Oct 142014
Huge Alaskan Brown Bear which greets visitors at the Anchorage airport

Huge Alaskan Brown Bear which greets visitors at the Anchorage airport

Dandelions in Alaska are BIG; so are the mountains!

Dandelions in Alaska are BIG; so are the mountains!

From September 1 – 8, I — Robin B — participated in the trip of a lifetime. Thanks to OVEC and an anonymous donor, I participated in the Presbyterians for Earth Care N-W Regional Conference titled “Seeing the Signs of the Times; A Practical Theology of Climate Change”; essentially this involved a ground tour of Alaska from Anchorage to the Fairbanks area. Traveling to Alaska was the biggest step away from “home” that I have ever undertaken. Little did I realize how my definition of the word “big” would be expanded by this journey.

Alaska is an enormously big place with big, amazing wonders — like Mt. Denali — but also, unfortunately, huge problems. Signs of Climate Change are everywhere, and some very familiar signs of extractive industrial exploitation are there, too.

Some of the most striking things I learned on this trip:

View from the shore of Portage Lake, where the Portage Glacier was once easily visibile from the nearby visitor center, built in the 1980's; glacial remnants are now a 3 mile boat ride away.

View from the shore of Portage Lake, where the Portage Glacier was once easily visible from the nearby visitor center, built in the 1980’s; glacial remnants are now a three mile boat ride away.

Inside the Alaskan US Army Corps' Permafrost Tunnel

Inside the Alaskan U.S. Army Corps’ Permafrost Tunnel

Glacier Melt: News flash: Portage Glacier has effectively become Portage Lake! The once massive Portage glacier has receded three miles from the visitor’s center, which was built with an observation area so that people could see the ice up close. All you can see from that observation area now is a lake, and the mostly glacier-less mountains which surround it.

Perhaps even more alarming, however, permafrost melt is happening at an alarming rate -threatening buildings and roads in the Fairbanks area and beyond, as well as the ecosystem necessary to keep Caribou and other iconic wildlife populations alive. The permafrost is releasing methane that has been stored there for thousands of years, as well as ancient bacteria – the potential effects of which are only now beginning to be researched. While in Alaska, I and the group I was touring with were able to tour the only permafrost research facility in the United States. There, we learned that permafrost is actually much older than the glaciers; in some places it dates to 20,000 years or more.

The monstrous Trans-Alaska pipeline; built on melting permafrost!

The monstrous Trans-Alaska pipeline; built on melting permafrost!

Another major threat to the state’s ecosystem looms in the fact that the trans-Alaska oil pipeline — three-quarters of which is built on top of that melting permafrost, leading to greater risk of huge oil spills (the pipeline transports two million barrels of oil per day).

Bristol Bay mining operations threaten one of the last commercial scale wild salmon fisheries in the world, and the native populations who depend on those fish for cultural as well as physical survival! Take action on this issue here.

Entire native communities on Alaska’s seacoast — such as those in Shismaref — are facing the need to relocate and/or drastically change their thousands of year old ways of life.

Melting sea ice and increased volume of sea water inundating their communities have devastated populations of wild game these communities have subsisted on for literally thousands of years. One young woman on our tour has found it necessary to open and run a food pantry in her community, which was previously made up of self-sufficient hunters.

Tiffiny Immingan (middle), and George Pletnikof (seated) are two young Alaskan Native community leaders, active in Alaska's Climate Change and extractive industry struggles.

Tiffiny Immingan (middle), and George Pletnikof, Jr. (seated) are two young Alaskan Native community leaders, active in Alaska’s Climate Change and extractive industry struggles.

National Security issues: The sea ice is melting at such a rapid rate that one of the speakers on our tour — Dr. Michael Castellini, a University of Alaska scientist — had to attend a meeting with NATO officials on the same day that he spoke to our group about the effect of Climate Change on the polar ocean regions. He is also working to help design the newest research vessel in the US Naval fleet precisely to research the rapidly appearing “new sea” — aka the Arctic Ocean.

