Winds of Change Newsletter, February 2007 See sidebar for table of contents
Waging Democracy in the Kindgom of Coal: OVEC and the Movement for Social and Environmental Justice in Central Appalachia 2002-2003
by Mary Hufford Ph.D., Director,
Center for Folklore and Ethnography, University of Pennsylvania
"Our work flows out of a sense of the importance of relationships." Dianne Bady
Prelude: The Closing Circle at Pipestem - 2002
It is unforgettable, this sun dappled, breezy moment on the deck of the lodge at the Pipestem Resort in southern West Virginia. Below the deck the mountain dips dizzyingly toward the nadir of an invisible stream, bursting somewhere beyond that into a panorama of mountain ranges that lures people of every political stripe to this place. Reflected in the lodges windows and doors, the range surrounds us as we join hands to form the closing circle for the Fourth Summit for the Mountains.
Poet Bob Henry Baber enchants us with a litany of kisses for things seen and unseen in our environs, and Dave Cooper brings out a sphere of brown yarn the size of a soccer ball. He hands it to Janet Keating (formerly Janet Fout) who explains the ceremony that will connect us before we scatter. Holding onto one end of the yarn, Janet launches the ball across the circle. "I feel fortified," she declares.
Trailing a single strand, the ball begins unraveling, bouncing to the feet of Julian Martin, a senatorial figure who is a leader of the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy. He picks it up, and retaining a bit of yarn around a finger, tosses the ball toward Jen Osha. "I feel exhilarated." Two strands now form an X. Jen, a musician and writer, from Preston County, lobs the ball to me. "I feel encouraged," she breathes. Three strands. "I feel hopeful," I say, tossing the ball, then scrambling to retrieve the part I was supposed to hold onto. Four strands.
As the web thickens the adjectives mount: people profess feelings of peace, purpose, loyalty, empowerment, inspiration, satisfaction, amazement, gratitude. Toward the end, the yarnless must raise empty hands to make themselves known. Dave Cooper is the last to catch it. "Whew!" he says, expressing relief, and echoing the last line of Bob Henry Babers poem.
We laugh and gleefully flex our connective tissue. It appears strong enough and thick enough to bounce a cat, or at least a heavy squirrel. Not tensile enough to deflect flyrock, perhaps, but what it betokens might yet prove to be. We drop our yarn and around the slackened threads the good-bye hugs proliferate, reflected in shimmering glass doors against a backdrop of West Virginia hills.
The money for this weekend-long event came through an award that Dianne Bady, Laura Forman and Janet Keating won from the Ford Foundations Leadership for a Changing World Program in 2001. Their channeling of this money into the activist community both as a gesture of gratitude and to further strengthen the work of social change in West Virginia provides one example of their approach to social change. This gift is like the ball of yarn in that it is a resource for nurturing and maintaining the web that is OVECs object of stewardship. Before looking more closely at what the community makes of its yarn, a bit of background on OVEC is in order.
Brief History of OVEC
A straightforward account of the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalitions history may be found on OVECs website (www.ohvec.org). The short description: "OVEC is people working together for a cleaner environment," heads the history. The coalition formed in 1987 "to mobilize citizen opposition to a proposed BASF chemical company hazardous waste incinerator near Ironton, Ohio." It took eight months of organizing in the tri-state area to defeat the proposal. Among the allies were the Oil, Chemical, and Atomic Workers International Union. Over the next few years OVEC tackled a number of chemical waste and pollution hazards in the tri-state area of West Virginia, Kentucky and Ohio. OVECs early work, organizing citizens to pressure the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to require pollution reductions in the heavily industrialized Ohio River valley, resulted in the U.S. EPAs Tri-State Geographic Initiative, a major program to stimulate pollution improvements.
OVECs work on the Citizens Advisory Committee resulted in pollution reductions at a number of area industries. Dianne Bady had been involved since 1986 in battle against Ashland Oil, one of the heaviest polluters in the country, for egregious violations of pollution control laws at its Catlettsburg, Ky., plant. This battle between OVEC, including many refinery neighbors, and Ashland Oil, which lasted for more than 10 years, succeeded in pressuring the U.S. Department of Justice to issue Ashland Oil a $5.8 million fine, and $27 million to bring their refineries into compliance with pollution laws. (The former Ashland Oil refinery is now owned by Marathon.)
While working on Ashland pollution issues, OVEC also turned its attention to a plan by Parsons and Wittemore (formerly a British-owned corporation) to site North Americas largest pulp and paper mill in Apple Grove, W.Va. This pulp mill would have discharged deadly dioxin into the Ohio River, at rates 90 times higher than recommended by the EPA.
In spite of citizen opposition, the WV Division of Environmental Protection issued pollution discharge permits to the company. OVEC, as the lead organizer to stop the construction, formed a broad coalition, working with non-traditional allies, including organized labor and church groups.
Significantly, after the fifth in a series of rallies, which brought out a thousand people to the state Capitol, Sen. Jay Rockefeller, a former pulp mill supporter, changed his stance on the mill. Large numbers of citizens, working together, stopped the pulp mill. Since 1997, when the pulp mill was defeated, OVEC has made mountaintop removal mining and West Virginia political campaign finance reform the principle foci of its staff. Around these foci, OVEC continues to engage in local, state and national community efforts to protect the environment.
From the website, the outlines of OVECs mode of working emerge. They include community building, education through the dissemination of information based on thorough research, the cultivation and wise use of media, and a remarkable mastery of the civics required to work within government structures.
In an effort to defend and strengthen the laws that protect the countrys environment which we might think of as our connective tissue OVEC has been all over the legislative, judicial, and executive branches of state and federal governments. Especially striking is the diversity of the groups with which OVEC engages: including councils of churches, labor unions, local, state, and national citizens groups, cultural organizations, conservancies, forest activists, scientific organizations, the academy, government agencies, and industry itself.
Overcoming the divisions of everyday life, OVEC continually generates communal time and space around the project of retrieving an ecological citizenship, which means resuturing what Enlightenment science and economics has sundered.
The message: we care for the environment by caring for each other. This project is not simply about fixing the system by changing the power supply from carbon to renewables. This project requires a Higher Power Supply, which OVECs staff leaders tap into through meditation and prayer, immersing themselves in nature, a constant channeling of faith, hope and love, and a dependence on miracles. (2002)
Two researchers from the University of Pennsylvania studied OVECs activities during 2002 and 2003. This ethnographic study was funded by the Ford Foundation through New York Universitys Graduate School of Public Service. The research was designed to help answer the Ford Foundations question of what types of leadership are associated with real-world successes achieved by social justice organizations that are fighting some of the toughest injustices in our nation.