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UN Investigates Human Rights in Appalachia

Family history, culture and way of life all change for the worse when mining moves in.

On a sunny spring afternoon, 22 friends and neighbors gather in a picnic shelter in the Appalachian Mountains deep in the heart of West Virginia. They bring stories and photos to share … with a United Nations group investigating human rights violations.

Surrounding them are the remains of mountains decapitated by mountaintop removal mining and leveled to brown rubble. Millions of tons of what had once been the mountains now fill valleys and poison streams with dangerous heavy metals.

One of those mountains is Cook Mountain—what's left of it—and Dustin White, one of those gathered, remembers when the area was not a desolate and depopulated wrecking zone but a bustling community, teeming with life. He mourns out loud to the UN representatives about his loss:

"When my family, the Cook family, settled on Cook Mountain right here, they were farmers. Then they came down into town and settled there. When my eighth great-grandfather died, he had over 100 grandchildren in Lindytown and around. My family helped build those communities, and now they are gone."

Lindytown and the town of Twilight were deliberately chosen by the UN group to visit because they are the tragic poster children for what happens when mountaintop removal moves in. An exodus took place in both towns years ago when TK Coal began exploding the mountains around them. Residents sold their homes hurriedly at below-market-value to coal companies, before their home values could plummet even further and before the mining activity could threaten their way of life and safety.

Some residents stuck it out because, after all, this little piece of land was home to their families for generations. The mountains and creeks were as much a part of them as the creases on the palms of their hands. Where did one end and the other begin?

"These were very small close-knit communities where you knew your neighbor and could trust your neighbor," says Vivian Stockman, who helped arrange the UN visit. "If you weren't home when your kid got off the school bus, you knew your kid was going to be OK."

Then the mountaintop removal started and everything changed. "People would be approached by the coal company and forced to sell their property or have nothing," Stockman recalls. "Property values plummeted. The town was basically abandoned."

Such stories just pour out of the residents, whose numbers have swollen since the UN listening session began. The listeners, from Geneva and Switzerland, hear from residents of West Virginia's Boone, Mingo, Raleigh and Logan counties, and from representatives of Keeper of the Mountains, Coal River Mountain Watch, Blair Mountain Heritage Alliance and more as the day goes on. There are many different stories with a common theme—about how home values, family history, feelings of belonging, culture and way of life all change for the worse when mining moves in.

Water quality is one of the major changes, illustrated by a sample of contaminated water brought to the gathering by Delta Merner of the Blair Mountain Heritage Alliance. Her testimony is of particular interest because the UN declares that access to clean water is a human right, and the United States backs that principle up with its 40-year-old Clean Water Act.

After the visit, the UN group holds a press conference in Washington, D.C., to reveal its preliminary observations: "We have heard allegations of significant adverse human rights impacts, most notably related to the enjoyment of the rights to health and water … the Working Group urges that these allegations be investigated and addressed as soon as possible."

The UN group says it will make a detailed official report of findings and recommendations to the UN Human Rights Council in June 2014. The report will facilitate dialogue between the United States and other member states of the UN Human Rights Council about improving respect for human rights.

"I just hope somebody in the Obama administration takes notice," says White. "Hell, we had the United Nations down here. We had somebody from the UN who apparently took notice, and they saw it with their own eyes. That's huge. We've now had the United Nations in places where we can't get the EPA and the Obama administration to go. I just hope it makes a difference."

Written by Liz Judge. First published in the Summer 2013 issue of the Earthjustice Quarterly Magazine.

"We've now had the United Nations in places where we can't get the EPA and the Obama administration to go. I just hope it makes a difference."

Dustin White
Boone County, West Virginia