MONIQUE T. VITCHE
Familiarity with the coal industry is not a trait of many students here at FDU.
For Joe Lovett, however, the coal industry is something his work focuses on. He is the co-founder and executive director of Appalachian Mountain Advocates in West Virginia.
In addition, he is an environmental advocate and lawyer who has received awards for his work on behalf of central Appalachia.
On Oct. 29, he was joined by investigative journalist Bob Hennelly in Lenfell Hall for a conversation about “The Politics of Coal.” Hennelly has worked at WNYC and Pacifica News Network.
Their discussion was part of this year’s WAMFEST lineup surrounding Appalachia.
Lovett began the conversation by talking about how coal is intertwined in the culture and politics of the Appalachian region. His law firm challenges coal mining in Tennessee, West Virginia and many other states.
The Appalachian region is a “sub-region that transcends state lines,” he said, adding that West Virginia is the only state that is located completely within the area. The eastern parts of Ohio, Kentucky and Tennessee, the southwestern part of Virginia, and parts of Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Maryland, New York and Pennsylvania are all also part of the region.
This area happened to also be a major zone for coal mining. Strip mining has been going on in the Appalachia area since the 1950s and expanded in the 1970s and 1980s.
In the 1990s, mining companies decided to blow up mountains, Lovett said. One of the problems with this is that the streams within the Appalachian region are the birthplace of U.S. rivers, including the Ohio River.
“Pollutants, rocks and dirt now float down to the streams,” Lovett said. “This has an impact on aquatic life and the ecosystem.”
Another problem with this is that once these areas are stripped, forests don’t grow back. Lovett said it becomes pavement forever. An estimated 1 million acres have been stripped in the region since the 1980s.
What Lovett and Appalachian Mountain Advocates do is sue coal companies for violating regulations.
Hennelly asked what kind of successes are ideal for the advocacy group.
“A good day is when a judge says a mine can’t go forward,” Lovett said. “We need to wean ourselves off coal. When coal is burned, it’s destroying some place.”
Hennelly also asked if Lovett could talk about the labor narrative.
“Labor unions in Appalachia were a large force,” Lovett said. They opposed all strip mining until the 1970s. The unions lost power and then a series of actions in the early 1980s led to them having to stop their opposition.
The mining companies do not own the land; they are mining absentee land owned by people and organizations not residing within Appalachia. The reason they own this land is specifically to have it mined, Lovett said. He noted that Harvard University was one of the largest owners of absentee land in the area.
Hennelly asked if there was any media coverage of what was going on with the coal and mining companies in the region, to which Lovett said there was “one really great reporter.” He added that public radio used to come out strong on the issue, but now it is scarcely mentioned “because they are afraid to report.”
“Is there a way to heal the divide?” Hennelly asked.
“Either the planet will not survive or we will stop burning coal,” Lovett said after saying it was a false divide.“Appalachia is a beautiful region.”
He said that the economy in Appalachia is waiting to get rid of coal and get decent jobs, rather than be trapped. He spoke briefly about Matewan, an Appalachian town that is now a ghost town. The movie, “Matewan,” was shown earlier that day. Lovett also talked about McDowell County in West Virginia, which he said has approximately 60 percent unemployment, while the town of Welch has gone from a population of roughly 6,000 people
in the 1950s to a population of just 2,406, according to 2010 census data. According to the Census Bureau, a 2012 estimate
puts the number of residents even lower at 2,325 people.
There is another environmental problem with the production of coal. Lovett said that coal produces more CO2 gas per BTU – British thermal unit – than natural gas. Additionally, the life cycle of coal is infinite.
“You never get rid of coal,” he said.
During the question-and-answer section, an audience member asked what kind of action can be taken. Lovett said to call oil companies, coal companies and banks that give loans to those companies and tell them not to use Appalachian coal.