asked if they would be able to find jobs in WV after finishing the program, and they responded that it was almost unlikely. Most would have to move out of the state for a few years to where the jobs were. 

There is so much more that was told, but there is no way I can convey it all in a blog post. Speaking with all these people was on par with watching a dramatic scripted movie scene in which you get all these revelations about the characters and why they are who they are...except that this wasn't scripted and it wasn't a movie. These people were honest, open, and shared their stories with us. 

One thing that particularly struck me today that I'd never really considered all that much was what the West Virginians thought of us. We had only talked a little about the perception of the Appalachian "hillbilly" that is so prevalent in the rest of the US. I hadn't really thought about those preconceptions being turned around on us, except our reputation as a group from Dartmouth College. After we spoke with the last group of linesmen trainees, I went searching for Mike and got caught in conversation with a trainee. He told me that our group wasn't what he had expected at all. I asked him what he meant by that.

"Well, most people come here and basically call us idiot pigs for working in the mines," he replied. "I was expecting that when we walked in to talk with you all."

He'd been expecting a bunch of idealistic college students who were expecting to change the world by coming down and yelling at the miners who were doing such horrible awful things to the environment. (I asked him this. He concurred.) I smiled and left to learn to climb the lineman's pole with some others, but I was so proud of our group for NOT being what they thought we would be.To end: I didn't realize how much I'd learn after having been here last year as well. This whole trip has been slowly reinforcing that I will forever be a perpetual student.

- Ruby Hopkins '17

Monday, March 23, 2015

Day 5: The Highs and Lows of the Mountains

Today was the first day we actually witnessed mountaintop removal coal mining. Ed Turner, a civil engineer and point person for Walter Energy, gave us a tour of the Maple Coal site. We were able to gain a better understanding of the causes and consequences of mountaintop removal coal mining as well as interact with our preconceived notions in a new way. At the end of the day, we were introduced to some instances of hope surrounding coal that gave us a better perspective on the community as a whole.

During the tour, Turner described the process of reaching coal seams, extracting the coal, and then preparing and refining it. The plant currently employs 168 workers, a third of the pre-2008 force; market fluctuations caused significant cutbacks which lead to the company laying off many workers, including two female workers in a male-dominated field. One surprising tidbit from Turner was that Walter Energy did not have any geologists on staff, so engineers have to fill the gaps in such a geologically complex industry and region. Turner also pointed out the advances in mine safety over the decades; for example, miners now use limestone dust to prevent coal dust from causing respiratory illnesses. An often overlooked consequence of mining is that trees on the mountains must be clearcut. The transportation costs of the timber left after these clearcuts are often prohibitively high, so the trees are cut and burned, instead of used for biomass, construction, or paper milling.

In the second half of the day, we visited various waterfalls and scenic vistas around the New River Gorge Bridge, one of the oldest rivers in North America. A highlight of the day for some of us was a short hike along the Long Point Trail to an overlook of the gorge. This was one of many instances of hope that we saw throughout the day in contrast to the environmental destruction of the mine. In these past couple days, we talked to many people, including young leaders from various parts of the community and got to hear their nuanced perspectives. We have also begun to better appreciate this community and how much promise there is for those who live here. Importantly, during our reflections, we are discovering our role as supporters of the already existing efforts of local people, such as the Morris Creek Watershed Association, who are actively working to bring about positive change in their own communities.

- Amber Ahronian '17 and Anirudh Udutha '18

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Day 4: Wading In and Digging Deeper

Today we woke up in our cabin, had cereal, bagels, and orange juice for breakfast, and headed out at 9:30 am. We started the day by picking up trash along Morris Drive, the street where Mike's house is located; we jumped in a trailer dragged by Mike's car and split into two teams in the middle of the street. The ride was a little bumpy but exhilarating, especially since the weather was nicer! Carrying trash bags, pick-up sticks, and wearing working gloves, we cleaned the street in the holler. Some neighbors even came out and asked us where we were from. The street looked so much cleaner after our work, and we sincerely felt like we brought a positive change to the community.

The sun came out around lunch time, so we could eat outside around picnic tables. We made our usual sandwiches and pita wraps, then Mike and John invited us to some ice-cream at their house.

In the afternoon, we went wading in Morris Creek. We borrowed the long waders from the Morris Creek warehouse and hopped on the trailer to the sampling sites. Mike backed the trailer into the stream and put down the back panel so that we could jump off. We walked right up to the spot where orange water joined the clear water. One group started doing bug collections and then pebble-length measuring while the other group went to check out other parts of the stream. The sampling work was led by a ecology professor from WV Tech. We were excited to stick our hands into Morris Creek's chilly water and "leave no stone unturned" to find the bugs living under the rocks. We found out that we do this sampling before dumping limestone so that we could measure the effect of the limestone on the creek habitat. Next, we moved to another sampling area further up the creek to do the same work. We enjoyed experiencing the work of volunteers in the organization while looking around at the scenery of the trees and mountains under a clear sky in Montgomery.

We made a delicious stir-fry for dinner and shared some meaningful reflection about our experiences so far on the trip and about what we hoped to accomplish in our remaining days. We discussed our schedule for the week and whether we should focus more on learning or on service as well as what those terms mean for us. We decided to contact Mike after dinner and listen to more of his stories to really understand the history of his organization and the whole picture of his work.

At Mike's house, we learned that after 40 years of work at AEP (American Electric Power), Mike started the Morris Creek Watershed Association because of his deep love for the mountains and concern for local people. In 2001, Mike and his co-workers picked up 9 tons of trash from the creek, changed its route, and experimented with various ways to reduce the metal contents of the stream. Mike also invited his friend, Dave, to join us during this discussion. Dave is one of the workers affected by the shutdown of AEP's coal factories (due to new EPA standards) that we learned about from the Appalachian Power president on Thursday. Dave offered us another perspective of the problem which is very personal and powerful, especially when contrasted with the president's. After our discussion, we went back to our cabin with new thoughts and insights about the challenges in Montgomery and beyond.

- Elaine Chen '18