Still ferocious in the fight against mountaintop removal mining after all these years
Ken Hechler, thank you and Happy Birthday! (Photo courtesy of Ken Hechler)
On December 28, 2012, Earthjustice lost its original Mountain Hero, Senior Legislative Counsel Joan Mulhern, who passed away after a long illness. Joan will be greatly missed.
Read Marty Hayden's tribute and a memorial to Joan from the Earthjustice Quarterly Magazine.
Ken Hechler is an American hero. He has worked in public service for his entire amazing career; he served in the military, as a White House aide and speechwriter, as a national and statewide elected official in West Virginia, as a member of the U.S. Congress for 20 years, and then as West Virginia Secretary of State. Today, as he turns 98, he is still a dedicated public citizen, especially in his efforts to stop mountaintop removal, the devastating coal mining practice that is destroying the mountains and streams of central Appalachia and threatening the health and lives of people who live in communities surrounded by mines.
No one who has met Ken will ever forget him.
I first met him in 1999 when I started at Earthjustice. Joe Lovett of Appalachian Mountain Advocates and his colleagues had just won the first-ever federal court ruling against mountaintop removal. This set off a political firestorm in West Virginia and at the U.S. Capitol. Efforts were underway to overturn the decision by exempting mountaintop removal from federal environmental laws.
Ken inspired the citizen activists and all of us in D.C. to fight back. He moved us with his eloquence and his sense of humor plus love of music. One of the first times I saw Ken perform was at the U.S. Capitol, where he entertained but also moved us with his rendition of “Almost Heaven, West Virginia” by rewriting the words to say “Almost Level, West Virginia.”
One of his mottos is “I’m a fighter,” and he is. In 2010, Ken ran for U.S. Senate on a platform to stop the destruction caused by mountaintop removal. In 2009, Ken and others were arrested for civil disobedience for protesting a coal plant above an elementary school where children were forced to play in a toxic dust-covered playground.
This activism is just the latest in a long career of fighting for justice. Ken was the only member of Congress at the time who marched with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in Selma. He spent many years in Congress trying to abolish strip mining, including mountaintop removal. Much devastation and harm over the last 35 years would have been avoided if Congress had adopted his bill.
Ken, if there is anyone we need to be with us for another 98 years, it is you. We will keep working with you to stop mountaintop removal well before that. But we look forward to celebrating your 100th birthday in 2014, and many more to come.
On behalf of all Americans and people everywhere who care about justice, thank you and Happy Birthday!
Photos of Ken and some of his life’s work and history fighting strip mining are online at his website. View his Earthjustice “Mountain Hero” tribute.