More than a dozen state legislators came to Hazard, Kentucky on December 3 to view mountaintop removal sites and hear testimony from Eastern Kentuckians about this form of coal-mining. The media was out in full force, as well. As recently as a year ago it seemed impossible to ever get this many politicians to listen to those who were against mountaintop removal, so this was an important day in the fight against mountaintop removal and was a well-organized event set up by Kentuckians for the Commonwealth.
Silas House delivered the following testimony at the gathering:
I want to offer my thanks to Chairman Moberly and all the members of the A&R Committee, and to all of you for taking the time to come and listen to us. I have been actively involved in the fight against mountaintop removal for three years now and during that time one of the main things that I wanted was for our representatives to listen to us, to see for themselves the devastation of mountaintop removal with their own eyes. So I offer you my genuine and deep gratitude.
Like many others across Kentucky , I have a complicated history with coal. It has marked my family just like it has marked the land. My family was able to rise up out of poverty in large part due to jobs provided by the coal industry. My mother is proud to call herself a coal miner’s daughter. My uncles are proud of the many hours they spent underground, on strip jobs, and driving coal out of these mountains. My grandfather lost his leg in a cave-in at a Leslie County mine, never losing consciousnesses until the doctors at the Hazard hospital knocked him out. He recuperated for six months and then promptly went back into the mines, where he worked for twenty more years. My people are proud of their coal mining heritage, of the hard work they have done in these mountains. None of them got rich from working in the mines, but they were able to make a living, and that was all they were asking for.
I am proud to come from a people who helped to build this nation.
But I also saw another side of coal. I was raised across the road from a sprawling strip mine. For three solid years everyone in my community breathed the dust and grime, put up with the constant blasting, heard the groan of dozers. We watched as the coal company’s overloaded trucks destroyed our road and when we complained we were told that our taxes would pay to fix the holes. When the company pulled out they scattered some grass seed that never took, planted a few scrub pines, and left, never looking back. Twenty-some years later, that land is still struggling. Some of it is out-right dead.
Looking back, I learned a lot of lessons from this experience. Although people in our community complained, they were mostly met with silence. The handful who did get their phone calls returned were given the runaround by their government. We were told that it was our duty to the region, something we had to put up with to support the economy. We were told that complaining about it would cost other people just like us their jobs.
Everybody in my community worked like dogs, raised their children the best they could, stood in line on every election day. Yet it seemed that no one cared about them. They were a forgotten people. An invisible people.
I developed complicated feelings about the coal industry from these very different experiences. Mostly, I fell in line with other family members, usually justifying the actions of the coal company by reminding myself that we had to support the economy, that Eastern Kentucky couldn’t make it without coal. This is what I had been taught. This is what the companies had brainwashed us to believe to keep us from questioning them.
And then, I went up in an airplane, just as you’ll be able to do eventually. And at the risk of sounding over dramatic, I have never been the same since. I couldn’t believe that such disrespect could be done to the land, to the people, to my heritage.
My convictions only thickened when I heard stories from the people. And I educated myself, researching both sides of the argument, which led me to the conclusion that mountaintop removal is wasteful and disrespectful. That it takes jobs away from the region instead of supplying them. That it epitomizes everything that is wrong with big business: corporations putting their bottom line before their ethical responsibility. Mountaintop removal is a case study in greed, in taking from the community without giving back, in instant gratification.
We are at a crossroads here in Kentucky . This issue will prove to be a defining moment for us. We live in a world where our children have very few people to look up to. We live in a society where money is valued more than integrity or respect, or just about anything, to be quite honest. We need heroes. And this is your chance to be someone who stands up for something important, to stand up and say, “This might not be the most popular thing to do, but I’m going to do it anyway because it’s right.”
In times when people feel invisible to their leaders, they often turn to the
artists in their community. That’s why so many writers and musicians and photographers and other kinds of artists have become so active in the fight against mountaintop removal: because the people have asked us to. I can’t tell you how many people have written to me to thank me for standing up and saying that mountaintop removal is wrong, for speaking out for what I believe in. I also can’t tell you how many people have written me nasty letters, or have cussed me out, or have refused to speak to me at family gatherings.
