Jane Branham is doing her best while the land that she grew up with is being torn apart by mountaintop removal - the most destructive mining practice in North America, if not the world.
"Doing her best" means "working to make a difference." She is a retired nurse with long, flowing hair and a singer-songwriter who has chosen to raise her voice for the well-being of rural Americans and America's biologically rich mountain lands.
The organization she represents, SAMS,is smack in the middle of one of the hot conflicts surrounding mountaintop removal. For five years, residents have held off the blasting of Ison Rock Ridge, a mountaintop surrounded by the extreme southwest Virginia towns of Inman, Appalachia, Andover, and Arno.
Today, the good people at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) are reviewing the permit for Ison Rock Ridge. The coal companies want to tear down the EPA to get their blasting permit. The health and welfare of thousands of lives hangs in the balance.
What the EPA will do now with the Ison Ridge permit is unknown. Jane works with the hope they will fulfill their mission to protect the people, the land, and the water from the ravages of mountaintop removal.
NYLM: Would you tell us a little bit about yourself and life in the region around Ison Rock Ridge?
Jane Branham (JB): I was born in a little town called Pound in Wise County, Virgina, the daughter of a coal miner. We grew up poor like most folks but we were happy.
We lived on a small farm with a large garden and some farm animals.
Our family was very close. After church on Sundays we would all pile in the back of my grandfather's Jeep pickup truck and head to the mountains for a picnic and to play softball or pitch horseshoes.
We would sometimes dip into a nearby stream for a cool swim or just enjoy the sounds of nature.
In fact, I remember bird watching and enjoying birds that I no longer even see such as Painted Buntings, Indigo Buntings or Scarlet Tanigers. Back then, the land was not scarred from surface mining. Our mountains and forests were full of the sound and smell of life.
At the young age of 18, I moved west with a naive hope of making the world a better place.
NYLM: How did you get involved in fighting mountaintop removal?
JB: I returned home in the early 80's and saw what was happening to my beloved mountains with coal extraction; something I had never before seen since coal had mostly been extracted underground. I realized then that making the world a better place needed to begin at home.
Some of the mountains I fondly remembered were literally gone from mountaintop removal and entire communities were beginning to disappear.
For the last five years, I have volunteered my time to stop the destruction around me. I have been a board member of Southern Appalachian Mountain Stewards (SAMS) for five years and am now Vice President.
NYLM: Please talk about SAMS and SAMS' role in the Ison Rock Ridge permit fight.
JB: We are a grassroots organization with a community based membership. We largely work with communities within Wise County. In surrounding counties we do some water testing. We also stay informed about pending permits in those areas.
Our mission is to stop the destructive practice of mountain top removal coal mining, surface mining and destructive mining practices while rebuilding sustainable communities in our region. This area is a prime example of a mono-economy, with coal being pretty much the only job source.
We have held off the Ison Rock Ridge permit for five years.
This permit would blast away almost 1,300 acres of mountain sitting amidst five communties and nearly 2,000 residents, including the town of Appalachia.
NYLM: How about the communities that SAMS serves?
JB: The people who settled this area were mostly of Scotch/Irish/English descent, who came to this far western wilderness to escape the tyranny of their European heritage. Many were indentured servants. Once it was discovered that we had rich coal reserves, large land holding corporations moved in and began to purchase land and mineral rights for literally cents.....
People here were so poor that it seemed a good deal at the time. It worked well for large coal companies who, after buying up all property and/or property rights, managed to gain a slave labor force with people who had few choices for income.
The history of coal and how it came to own a people and their land is not pretty. Many of my ancestors worked on their hands and knees daily to pick, shovel and haul coal from beneath the earth; even small children were forced underground to survive.
My great-grandfather was one of many who fought for unions and fair labor practices but change came at a price with many losing their lives in the battle. They remained poor and even now, prosperity has fallen into the pockets of the rich.
We remain one of the poorest areas of this country.
NYLM: Among your many roles, you are also an artist - a singer/songwriter, is that right? How has music played a role in your work to make a difference in Appalachia? What recording of
your music have you produced and what's it about?
JB: Yes, I am a singer/songwriter. I have played guitar and written songs sinces the 70's but, with my music partner, recently recorded and released a CD titled "Mountain Fall".
The title song of the CD is called "Mountain Fall (Ode to Black Mountain)."
It tells the story of Black Mountain which sits in Wise County and seperates Virginia from Kentucky. I have fond memories of this mountain...as a child, my family used to hike its rich forests to hunt mushrooms and herbs. Today, on the Virginia side of the mountain, the scars are a sight that will make even the strongest break down in tears. What it once was is forever gone, replaced with a barren, useless wasteland.
There is also a song on that CD called "Stop Tearing the Mountains Down" which reflects what I see from the top of High Knob (the second highest mountain in Viriginia located in Wise
NYLM: What is the history of the coal company and the permit to blast Ison Rock Ridge? Does the company's track record have anything to do with the vibrant opposition to the permit that has held it up for five years?
