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Mountain Heroes: Cindy Rank

My name is Cindy .

Ending mountaintop removal means honoring
Appalachia's mountains, nature, and people.

Once you stand on a streamside with vibrant life all around you, and then return to that same spot a year or two later and find the stream gone and nothing that even closely resembles that valley or forests, you never forget.

Cindy Rank: My Mountain Story

Since 1979, Cindy Rank has spent countless volunteer hours with the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy, as chair of group’s Mining Committee. An ever-persistent, quiet, and scrupulous researcher, Cindy is the humble backbone of decades of efforts to hold accountable the agencies whose responsibilities are to strictly enforce federal and state mining laws. Truly an unsung hero, Cindy was instrumental in bringing the first-ever citizen lawsuit over a mountaintop removal mine, the Spruce No. 1 mine, almost 13 years ago. She shies away from attention while remaining one of the country's most diligent and steady government watchdogs. With the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy, in partnership with Earthjustice and Appalachian Mountain Advocates, Cindy has been leading the challenges — through the courts and the agencies — against the most egregious violations of the laws that are meant to protect American citizens.

This is Cindy's story:

My name is Cindy Rank, and I live in Rock Cave, West Virginia. I grew up visiting West Virginia from my native Pittsburgh, but one particular visit in December 1971 changed my life forever.

Four of us friends visited acquaintances in central West Virginia, enjoyed their hospitality in their small self-built home in the hills, spent a night in a cave on their property, and walked for hours on their 45 acres of heaven.

Serendipitously, family members wanted to sell that piece of property, and at less than $50 per acre, who could resist? No matter that there were no level places to speak of for a house on the property.

My husband Paul and I bought the land and began transitioning to our new life in West Virginia. We brought many willing hands to enjoy the wilds with us and to accomplish the very satisfying construction of our very own cabin, which has expanded over the past 40 years to become the home we never want to leave.

For a few years we were living the dream in the gorgeous mountains of West Virginia. We welcomed a physically demanding and labor-intensive life with the land there and our mountain life was a constant source of joy, inspiration, and strength.

But in 1977, when strip mining permits threatened to forever pollute our local streams with acid mine drainage and tear apart our communities, our world changed, and life hasn’t been the same since.

Our connection to the land and the mountains now serves as anchor in what I quickly learned was a far more demanding world a world in which powerful polluting industries would exert a direct and devastating control over my little corner of the world, my adopted state, and its streams and hills that I had come to cherish.

Together with friends we formed our local group Friends of the Little Kanawha and fought to protect our homes and water resources. We joined the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy, and I continued to learn about coal mining and the laws meant to regulate the impacts of mining. Since 1979 I’ve spent considerable amounts of my volunteer time with the Highlands Conservancy attempting to hold accountable the agencies whose responsibilities were to strictly enforce federal and state mining laws.

The first time I personally saw mountaintop removal mining was in 1994 on a mine tour of the Dal-Tex mine in Blair, West Virginia, a town known for the historic labor uprising of 1921, the Battle of Blair Mountain.

I am at a loss for words to adequately describe that feeling of standing on the edge of a six hundred-foot-deep gash in the earth at the Dal-Tex mine, but it literally took my breath away and sent a cold, dark chill into the very depths of my being.

Though I had heard about the size and scale of these newer, bigger strip mines, I was totally unprepared for the visceral and visual impact of seeing those mountaintop removal mines first-hand, and being present in the midst of such totally earth-shattering operations.

Seeing that destruction only strengthened my resolve to do what I could to save our mountains, waters, and communities.

The Dal-Tex mine, as monstrous as it was, had clearly pushed beyond the limits required by law. It was so over the top that it perhaps for the first time attracted media attention to the big strip mountaintop removal mines that had developed fairly hidden among the hills and almost unnoticed by the public at large.

I have spent the decades since educating myself and others about the destruction of mountaintop removal mining and the fight to end it. With the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy and our partners at Earthjustice and Appalachian Mountain Advocates, I’ve been challenging through the courts and the agencies the most egregious violations of the laws that are meant to protect us. We’ve been working to lessen the assaults on the waters essential for our survival.

My memory of another beautiful stream valley haunts my days. You see, once you stand on a streamside like Connelly Branch of the Mud River, with vibrant life all around you, shaded by the steep hillsides that rise above, and then return to that same spot a year or two later and find the stream gone and nothing that even closely resembles that valley or forests, you never forget.

I wish we would have ended mountaintop removal mining by now, but I know we’ve made progress and at least prevented much worse. As hard as it is for me to accept, I do believe that even what appear to be small victories make a difference, slow the tide of destruction, and are worth whatever improved mining practices that occur as a result. People in Appalachia are still suffering greatly, but were it not for those small victories many more communities would already be gone.

Aside from any victory, what keeps me going in this fight is the world around me. It is the smell of the earth in the spring, and feeling the cold stream flowing over my feet. It is the belief that the beautiful and life-giving natural world is to be honored and cared for, and that the people here in West Virginia and Appalachia need and deserve what time and energy I have to give.

I am still holding out hope that we can end mountaintop removal mining and strip mining completely, and that we can do it without substituting some other equally destructive practices. And I’m committed to this fight, so that at least some small undisturbed parts of West Virginia and Appalachia, which I love so dearly, will survive.