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February 20, 2009

Appalachia in the Spotlight

Keep the mountains beautiful.
Photo: Appalachian Voices

by Sara Tucker

People who saw "Children of the Mountains," Diane Sawyer's exposé of Appalachian poverty, on ABC's 20/20 last week have been peppering the blogosphere with questions about how to help. (ABC's own post about the show had gathered exactly 1,776 comments at last check.) Offers range from the wide-open ("My family is willing to extend any sort of help to the children of this area. If any next steps can be taken, we would love to know") to the specific ("I am a semi-retired veterinarian and I am very interested in moving my mobile clinic into the region Ms. Sawyer covered in her report").

Countless bloggers wrote about the show. "Jesus," posted a follower of Cajun Boy in the City (where the entire program can be fuzzily viewed). "This is heartbreaking. I'm going to quit bitching about my job and go hug my kids."

Plenty of viewers criticized the program, and some, like "Crystal" at Right Pundits, were offended by it ("well this is stupid, i live in the montain && these pictures must of been took years ago because where i live little babys are clean && have all the toys && food they need. and i hate to tell all of the people that read this but the montains aint tht olny place tht has drug problems && povety levels"). But while the stories of American children living in poverty made thousands of viewers want to reach out, most had no clue what to do. "Does anyone know of a donation or address where I could send canned goods for these people," an LA Times reader queried at Show Tracker, "or clothing that I don't wear anymore?"

One sympathizer spoke for the masses: "My heart was broken completely, but I mean, what can we do though? Where do we go from here?"

On Tuesday, a bunch of ready-to-rock Kentuckians shot back an answer.

To back up: Sawyer's documentary was made all the more poignant by its timing. It happened to air on Friday the 13th, the same day a federal appeals court in Richmond, Virginia, issued a ruling that will have tremendous impact on the lives of mountain children for generations to come. The court eased the way for coal companies to resume leveling whole mountaintops to get at coal reserves, a practice that environmental groups have been fighting for more than a decade. Mountaintop-removal mining, says the Web site of the citizens' group Appalachian Voices, "involves clear cutting native hardwood forests, using dynamite to blast away as much as 800-1000 feet of mountaintop, and then dumping the waste into nearby valleys, often burying streams." (The Mountaintop Removal Road Show has scary photos here.) The Environmental News Service reports that "since mountaintop removal coal mining began in 1970, an estimated 1.5 million acres of hardwood forest have been lost, over 470 mountaintops have been blasted, and 1,200 miles of Appalachian streams have been buried."

Friday's decision--which the Huffington Post called "a big win for mine operators" and the Charleston Gazette labeled "a huge setback for environmental groups that want to stop or seriously limit large-scale strip mining across Appalachia"--helped draw some 500 protesters to Kentucky's Capitol on Tuesday in support of "stream saver" legislation that would ban the burying of headwater streams in mining waste. "Killing Mountains Kills People" was the message painted on one marcher's sign.

Blogger Tom Eblen, a columnist for the Lexington Herald-Leader, was at the rally and had this to say in his February 17 blog entry: "More than 500 Kentuckians--from toddlers on their parents' shoulders to seniors in their 80s--marched up Capitol Avenue and gathered on the Capitol steps. . . . The marchers carried signs proclaiming 'topless mountains are obscene' and urging 'not one more mile' of streams be destroyed. They lacked the coal industry's economic or political power. Instead, they sought to harness moral power."

Among the protesters was actress/activist Ashley Judd, a Kentucky native, who delivered an impassioned 20-minute speech calling for an end to mountaintop removal. "Judd was the highest-profile speaker at the annual 'I Love Mountains' rally, held in support of a bill that's been bottled up in the House Natural Resources and Environment Committee for several years," reported Louisville's Courier-Journal.

"Mountaintop removal mining is a scourge on our land and on our people," Judd said. "It's killing our mountains--the very thing that produced us."

The marchers have an uphill fight. Coal rules in the Kentucky hills, and throughout the Appalachian mining region. "We've had a hundred years of being told not to speak out against the coal industry," a protester told Eblen. "It's hard to break out of that culture. We've been taught to feel powerless."

The I Love Mountains coalition has issued a "Bloggers Challenge" to help end mountaintop removal. The group is also urging voters to write to Congress in support of the Clean Water Protection Act. Any 20/20 viewers still wondering how to help Appalachia's poor might want to take a look at the group's action-oriented Web site here.

Further reading:
* How to Help the Children of the Mountains: List of resources on ABC's Web site
* Coal Tattoo: Mining's Mark on our World: Blogger Ken Ward, Jr., a Charleston Gazette staff writer, has covered the Appalachian coal industry for nearly 20 years. Ward is a three-time winner of the Scripps Howard Foundation's Edward J. Meeman Award for Environmental Reporting. His blog rocks.
* Ashley Judd at Condé Nast Traveler's 2008 World Savers Congress
* The Aggregator: News of the week in links


Want to know how to help the people of Appalachia? Volunteer with Appalachia Service Project ( or make a gift today ( We make houses warmer, safer and drier at no cost to families in need, while offering life-changing experiences for the families, volunteers, and staff alike.

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