A direct and personal connection between Appalachia and Alaska, centered around large- scale surface coal mining, exists in the Matanuska-Susitna Valley — located in the south-central part of the state, near Anchorage. Here, three enormous surface coal mines are being proposed: Wishbone Hill, Jonesville, and Chickaloon. The latter of these is already active and may reach up to 15 square miles in size, if all 10,000 acres are fully permitted. Almost all of the coal to be extracted from these sites is slated for export; exploitation of one of our last true wilderness sites by multinational corporations is certainly alive and well in Alaska. Also alive and well, however, is a strong spirit of resistance, some of which was inspired by our work in WV. George Pletnikoff, Jr. — a young man whom has already achieved “elder” status in his community — participated in our tour. He is a leader in the Mat Valley Coalition, and said that watching a documentary featuring Maria Gunnoe was a big part of his inspiration for engaging in the struggle to stop the extractive industrial exploitation of his community. Click here to learn information about the struggles George and his community face.

These words can be found on that site: “Mine supporters claim that modern mining doesn’t create the same pollution and effects that it did in the past, but Appalachia tells a different story.”

Indeed our story is connected to the Alaskan story in some powerful ways. As University of Alaska scientist, Michael Castellini says: “What happens at the poles doesn’t stay at the poles” Thus, we all need to become active in efforts to control the pace of climate change. We here in Appalachia can also recognize that what happens here — in our surface mines, gas drilling operations, and chemical plants — doesn’t stay here. Thus, we should band together to preserve all the clean air and water possible.

Religious leaders from Presbyterian, Lutheran, Orthodox, and Native communities in Alaska are working together to lead the way on Transition Community initiatives, as well as speaking out about extractive industry exploitation and Climate Change.

Religious leaders from Presbyterian, Lutheran, Orthodox, and Native communities in Alaska are working together to lead the way on Transition Community initiatives, as well as speaking out about extractive industry exploitation and climate change.

Evidence of Transistion in Alaska: Straw and clay construction greenhouse.

Evidence of Transistion in Alaska: Straw and clay construction greenhouse.

One note of hope on our tour came from people in Alaska who are trying to foster so-called “Transition Communities.” Transition Communities are those which will be resilient enough to survive the local and global climate changes happening and yet to come. These are made up of people who know how to be pioneers in many ways when it comes to alternative sources of home energy, food production, and water recycling.

Alaska — as our last frontier — may just lead the way into the transition lifestyle which will be necessary in the decades and generations to come. The fact that religious community leaders in Alaska are at the forefront of Transition Community initiatives is particularly inspiring.

Robin B. preparing to enter the Alaskan permafrost tunnel.

Robin B. preparing to enter the Alaskan permafrost tunnel.

We, in Appalachia — where we have also long valued indepence and self-sufficiency — have much that we can possibly contribute to the idea of Transition Communities, so let’s talk…

Click here for a great resource — used as reference for this blog — chock full of information on Alaskan signs of climate change.


Oct 122013

Three events in late October which OVEC friends, members and new contacts should plan to attend:

First, October 28: Beards Fork, WV.  Fifth and final community forum of the Coalfield Environmental Health Project. We’ll see the results of the Beards Fork Health Survey and discuss how to continue our networking.  We’ll talk about how information from the survey can contribute to a healthier Fayette County. For more information, contact Andrew Munn at

Second, please join us for an OVEC Open House on October 29 at the Huntington Unitarian Universalist Fellowship Hall, from 6:00 to 8:00 p.m. at 619 6th Ave.

We will mingle, enjoy refreshments, briefly update you on the CARE petition, and chat with staff about ways you can plug into OVEC’s work. We’ve several opportunities for engagement in the Huntington area shortly after our open house, so come find out how you can be involved! We may also show a short film. Please plan to attend and bring friends or family members.

Third,the new documentary, Goodbye Gauley Mountain: An Ecosexual Love Story is returning “home” to

West Virginia with a screening at the Shepherdstown Film Festival, on October 31. Check out the schedule and ticket information.