For the last three years I have heard the testimonies of more than four dozen Eastern Kentuckians who are living with mountaintop removal in one way or another. And every single one of them always finishes by saying: “Tell my story.” After the very first person said that to me, that became my responsibility. There was no turning back.
Their voices became the burdens of all the artists fighting mountaintop removal. We felt a moral obligation to tell their stories, to be their voices, to make the invisible visible. But, as artists, we can only do so much.
As our elected representatives, these stories and everything you see today now becomes your burden. By virtue of your constitutional authority, each of you has the ability to truly change people’s lives by standing up for your constituents – whether you represent Eastern Kentucky or Western Kentucky or Lexington or Louisville – and saying that they deserve better. That they deserve to be seen and heard. That their land and woods and water and roads deserve respect and protection.
That mountaintop removal is wrong.
That our brothers and sisters living in the shadow of this awful practice are no longer invisible to their leaders.
I know what it’s like to feel invisible. I felt invisible the time I was far away from home and somebody called me “a stupid hillbilly.” I felt invisible when an editor at a major New York magazine told me a joke about “incestuous Kentuckians”. I felt invisible when I overheard a woman in a not-far-away city make fun of the way my mother talked. I felt invisible when I was giving a speech on mountaintop removal in New York and someone stood up and asked if the reason my people were allowing such a thing to take place was because they were so ignorant.
I’m not the only one who feels this way. Our region is invisible every time one of our politicians blames our water pollution mainly on straight pipes, thereby suggesting that pollution is the fault of Eastern Kentuckians and not the coal industry. We felt invisible when the chairman of the Natural Resources Committee said that he had heard no public outcry against mountaintop removal from the people of Eastern Kentucky, even though we had marched and lobbied in Frankfort and given speeches and sung songs and spoken at community meetings and written to the paper and begged him to help us.
We are entire state of people who feel powerless and unseen by our leaders. And so I thank you for making us feel visible today, for seeing us.
When you are able to do that flyover, I hope you will see what lies below you with open eyes and an open heart. See all those trailers and houses that sit just at the edge of those sites. Think about how it would feel if you didn’t have any other choice but to live next to such a thing. And think about the people who live there, about the children and the babies and the men and women who work hard and just want to come home and enjoy their little spot of land on this earth. People who have had joys and sorrows and hopes and dreams, who are just trying to do the best they can, to get through the day without hurting anyone. People who are now looking to you to do the right thing.
Look down at the roads and think how we’ve paid for them over because of corporation coal companies overloading the coal trucks. Realize that those creeks and rivers below you carry the remnants of mountaintop removal to people all over this state and this country.
This is a chance to show our fellows Americans that the stereotype is wrong: that Kentuckians are not ignorant, that we’re not the sacrificial lambs for big business anymore, that we have elected politicians of integrity who are going to stand up for us.
I’m not asking you to ban coal mining. All I’m asking is for you to see the problems that mountaintop removal is causing, to see how it’s a sacrilege to the land, to stand up and say, “Now listen, we can mine coal, but we’ve got to do it with some integrity, with some respect, with some compassion for the land and our people.” To vote for more regulations and then to make sure that those restrictions are enforced. To follow the leadership of Representative Don Pasley and support the Streamsaver Bill when it is introduced next legislature session. This is not a Democratic or Republican issue. It is an issue of being informed, of having the courage to do what’s right.
Andrew Jackson once said that “one man with courage makes a majority.”
You have this golden opportunity to make the invisible seeable, to make the unheard audible. Most of you went into public service because you wanted to do something important, because you wanted to change things, because you wanted to make a difference. These mountains are offering you the perfect opportunity. You’ve listened to all of us today, you’re about to see the devastation done to the land. So now, it’s up to you. We’re depending on you. And we thank you.
Silas House is a respected KY author (Clays Quilt, The Coal Tattoo)