Skip to main content

Mountain Heroes: Debbie Jarrell

Debbie Jarrell: My Mountain Story

Debbie Jarrell is the co-director of Coal River Mountain Watch, a small nonprofit working in communities impacted by the irresponsible practices of the coal industry in southern West Virginia. Coal River Mountain Watch was founded in 1998 in response to the fear and frustration of people like Debbie living near or downstream from huge mountaintop removal sites. Debbie helped to lead the successful Pennies of Promise campaign, which she describes below, and continues to bring her caring spirit and indomitable dedication to the movement to end mountaintop removal mining.

This is Debbie's story:

My name is Debbie Jarrell. I live in Rock Creek, on the Marsh Fork tributary of the Coal River in West Virginia. I am a mother and a grandmother. Growing up in the Rock Creek area we roamed the woods, the dirt roads, the creeks and the rivers, like my forefathers before me. Living in these mountains, it was a part of us. It didn’t matter what time of day or where you were running through the woods, you always knew you could kneel down and get you a drink of water out of one of the many mountain streams that flowed out of the hollows.

Today, I have two grown children and three grandchildren. What’s similar about their experience is the amazement and the enjoyment that they get from being out in the woods and around the rivers. But a major difference is that my grandchildren can’t kneel down and get a drink in these streams whenever they want to, because of the pollution and contamination from mountaintop removal mining.

I first learned of mountaintop removal mining in 2000, when my husband got an emergency call from his coworkers. We had had a lot of rain in the area, and they were afraid this earthen dam holding back billions of gallons of toxic coal sludge was going to burst and come bearing down on our small elementary school, which sits less than 400 yards away. This was the school my granddaughter attended. I had no idea that there was a sludge impoundment sitting right above my granddaughter’s head every day that she went to school, or that there were over 2,000 acres of barren land behind it.

About two years later, I was able to fly over the mountaintop removal site and sludge dam, thanks to a great nonprofit flight group called SouthWings. I could not believe the expanse of it. I had seen pictures, but never in my wildest dreams would I have imagined the expanse of the mountaintop removal sites in our area. How small I felt at that time, and how ashamed I was that I would allow something like that to happen around my granddaughter. That’s when my eyes were opened.

In 2007, my husband, myself, and a few concerned community members launched a campaign called "Pennies of Promise" to raise money for a new school for the kids.

There were challenges. The biggest challenge was getting over the PR of the coal industry. The coal industry has so much money – they are able to put anything out there for people to hear, even if it is not true. They say that mountaintop removal creates jobs when it actually decreases jobs. And they neglect to tell the people that mountaintop removal contaminates water and destroys communities.

But after years of intense campaigning, news coverage, rallies and demonstrations, phone calls to anyone and everyone we could think of, fund-raising, community meetings, support from schoolchildren and parents across the country, and lobbying our elected officials, we won.

Next year, the doors of the new school will be swinging wide open. I have two grandsons and two small nieces that will be walking through those doors. I don’t have words to explain the feelings I have knowing that my grandchildren are going to be safe in their elementary school.

What are my hopes for the future? I hope for a ban on mountaintop removal, and I hope that leads to a more sustainable future for our community, like my forefathers left me.

A lady told me when we first started the Pennies of Promise campaign, "You can eat an elephant one bite at a time." And that’s what we’re going to have to do in this fight. It feels never-ending at times, but with enough dedicated people, I’m sure that one day people will say, "What in the world were they thinking when they allowed that?"