Here’s my review from a red carpet preview of the film, (in Charleston in August):


Goodbye Gauley Mountain was amazing very tastefully done and highly motivating; I was pleasantly surprised! The Charleston UU was packed with viewers, most of whom gave it a standing ovation at the end. One of our long-time OVEC members attended and said she had been “kinda nervous” about showing the film at the UU, but after watching it wondered why in the world she’d felt that way.

This is going to be a film that reaches a wider audience than any other documentary ever made about mountaintop removal (MTR). Focused on the problems of MTR, it also brings in themes of diverse expressions of human love, respect for ancestral ties to the land and community, and humor lots of humor.

OVEC staffer Vivian Stockman’s part in the film is pretty amazing; she shows her mystic, earth mother side. Former OVEC employee, Stephanie Tyree and her room-mate a writer are also quoted extensively, in inspiring ways.This film takes tree hugging and mountain hugging to a new level, for sure, all in inspirational ways. There is some brief nudity and some human affection scenes, but nothing that is grossly sexually explicit. It may not be a film that you want to bring young children to, but it is an amazing film for adults of all ages. This film is focused on love between people, but also between families, communities and for the mountains. There are some very poignant scenes with Larry Gibson in the film. It is a more hopeful, fun, and upbeat film than any other documentary about MTR that I’ve ever seen. You need to see this film, and Shepherdstown might be the closest opportunity you will have to do so; get there!

As you can see the end of October is a very busy time for us here at OVEC. We anticipate that November will also be a busy month; heck, we really never stop… To keep up with our schedule and to learn about other events in the local, national and global environmental movement, frequently check our online public calendar.

If you are hosting an event, or know of an interesting event that you would like to add to the calendar, please contact Viv.



 Posted by at 11:49 pm
Aug 52013
Members of the Olbert family plant mums at the Crystal Block Cemetery. Photo by Carol Warren

Members of the Olbert family plant mums at the Crystal Block Cemetery. Photo by Carol Warren

Update: Read this August 18 Sunday Gazette Mail article, Years later, son still upset about damage to father’s grave

It is official — the families associated with the Crystal Block Cemetery in Logan County have prevailed. We rejoice with them as they have had a long struggle in and out of court to obtain some justice and compensation for the desecration of their ancestors’ graves. This cemetery historically is the final resting place for members of many black families from the area.

In November 2012, after six years of litigation and a month-long trial, a Logan County jury found two natural gas companies culpable of desecrating this cemetery as they bulldozed for access to a drilling site. The companies, General Pipeline Construction Co. and Equitable Production (now EQT) were ordered to pay $14,000 in restoration costs, $700,000 in emotional distress damages and $200,000 in punitive damages to 14 families.

The companies appealed that verdict, but in late July a judge turned down the appeal.

This is a victory that OVEC celebrates with all who have joined in the struggle for cemetery preservation. In particular, former OVEC staff member Carol Warren and OVEC organizer Robin Blakeman joined WV Council of Churches representatives to do a re-consecration ceremony for the cemetery several years ago.

We also congratulate attorney Kevin Thompson for his good work on behalf of these families. Public Justice (which, along with Earthjustice and Appalachian Mountain Advocates, has represented OVEC in many legal actions) named Thompson as one of five finalists for their 2013 Trial Lawyer of the Year Award.

We are very glad that justice has prevailed for the Crystal Block families. There’s still much to be done to preserve family cemeteries, though. We encourage all citizens of West Virginia who have family cemteries to monitor them closely. For more information on how to protect your cemetery, visit this page on OVEC’s website.

If you have unfortunately suffered cemetery desecration, or you find your cemetery to be endangered in any way, we need to hear from you! Your stories are very important to the work we are doing to gain better cemetery preservation laws in West Virginia. Please contact Maria Gunnoe at or 304-522-0246.

A mountaintop removal operation vastly hinders access to this family cemetery.

A mountaintop removal operation vastly hinders access to this family cemetery.

Aug 32013


August 29 update: The kick-off event will be in Pittsburgh at the Mr. Rogers statue, not Point Pleasant Park

Calling all kayakers, canoeists, bicyclists, walkers, runners, rollerbladers or anyone who can transport a baton by any non-fossil fuel means. And, calling anyone who can attend a rally. We’re going to need you to help us draw attention to the rising dangers associated with unconventional gas well drilling (deep shale fracking) and waste disposal for the Ohio River and its tributaries.

