Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
Laura Rigell ’15, Stephen O’Hanlon ’17, and Kelsey Manning ’17 looking over the mountaintop removal site at Kayford Mountain.
Letter by Swarthmore Mountain Justice Members: Stephen O’Hanlon ’17, Laura Rigell ’15, Hazlett Henderson ’17
Over spring break, Swarthmore Mountain Justice members attended the Mountain Justice Spring Break in Doddridge County, West Virginia. During panels and discussions throughout the week, we heard directly from people in West Virginia who have seen their backyards fracked, their local mountaintops blown off, and their water poisoned.
Tragically, on January 9th, a chemical called 4-methylcyclohexanemethanol (MCHM), which is used to wash coal before combustion, spilled into the Elk River, and in days contaminated the water of over 300,000 people. Over a month later, residents still lack access to clean water, forcing many to continue purchasing bottled water, which presents a challenge for low-income individuals as well as the disabled and elderly. While in West Virginia over spring break we helped distribute bottled water in Charleston to residents who are still suffering the effects of this spill.
Afterwards, we drove to Kayford Mountain where Elise Keaton from Keeper of the Mountains took us on a tour of a mountaintop removal strip-mining site. Keeper of the Mountains is a group working to stop the mountaintop removal coal mining, while also mitigating the practice’s immediate impacts on local communities. Once on the mountain, Elise told the group the story of the late Larry Gibson, whose family has owned 500 acres on Kayford Mountain for over 230 years. After Gibson refused to sell out and resisted threats for years, Massey Energy (now Alpha Natural Resources) offered him over one million dollars per acre for his property. Seeing destruction of mountaintop removal throughout the region, he refused to sell, founded Keeper of the Mountains in 2004, and established a land trust and public park on his property to allow others to witness the surrounding mountaintop removal sites firsthand.
In 2010, a group of Swarthmore students traveled to the same mountain. After giving them a tour of the mountaintop removal site, Larry Gibson told the Swatties that if they did not go home and do something about this destruction, they would have wasted his time. The group took these words very seriously and spent the next several months discussing ways to act in solidarity with the West Virginians’ struggle.
Although our campus is too far from the coalfields of West Virginia to directly support the struggle against mountaintop removal the Swarthmore students who travelled to the Kayford Mountain in 2010 recognized their proximity to power and privilege on campus and began researching past solidarity tactics, including the opposition to South African apartheid. These students decided to form Swarthmore Mountain Justice and launched the first-ever fossil fuel divestment campaign. Since then, students and community members across the world have launched over 300 campaigns, demanding that their institutions divest from this morally reprehensible industry. Since its beginnings at Swarthmore, fossil fuel divestment has become the largest student movement of the past two decades. The effects have gone beyond campuses. World leaders, including President Obama, the World Bank Chief Jim Yong Kim, GOP presidential candidate Jon Huntsman, and UN Climate Secretariat Christiana Figueres ‘77, have all come out in favor of divestment, using a variety of ethical, political, and economic rationales.
Swarthmore Mountain Justice has stayed connected with organizations in West Virginia, through trips such as this spring break and on-campus events throughout the semester. As part of our ongoing relationship with Keeper of the Mountains, we invite you to join us in an act of solidarity with communities facing mountaintop removal coal mining in West Virginia. Join us for a fundraiser dinner this Saturday from 6:30 to 8:30pm, at the Swarthmore Friends Meetinghouse. Swarthmore Mountain Justice and the Swarthmore Friends Meeting Peace and Social Concerns Committee are co-sponsoring this event. The funds will be donated to Keeper of the Mountains Foundation, which is currently helping support the distribution of clean water to those unable to afford or physically acquire it.
Even if you aren’t able to attend, please consider making a tax-deductible donation by clicking here.