JB: The name of the coal company seeking the Ison Rock Ridge permit is called Southern Coal, previously A & G Coal Company. A & G coal company has a ruthless history. Several years ago, one of it's employees was running a piece of heavy equipment on a mountain top above the coal camp community of Inman. A boulder rolled off the mountain top onto the home of a family below and crushed a three year old child named Jeremy Davis to death. The company did not even have a permit to be working where they were.
The family was paid hush money and the company paid a small fine. It was then that SAMS was formed and residents marched through the town of Appalachia to protest this outrage.
About two years ago, a public hearing on the Ison Rock Ridge permit was held at the Division of Mines and Minerals (DMME) office in Big Stone Gap, Virginia. Instead of speaking in a public setting, we were made to enter single file into a room where our comments were tape recorded. In that room was the person running the recorder, an official of DMME, and a top official of A & G Coal Company. He wrote down our names and addresses and anything else he wanted.
NYLM: That's outrageous! People accepted that?
JB: We protested this man's presence but to no avail. We petitioned for another hearing to be held in one of the communities that would be impacted. Finally, we did have the hearing in the community of Andover.
The churchouse was filled that night with mostly elderly residents.
An employee of A & G Coal Co. came into the chapel, reeking of alcohol, and yelled out, "So when tree huggers die, do they go to heaven or just back to the earth?" Few knew what he meant, as they were there to save their homes.
NYLM: What is at stake in this conflict over Ison Rock Ridge?
JB: Right now, some of the streams at the foot of this proposed permit are officially declared impaired by the EPA, full of poison from mining discharge.
I think people are outraged that our state agencies have no regard for our waterways or the lives that will be impacted if more mining continues. These communites lie at the foot of Ison Rock Ridge and having seen what MTR has done to the mountains and streams up the holler from them, this permit is right in their front yards.
I believe only a few people are speaking out because they are afraid. Many have family members working on these mine sites and the intimidation is ever present from both families and neighbors to the coal corporations themselves.
NYLM: What about you? How do you endure in this long struggle?
JB: I have personally been threatened, but I endure to fight for those afraid to fight for themselves and I guess that's who I have always been. I see these coal
companies and our own government agencies and politicians who support coal without question as evil forces; their love of money comes at a high price.
NYLM: What do the people around Ison Rock Ridge want from this struggle?
JB: These people live in what appears to be the battllefield of a war zone. I think they just want peace and the right to live without the constant barrage of coal trucks speeding past their homes, black dust and blasting that tears their homes apart. They would like to see their children and grandchildren be able to play safely outside. To swim, fish and get baptized in the streams the way they did.
You can't even get into the streams now; many are void of life and full of poison. Even wildlife here has cancerous tumors. People here see their youth either become coal miners, move away to find jobs or sink into despair.
We have the highest rates of drug addiction, disability, suicide, birth defects and cancer in the state. Many people here feel hopeless that things will change or get better.
NYLM: Where do things stand with the permit? What is the Environmental Protection Agency's role in its outcome, and how, if at all, can we influence the outcome?
JB: The permit is now being held up by the EPA but we get the impression that a decision will be made soon. The EPA has been instrumental in holding up many MTR permits and as a result has attracted tremendous political flack, even to the point of calling for its demise. I recently heard one of the GOP presidential debators call for an end to "the reign of terror by the EPA."
The reign of terror is from filthy rich corporations and their bought-off judges and politicians who would stop at nothing, including destroying the future of America, to line their pockets with blood money.
The EPA needs all the positive comments they can get. Call them, write them, meet with them, write about them, talk about what is going on and educate others to the truth.
Change comes from the bottom, not the top. All meaninful changes started with the powerful voices of the people. The power of people is a force that cannot be ignored. This is a crucial time in our country; this is the time when all people should raise their voices for justice.
NYLM: New York State purchases and burns a small amount of coal from mountaintop removal. NYLM advocates for an end to importing the stuff. What would a ban in New York State on buying and burning mountaintop removal coal mean to the communities around Ison Rock Ridge?
Of course this would be a great move, but.... I believe the next war may be fought over water. I can live without coal, but I cannot live without clean water [poisoned by mountaintop removal].
NYLM: In New York, Occupy Wall Street (OWS) has captivated our attention. OWS has created a space for new voices to talk about what nobody in the media or public square would speak about.
How do you relate to the Occupy movement?
I totally get the Occupy movement. We are among the 99%. We have watched our mountains, forests, streams and communities slowly but consistently disappear. No prosperity has remained here. This is third world America and we see our beloved land and our very lives being exported to fuel the Asian boom.
Most voices here are never heard but if you walk the roads of these communities, knock on doors and talk to the people, you will find a mostly elderely generation, many retired coal miners, who have a love for and understanding of many things.
Many are raising their grandchildren because their own children have fallen into drug addiction. Many of these people are sick and seldom leave their homes. Many have lived their entire lives in these communties. Almost all of them support the work that SAMS does.
NYLM: Anything that surprises you most about this struggle to save Ison Rock Ridge and its surrounding communities? And, what gives you the most hope for the future, for making a difference?