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Mountain Heroes: Jane Branham

My name is Jane .

My heart belongs to Virginia’s mountain folk.
They deserve better than mountaintop removal.

When I hear personal stories of people and their suffering, that’s what really keeps me going. My heart is with all of these communities.

Jane Branham: My Mountain Story

Jane Branham is vice president of Southern Appalachian Mountain Stewards (SAMS), a citizen group in southwest Virginia that is working to protect communities from coal pollution and end mountaintop removal mining. Born and raised in the mountains of Wise County, Virginia, Jane left home at an early age to change the world. Later, she realized if she was going to change the world, she needed to start at home.

This is Jane's story:

My name is Jane Branham. I guess you could say I grew up “poor” by most people’s idea of it. My father was a coal miner, and when he was working we were doing OK, but work was always up in the air. We were happy and never considered ourselves poor. We lived a simple life, and it was a good life.

Even then, though, there was coal pollution around us. But there was no strip mining in our area, so the level of pollution was nothing like it is today. When I turned 18, all I could think about was getting out into the world and seeing what was going on, so I had barely turned 19 when I ended up moving away.

I returned to southwest Virginia in the early ’80s and for the first time witnessed the destruction of the new face of coal mining. I drove over what we call Fox Gap. It used to be a beautiful valley in the mountains, and when I saw it, my heart stopped. As far as my eye could see the beautiful mountains and forests I remembered had been turned into a useless moonscape, void of life. I saw mountaintop removal for the first time, and I could not believe what they had been doing while I’d been gone. That first sight of it has haunted me ever since.

I got married, went to school, and became a registered nurse. Knowing I wanted to do something about mountaintop removal mining, I found my way to the Southern Appalachian Mountain Stewards, a group that was focusing on coal issues and the effects of mountaintop removal mining on the people of southwest Virginia, and seeking ways to rebuild our communities.

In addition to working to end mountaintop removal, we’ve focused much of our work on improving the air quality in these coal camp communities where the heaviest extraction is occurring. You see, it used to be that railroads carried coal; the communities were cleaner then. But with the demise of the unions in the late ’70s, the railroads closed up and the place died. That’s when non-union coal companies came in and started strip mining because it was cheaper, and the public roads became coal haul roads. Today, you can’t even hear yourself think, it’s just coal truck after coal truck.

The first thing we did was begin to monitor the air in the community of Roda. There is a public record of our findings. It showed three times the EPA’s accepted level of air pollutants. When you drive into that community, it looks like a war zone. There is just a black cloud hanging over it, and the grass and weeds on the sides of the road are black. People are just choking on dust. The trucks are just non-stop all day long and all night long, spewing dust. Upon getting our air monitoring results, we began to engage the Air Pollution Control Board of Virginia.

Wise County’s mortality rates are 25 percent higher than the rest of the state, according to Virginia’s health authorities. And throughout the coalfields, cancer rates and birth defect rates are much higher as well. In response, SAMS started doing our own health surveys. The results have shown us how sick the people are who live closest to mountaintop removal sites. It’s been an eye-opener.

About 90 percent of the people living in these communities feel their health problems are related to the strip mining and hauling of coal. They don’t like it at all. But many of the people in these coal communities are elderly, and many are just struggling to get by, raising their children, grandchildren, and dealing with their own problems. Their health problems alone are overwhelming, and their access to health care and medical facilities is terrible. I’ve never seen worse.

Many have relatives, friends, and neighbors who work in the mines and who are worried for their jobs. I don’t ever blame the miners. They’re trying to put food on their family’s table. I truly believe that if they had a choice between blowing up the mountains where they live and finding a job with comparable pay that doesn’t destroy the community they live in, they would take that job. But right now, too many people here don’t have that choice. Our political leaders, who are funded by coal industry money, have kept it this way by allowing the coal industry to run roughshod over these communities and keep other business interests out. It's time to change that. We need to demand that our politicans work for us and for our well-being, not for a single industry.

When I see politicians lying to communities, and looking after interests that are lining their pockets, it infuriates me – enough to keep me going. When I hear personal stories of people and their suffering, that’s what really keeps me going. My heart is with all of these communities.

There is rising awareness among the youth that coal is no answer for our future, and that we have to move on. I’m not saying that we can get rid of coal entirely tomorrow, but we need to start thinking about sustainable energy, and stop this insane subsidizing of the fossil fuel industry. My hope is that we start rebuilding our community to what it used to be before coal ever invaded our lives.