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Mountain Heroes: Bo Webb

Bo Webb: My Mountain Story

Bo Webb lives in Peachtree Hollow near Naoma, West Virginia, in the Coal River Valley. A sixth-generation resident of the Coal River Valley, West Virginia, Bo is former board president and current member of Coal River Mountain Watch. Bo, a Vietnam War veteran, was one of the community members who helped move Marsh Fork Elementary School out from under a 2.8 billion gallon sludge dam. In 2010 he was one of the leaders of the largest ever national protest on mountaintop removal mining, called Appalachia Rising, in front of the White House, and was co-founder of Mountain Justice Summer. For his tireless advocacy, he was awarded the Purpose Prize in 2010. Today he helps to lead the Appalachian Community Health Emergency (ACHE) campaign, asking the federal government to comprehensively study the impacts of mountaintop removal mining and impose a national moratorium on mountaintop removal mining permits until those studies are completed.

This is Bo's story:

My name is Bo Webb. Growing up on Coal River has been one the greatest blessings in my life. From spring until winter we fished and camped up and down the river. From the mountains above we gathered wild leeks, mushrooms, ginseng, blackberries, raspberries, yellow root, and wild greens. We grew our gardens in the flats of the mountains, in rich black mountain soil. We hunted and preserved our game and garden vegetables. Nearly everyone had a root cellar, and smokehouses were common. 

I first witnessed mountaintop removal coal mining after I began to hear explosions back on the mountain above us. I needed to get a look so I took an old trail up the mountain and watched from an adjacent ridge. I observed bulldozers knocking trees down the mountain into big piles of rubble. Over a period of days, from my hidden post I watched as hundreds of acres of the mountain were stripped void of vegetation. The coal company doused the rubble piles with fuel and old tires and burned them. They then drilled hundreds of holes deep in the earth and filled them with (what I learned later to be) a mix of ammonium nitrate and diesel fuel explosives.

I decided to take a small plane fly-over. From the plane I looked down on pure insanity. Thousands and thousands of acres of mountains were being obliterated, directly above mountain communities. Blasting dust filled the air. Giant coal waste sludge dams containing billions of gallons of toxic coal sludge hovered over the Coal River Valley, one of those directly above our elementary school. I knew I was experiencing a life-changing moment. I talked with my wife that night, and the next day my work began.

My journey has taken me from the hollers of West Virginia to the halls of Congress, to the conference rooms of the United Nations. I began as a volunteer with a small community organization, Coal River Mountain Watch. At that time they were challenging the permitting process and lobbying for a bill to end mountaintop removal. I quickly learned that the mining companies routinely broke the law and had no intention of following regulations within the spirit of the law. I also realized that in a state owned by coal barons, talking to politicians would be fruitless. I began to organize protests that would bring media attention to the issue, thereby informing the masses of this terrible injustice.

Today, mountaintop removal is under scrutiny from the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The EPA has recently stepped in and taken some actions to enforce the Clean Water Act and review mountaintop removal mining permits more carefully. But, the EPA has also allowed some new permits to move forward. Meanwhile, people living beneath mountaintop removal mining are breathing blasting dust residue of diesel fuel, ammonium nitrate, silica dust, and other harmful particulates. Water wells have been poisoned. We are now learning that our garden soil is contaminated as well. We have shocking scientific health data — currently 19 scientific, peer reviewed research papers on health and coal mining, six of which are specific to mountaintop removal coal mining — but our state government is still unwilling to conduct health research.

The science today honestly frightens me: Birth defect rates have more than doubled since mountaintop removal began, cancer rates in mountaintop removal communities are accelerating at an alarming rate. We are witnessing a health crisis.

Because our state government is unwilling to take action, the need is that much greater for the federal government to intervene to protect us and our communities. We are depending on the U.S. government to save us and our hometowns from this destruction. When it comes to reforming and cleaning up the coal industry, change has always had to come from our national government. This is why it is so important for Americans from sea to sea to demand this change from our nation’s leaders in the White House and Congress. These mountains are yours to save, too.

I hope for an Appalachia free of mountaintop removal with our mountain communities reunited in the spirit that was lost when the destruction of our mountains began. After mountaintop removal is over we will work to build sustainable economies within our communities. For now, we must focus on this fight, because we are fighting for our survival. We and the mountains are connected; one and the same. As they are being destroyed, so are we.