Stand With Donna And All the People of Appalachia

The story of one woman's fight to save her homeland

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To date, mountaintop removal coal mining has buried more than 2,500 miles of streams and leveled an area of Appalachia bigger than the state of Delaware. Perhaps even scarier than the outright wasteland it leaves are the health impacts it levels against the people of Appalachia. More than 19 peer-reviewed health studies detail these problems–from significantly higher rates of birth defects in areas of mountaintop removal mining to higher rates of major diseases like cancer and lung disease.

In spite of all of this, coal companies and their lobbyists are pushing for more than 100 new permits for mountaintop removal mine in Appalachia. President Obama and his administration showed a strong commitment to the law and science when the EPA vetoed one of the largest mountaintop removal mines ever proposed: Spruce No. 1 Mine in West Virginia. But citizens throughout Appalachia are still left unprotected.

One of those residents is Donna Branham, of Mingo County, West Virginia. She’s already been through the nightmares of mountaintop removal mining, and now she could watch it happen to her daughter’s family as well.

I recently had a chance to catch up with Donna and hear her story. This is what’s at stake for Donna and her family:

My name is Donna Branham, and I live in Mingo County, West Virginia. I have lived here my whole life. I’ve seen first-hand the results of mountaintop removal mining, an extremely destructive form of coal mining that entails blowing up mountains, removing the tops, and dumping the rubble into streams, filling entire valleys and waterways. My family’s homeplace was destroyed by it, and the ruthlessness of the coal mining industry.

Our drinking water was contaminated, and blasting shook our house and our community every day—so much that the chimney shifted away from the house. My elderly parents lived near mountaintop removal mining, too, and they were forced to carry large containers of water due to their well being poisoned. We also dealt with extreme dust pollution and noise pollution, and flyrock, or large boulders that the explosion spits out through the air.

One particularly large blast caused my dad to have a heart attack as he was getting out of the bathtub, due to the neglect of the mining company to sound a warning signal before the blast.

Eventually most of my family had to relocate. My dad had 11 brothers and sisters, and his family had lived in that community for many generations. My parents spent their entire married lives there. Shortly after moving to get away from the impacts of mountaintop removal mining, my mom and dad passed away. I held my mother’s head while she cried the day she died, wanting to go back home.

I watched it happen to other communities around me, too. Numerous nearby communities, such as Riffe Branch, Duncan Fork, Laurel Creek, Dingess, and Mate Creek, just to name a few, have faced the detrimental effects of mountaintop removal mining: increased flooding due to valley fills, unsafe water supplies, dust, coal ash, and the list can go on and on. And around these mines, we have increasing birth defects, increasing cancer, increasing neurological and respiratory illnesses.

The coal companies need to take responsibility and mine coal responsibly. I feel we need to stand firm on this. The coal companies should not be able to make billions of dollars at the cost of our lives and communities.

The Williamson Daily News is my county’s newspaper. When I was in high school, newspaper claimed to be in “heart of the million dollar coalfield.” When I was in college, it was in the “heart of the billion dollar coalfield,” and today the newspaper’s masthead says it’s in the “heart of the trillion dollar coalfield.”

Yet Mingo County is the second-poorest county in the state. This shows where the money goes. My people are the ones who pay the true price of that lump of coal. I’m not against a person working for a living. I don’t want to take anyone’s job, but I know that mountaintop removal mining, with all of its massive machines instead of workers, takes a lot of underground miners’ jobs.

And now, having survived all of this, Donna could watch it happen all over again to her daughter, who lives close to a proposed mountaintop removal mining site on Buffalo Mountain, one of the 100+ permits now in the hands of the Obama administration.

Donna’s daughter is joined by the 177 families living within a half mile of this proposed mine. Said Donna:

It’s become a social justice issue… I’m so thankful that people like you are getting involved in this fight. I’ve been in this for 20 years, and for so long, I felt like I stood alone. One voice doesn’t go very far. Many voices do. Please help us stop this mine, and all of mountaintop removal mining.

Please stand with Donna, and all families across Appalachia, and take action to tell the president, his Army Corps of Engineers, and his Environmental Protection Agency to stop these permits, stand up for justice for Appalachian families who depend on clean water, and resist political pressure from coal company lobbyists.

Liz Judge worked at Earthjustice from 2010–2016. During that time, she worked on mountaintop removal mining, national forests, and clean water issues, and led the media and advocacy communications teams.

Established in 1989, Earthjustice's Policy & Legislation team works with champions in Congress to craft legislation that supports and extends our legal gains.

Earthjustice’s Washington, D.C., office works at the federal level to prevent air and water pollution, combat climate change, and protect natural areas. We also work with communities in the Mid-Atlantic region and elsewhere to address severe local environmental health problems, including exposures to dangerous air contaminants in toxic hot spots, sewage backups and overflows, chemical disasters, and contamination of drinking water. The D.C. office has been in operation since 1978.