Do so by taking part in the Great Ohio River Relay, which begins with a rally on Saturday, September 14 at the Point State Park fountain in Pittsburgh, Pa. (August 29 update: The kick-off event will be in Pittsburgh at the Mr. Rogers statue, not Point Pleasant Park) There’ll be rallies along the way, with OVEC organizing one in Huntington on the riverfront. Watch the relay’s Facebook page, OVEC’s Facebook page and Twitter account, sign up for our action alerts and /or contact us at 304-522-0246 for unfolding details.

kid-drinkingA relay walker will kick things off on September 14, by carrying a baton along the river, to a selected point, where the baton will be exchanged with another relayer, and this then continues all along the River, through six states, until we reach Cairo, Illinois, where the mouth of the Ohio joins the Mississippi.

OVEC has committed to providing relayers for the baton between Pt. Pleasant, WV and Ironton, OH. If you are interested in helping with this, contact me, Robin Blakeman, at Relayers must register; do so here. If you want a heads up on when the baton is coming through the Huntington area and when we’re having the rally, be sure to contact me, too. Or watch for those Internet alerts, as noted. For more information about the entire relay, contact Robin Mahonen at 304-639-5538.

Anti-fracking activists, and allied groups, along the Ohio River and in the Ohio River Basin are invited to participate in this relay, by sponsoring a portion of the route and/or by committing people who will agree to either walk, run, canoe, bicycle, etc. the baton along the route. Sponsoring groups can hold rallies, bringing awareness and publicity to the cause of defending and keeping our water sources clean.

Shale gas extraction activities are jeopardizing our water, our roads and our health. Our drinking water sources along the Ohio River are in danger, threatened by corporate interests that show little or no concern for the health and wellbeing of the residents of the communities they have occupied.

Between the depletion of fresh water to serve the voracious appetite of millions of gallons of water for each fracking operation, to illegal dumping and accidental discharges and spills of toxic and radioactive brine fluids into our waterways and onto our roads which eventually make their way to our water aquifers, we have reason to be concerned and to defend the very source of life: water.

Rally organizers note, “We consider ourselves to be under attack by domestic environmental terrorists. Our government has shown little inclination to protect us as they were elected to do, and the corporations have paid them not to do their jobs, so, therefore we submit that it is up to us to take direct action to bring attention to this issue and to stop those who would do us harm.”

Ten percent of the entire population of the United States lives in the Ohio River Basin. The Ohio River is 981 miles long, and runs from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, to Cairo, Illinois, where it empties into the Mississippi River, which flows into the Gulf of Mexico. Five million people drink water from the Ohio River every day.

It is vital that we protect water. Please take part in The Great Ohio River Relay.



Aug 292012

Imagine: you move to a new community and discover at least half of the residents have brain tumors, and that there is a forty percent greater likelihood that babies born into this community will suffer from serious birth defects compared to their peers in other communities. Would you want to know what is causing all of these illnesses? Of course you would! Similarly, if you lived in a community where strange substances start to creep into your water supply, you would want to know what is going on.

These are just some of the challenges that residents of this state face when they live near mountaintop removal and gas fracking operations. The health concerns resulting from these two industries are pervasive and widespread. Read more about the growing body of scientific evidence about these health problems here.

It’s high time that we start making connections between the health problems faced by community members who live near both mountaintop removal coal mining and deep well gas drilling operations. A big step forward in this endeavor is our Water and Wellness conference, to be held September 8, in Morgantown, W.Va.

Through a range of discussions and panels, you will learn about the extreme human health impacts of mountaintop removal coal mining and deep shale gas drilling and fracking. Meet with impacted residents and experts including: keynote speaker, Wilma Subra; Dr. Ben Stout, whom you may have seen in The Last Mountain and Burning the Future; Dr. Jill Kriesky; and Dr. Michael Hendryx, whose research is shining a much-needed light on these health impacts.

