Mountain Heroes: Mickey McCoy
“You have just got to give the human race a big high five when you see some of these people who are getting involved in this peaceful movement to stop mountaintop removal, many of them young people—it’s just wonderful...To all my brothers and sisters who are in this movement and to those who are ready to join us, I cry, 'Hoka Hey!'”– Mickey McCoy
Photo by Mark Schmerling
Mickey McCoy: My Mountain Story
Mickey McCoy is the former mayor of Inez, Kentucky, a town that captured the nation’s attention when a massive coal waste dam failed and flooded it in 2000, destroying farmland and poisoning the people’s water supplies for years to come. It was this historic disaster that changed the course of Mickey’s life, transforming him from a retired high school English teacher to a pulpiteer for justice and a defender of mountains, waters, and Appalachian communities. Mickey is a member of Kentuckians For The Commonwealth, and when he’s not plain-speaking on mountaintop removal, urging state and federal officials to enforce the Clean Water Act and protect Appalachian citizens, writing letters and op-ed pieces, and leading and sitting in peaceful nonviolent protests, he’s running a café and sandwich shop in Inez called Metrobilly.
This is Mickey's story:
My name is Mickey McCoy. I live in Inez in Martin County, Kentucky, where over 30 percent of the county has been leveled by strip mining and mountaintop removal. I’ve lived my entire life here in Inez and will probably end it here in Inez.
Growing up in Inez was wonderful, and I think that’s why I remain here, and why I will fight until I die here in Inez. Our surroundings when we were kids nurtured us. We’d stay out there exploring all day, across one hill and onto another. We learned to respect our surroundings. Now it’s such a shame to see that kids today couldn’t do that if they wanted to — their mountain or their hill is missing because of this ungodly practice of mountaintop removal and strip mining.
There’s a creek that runs through town called Rockcastle Creek. When I was a kid, we swam in that creek, in this big hole of water where the water ran still. At the age of 9 and 10, I was bringing home the bacon for my family because I’d been fishing there all day. I’d come in with a big stringer of rock bass and bluegill, clean ’em, and my mom would fry ’em up.
You can’t do that now. The water’s poisoned, the creeks don’t have the quality of fish in them, and if they do, there’s mercury running through their veins. A lot of that is due to all of the mountaintop removal around here.
When a mountain is blown up, it releases toxic heavy metals that were just fine in the state of nature that they were, but those heavy metals make it down to our groundwater or our streams and creeks, where we get our city municipal water. The water is full of these carcinogenic heavy metals that constitute poison for my culture. And not just poison of the fish, but poison of the people, poison of the land.
The first time I was on a strip job, it was ghostly. It was haunting. There was no life there, and nothing to sustain life there. It was just a great scab on the face of the earth. I went away to college and things started changing back here. More and more strip mining came about because it would save the coal companies money, because it required fewer workers. It’s profitable for them, but it’s a total annihilation of our central Appalachian culture.
And then on October 11, 2000, we had a massive toxic coal sludge spill right here in Inez that to this day continues to poison our waters. This sludge dam burst through the bottom and came out two sides of the mountain, releasing 300 million gallons of toxic waste onto our community. It was flowing all around us like a slow, black lava, thick and glistening. There were things floating on top, God knows what kind of chemicals. I had a ringside seat when the sludge made it down to my front yard, along Rockcastle Creek.
My creek ran black for a long, long time. Everything was dead and smothered. It was a wake-up call for my wife and me. We realized that we had to stop this abomination, not only to save the mountains, but to save the people. It’s more than an environmental problem — it’s a health problem. People around here are dying of all types of cancer. This pollution attacks the kidneys, the bladders, the stomachs, the brains of people young and old. To date, there are 20 scientific studies showing a relationship between mountaintop removal and the sickness and deaths.
It’s hard to win this fight from inside of Appalachia. Many of my state’s lawmakers are in the pockets of King Coal, and everybody knows someone who works up on a mountaintop removal site. Those people up on the mountain, they’re just trying to make a living. It’s not the employees’ fault. But hell, you shouldn’t have to blow up the mountain in your backyard to make a living.
It’s going to take the people from the outside coming in to say that they are not going to put up with killing a culture and poisoning people to get their energy. We need more people to say that they won’t tolerate mountaintops being bombed, people’s waters being contaminated, and the Appalachian people being sacrificed. And we need Congress to act now to oppose mountaintop removal and lead a transition to a cleaner, greener energy economy.
There’s no reason why the Central Appalachians can’t be on the forefront of this transition. I still have hope. There are people out there who feel that if you do it to the least of us, you do it to them. I know I’m not their neighbor, but I am their brother in humanity. There is something beautiful about people who will look at something, especially those who are not from this area, and say, “We’ve got to win this race to end this atrocity because we’re all part of the human race.” That makes me so proud to be a human being.
You have just got to give the human race a big high five when you see some of these people who are getting involved in this peaceful movement to stop mountaintop removal, many of them young people—it’s just wonderful. It’s an inspiration to join with them, to share their passion, and to speak out against the greed that is killing Appalachia. And until I die, I will go anywhere anytime with anyone to rage against this atrocity called mountaintop removal.
To all my brothers and sisters who are in this movement and to those who are ready to join us, I cry, “Hoka Hey!”
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