Beeka Quesnell Sums Up Her Environmental Justice Internship in Southwest VA , Summer 2014

Beeka Q cropThis guest post is by RU undergraduate student and SUST major Beeka Quesnell, who worked as an intern at the Southern Appalachian Mountain Stewards (SAMS) in the coal-mining mountain region of southwest Virginia this summer. Back in Chicago, Beeka is an environmental sustainability associate with the Physical Resources Department at Roosevelt, an intern in the bird division of Field Museum of Natural History, and a student activist for environmental and social justice.

This post recounts my activities and reflections on the last few weeks of my summer internship in Virginia. On Tuesday, July 15th, eight individuals involved with SAMS, as well as myself, went to a planning meeting of Wise County, VA, one meant to get public input on the planning for Wise County for the next 15 or so years. We were under the impression that the meeting was going to be in a “public hearing” format; however, we essentially sat through a 1 ½ hour lecture on “how to plan” and only then did attendees start to ask questions. To put it simply, the meeting was taken over by the community!

Photo: R. Quesnell, 2014

Photo: R. Quesnell

Those conducting the meeting stated, on several occasions, that they wanted public input but then kept putting that off until the very end of the meeting, when there would hardly be time to make comments or ask questions. Another downfall with the meeting included note-taking. The vice president of SAMS asked the community board if notes were being taken on input during the meeting and a man stated that he was; but after looking over several times during the meeting, we observed that he was not taking notes at all. On a brighter note, the best part of the meeting is that everyone who attended from the community seemed to be on the same page in demanding the same things be a part of the plan.

Later in the week, I attended an informal conference in Dunbar, a coal community in Wise County, VA. The informal conference was centered on a coal permit renewal in the community and it was open to the public. Six individuals from SAMS, including three interns, attended this informal conference, and three long-standing community members as well as three SAMS members spoke at the proceedings.

The three community members heavily emphasized the coal dust that settles upon their properties due to the mining operations and they also mentioned truck traffic and health impacts that their friends face. The SAMS members spoke a lot about how their personal lives would be affected if the permit were to be renewed. Aside from their recreational activities being affected, they also stressed the watershed impacts from mining, something that could lead to lasting damage to the area’s water resources. In contrast, the individual representing the coal company pursuing the coal mining permit renewal handed in a letter instead of speaking in front of us all. Whenever that happens, SAMS has to send in a Freedom of Information Act Request in order to get the documentation. Overall, the conference went well and it was great that members from the community came out and voiced their opinions on the permit and spoke out against it due to impacts they are directly feeling.

Later on Saturday, July 19th, SAMS held the second and final part of its annual strategic planning meeting. During this meeting — which was again, held at a neutral location with a facilitator — we went over past wins, discussed current campaigns and projects, and planned out the next eight months of those campaigns and projects. Planning out the campaigns and projects included writing out the goals, figuring out who was on the team, and discussing ongoing activities, upcoming events and deadlines up until February.

This meeting was very productive in getting a sense of where SAMS is as an organization, and where they are headed into the coming year. Current campaigns and projects include: the Water Campaign, Alliance Federal Strategy, Alliance for Economic Transition, Coalfields Expressway (CFX), Justice to Justice, AppalCEED, Wise Energy for Virginia, Doe Branch, RRENEW, and Mountain Justice. The tactics used in each campaign can vary. The Water Campaign uses water testing and the law to sue coal companies and hold organizations such as the Department of Mines, Minerals, and Energy accountable. In a complimentary fashion, the Justice to Justice Campaign uses direct actions and a specific target to show the “True Cost of Coal” with the help of the Beehive Collective and other organizations, and build regional support against coal baron Jim Justice. Essentially, using different tactics, each campaign is able to accomplish a part of the SAMS mission.

Photo: R. Quesnell, 2014

Photo: R. Quesnell, 2014

The following week, I had my last AppalCEED meeting which involved eating out while also taking care of business. AppalCEED stands for Appalachian Communities Encouraging Economic Diversity, and the group works on building sustainable communities. I have been attending AppalCEED meetings all summer now, and I have really grown to appreciate what AppalCEED is working on accomplishing.

Right now, we are trying to get a community kitchen in Wise County, Virginia. This community kitchen would be open to everyone and for many purposes as well- people can use it to prepare and can foods for resale, and people could also use it as a communal space for cooking. This project will require partnership with another organization and will need support from the Wise County Board of Supervisors. Additionally, this project is more than likely going to be a five-year process, which is why AppalCEED wants a full time, paid staff person working on this, as well as partnership with another organization with greater capacity, and/ or the county’s support. Acquiring funds may be tough; it would be ideal for AppalCEED to find a grant that will provide half of the individual’s salary, while requiring funds from Americorps for the other half. We are optimistic that this is feasible.

Photo: R. Quesnell, 2014

Photo: R. Quesnell, 2014

To sum up my time in Virginia, I luckily had the pleasure to be present for the Ison Rock Ridge formal conference! This formal conference was held at the Virginia Department of Mines, Minerals, and Energy and it was a formal appeal in denying A & G Coal’s permit application for mining operations on the ridge. SAMS has been fighting this coal mining permit application since 2007 and has been holding on each year, even when the coal company appeals.

This particular conference was different from all the other ones I was at over the course of the summer and of interning with SAMS. The only way I can put it simply, is that it was “court style.” There were three sides: The Virginia Department of Mines, Minerals, and Energy; A & G Coal; and our side, in which the lawyer was technically there on behalf of the Sierra Club. There were witnesses, and the whole works. Essentially, this formal conference was held because A & G coal appealed the DMME’s decision on denying the permit. We don’t know that outcome yet, but should know within the coming months. I have my fingers crossed, because I have faith that SAMS can continue to win this battle!

Overall, I can honestly say that I have learned a lot this summer. I met amazing people doing amazing things in far southwest Virginia, and I am so happy for that experience! I lived in a communal space with three other people and we grew some of our own food, harvesting as we could and making home cooked meals as we could. I have learned a great deal not only about what grassroots organizations are doing and winning, but I have also learned a lot about myself. It was a big step for me to move away for a summer to a place that I have never been, with people I have never met. Now I know I can do that, again even, and I know that I really enjoyed the work I did this summer, the exploring and experiences I had, and the people I met!

Beeka Quesnell, submitted 14 August 2014

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