Read more about this event here, and register here.

May 312012

What’s worse than mountaintop removal water polluting your Memorial Day Holiday? Possibly “brine water” from fracking operations. To see why, view this YouTube  video and this one, along with the photos posted here.

During Memorial Day weekend, Doddridge County residents tested road puddles made where a gas company truck had just sprayed, reportedly to control dust. Residents living along the roadway shared this report:

The water looked black coming out of the truck, smells horrible, and at three sites along the road:

         • Conductivity: 10,500 – 11,500 range (microSiemens/centimer of water)
         • TDS (Total Dissolved Solids): 8,000 – 9,000 ppm range (microSiemens/centimer of water)
         • Salinity: 6,000 to 7,000 ppm range (microSiemens/centimer of water)

This is unacceptable – children, livestock, and pets live along this road! It can wash into Broad Run. When it dries and starts blowing around — we will be breathing it! Pets may drink it… We do not want our health compromised any longer — we have been dealing with uncontrolled dust for over 2 years, but adding more harmful components for us to breathe is even worse! During our family picnic this holiday weekend my family, including children will be breathing this…

Some citizens fear the WV Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) will not consistently follow up on future incidents of gas industry pollution. From past experience, DEP officials don’t come out until days after people call to report an incident. When citizens turn in film footage and/or provide the DEP with time stamped photos — such as photos that document water withdrawals from streams during prohibited withdrawal periods — DEP does not follow up in a timely fashion, if at all. In the case of the incident documented above, the DEP was relatively swift to respond, requiring the gas company to take some clean-up measures, but the agency has yet to provide residents with all the information they have requested concerning the nature of the pollutants that were sprayed onto the roadway.

We have some serious accountability and enforcement issues here in West Virginia! DEP has only 16 state inspectors and 59,000 oil and gas wells to monitor in addition to all the Marcellus drilling activity. Sometimes, citizens wonder “Why don’t they want to watch these guys?”

It is important for residents of all areas where gas drilling work is underway to watch the activities of trucks and the industry closely, and to report all problems noted. Keep a log of the activities you are reporting, with notes on date, time and with whom you spoke. Here are some helpful contact numbers for DEP:

Emergency Spill Line:  800-642-3074
Tom Aluise: 304-926-0499 extension 1338
Dave Belcher: 304-389-7590

Because residents reported this incident immediately, DEP responded in a relatively timely way.  Local news services rarely cover incidents like these in an in-depth manner, if at all, so please circulate this blog widely. Read the Clarksburg Exponent-Telegram’s news story on this incident here.

(Three Doddridge county residents provided information for this posting.)

Apr 32012

Topping my list of things to be thankful for these days is the National Council of Churches’ (NCC) strong support for ending the ravages of mountaintop removal (MTR) coal mining. The National Council of Churches, with an office located in DC, recently hosted an event called “Ecumenical Advocacy Days.” Of the more than 800 participants in this annual national conference, 60-70 chose to spend part of their Saturday afternoon listening to information – presented by myself and Lorelei Scarbro, on the problems of MTR. Others were exposed to issues related to MTR and other eco-justice problems during “eco-justice track” events throughout the weekend. Still more people have participated in webinars and received information about MTR problems via the NCC eco-justice website. Here are some examples of what you will find on this site:

A petition calling for an end to MTR injustices.

NCC Eco-justice office is conducting a series of webinars on environmental ethics issues; the next one will focus on problems associated with gas fracking; for more information, click here.

The National Council of Churches is also endorsing and supporting an Interfaith Action on Climate Change during “Earth Day Week” – April 21 – 27. For more information, please click here.

Here’s something I actually cheered about: A media letter, authored by one of the biggest of the big-wigs in the Presbyterian Church (USA), which states clear questions about the ethics of MTR coal mining.   The NCC eco-justice office helped make this happen and would welcome similar letters from faith community leaders in our area.

If you would be willing to write such a letter, or simply want to know more about how to involve your community in discussions about the ethics of energy and/or MTR and gas fracking, please contact Robin at