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Mountain Heroes: Amber Whittington

Amber Whittington: My Mountain Story

Amber Whittington, 21, was born and raised outside of Charleston, West Virginia, just a few miles down the road from an industrial DuPont chemical plant. In the spring of 2009, Amber moved to be with family in the small mountain town of Ameagle, in the heart of Appalachia’s coal country. In Ameagle, she was surrounded by mountaintop removal coal mining and was awakened to its effects on communities, families, clean water, and the land. Today she travels the country with the Keeper of the Mountains Foundation educating people on the harmful mining practice and empowering communities to stand up for their rights to clean water, air, and a healthy and safe environment and to join in the national fight to stop mountaintop removal mining.

This is Amber's story:

My name is Amber Whittington. I am 21 years old, and I live in Ameagle, West Virginia. I grew up outside of Charleston, and I moved to Ameagle in 2009 to be closer to my step-dad’s family. I live minutes from the base of a huge site, Kayford Mountain. There’s another site that is being put up right by my house. Mountaintop removal mining will soon be right upon us in all directions.

When I first came here, I had heard of mountaintop removal mining, but I didn’t understand the practices. Then, as we took shortcuts around the valley and came across these sites, I started to actually see mountaintop removal with my own eyes.

The first time I saw it, I didn’t believe. It felt like my mind was playing tricks on me. It was the most horrible thing I’d ever seen. I didn’t fully comprehend the effects of mountaintop removal until it got to the water in our home. I would open up the tap, and I would see the water. It would have an orange tint and a horrible smell, like rotten eggs. I asked my step-dad about this, because this is where he grew up and he’d know about the water here. He said, "This is what happens to the water when mountaintop removal is so close."

We didn’t drink the water, but we did bathe in it and wash things with it. The sinks became permanently stained orange. It stained our sheets and our towels, too.

I have a little brother who was three years old at the time. Where I grew up, in Charleston, I didn’t have to deal with this. But he will. I realized this will be in his backyard his whole life. His elementary school will be right near a mountaintop removal compound. I knew I had to do something for him, and other people. I couldn’t just sit there and know that this is happening to people.

And then I started to see what is really happening to people around here. They were getting sick, and their homes were getting shaken, flooded, covered in dust. It was hard to understand how this could happen to the people around me — I had made friends with people around here at that point, and to some of them, it’d been happening their whole lives. But people in these communities are scared, and they don’t think they can do anything about it. It’s been happening for so long that they doubt they can make a difference. And coal is romanticized here. There’s a feeling that if you stand up against any part of the coal process, you could face consequences here.

I lived in Ameagle for six months before I finally went to a meeting at Coal River Mountain Watch, a local group that was organizing to stop mountaintop removal mining. There I learned the facts and heard scarier stories from others who were living with the impacts of mountaintop removal mining. I met Judy Bonds, Junior Walk, and others who were speaking out against mountaintop removal mining. I thought, All these people are speaking out, so why can’t I?

We need to end mountaintop removal for the health and safety of West Virginians. My little brother is the next generation, and he is going to grow up with this all around him. He deserves clean air. He doesn’t need to worry about poisoned water and breathing in air with explosives, heavy metals, dust particles from the explosions. I’m fighting for my family, heritage, culture, and rights that everybody else in this country has.

It seems hopeless at times, but it’s not. I have to remind myself that it will get better as long as I keep fighting. I’m inspired by the amazing people I’ve met who won’t back down on this. We need more people from all over the country fighting to stop this. You don’t have to chain yourself to a bulldozer to make a difference. You can take action now, right here. And you can find out where your electricity is coming from, and write to your power companies.

Before I started this work to stop mountaintop removal mining, I couldn’t even speak in public. I was too nervous, totally tongue-tied. I still get nervous to speak out about this and speak in public. But it’s not about me. It’s about helping others to see what is going on here. And now that I’ve been speaking out, I feel like I’ve found my voice: I’m just a normal, everyday person trying to do what’s right.