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Gunnoe Appeals to President ... Judge Dismisses Health Studies on Mountaintop Removal

Energy
Gunnoe Appeals to President ... Judge Dismisses Health Studies on Mountaintop Removal

In a breathtaking but largely overlooked ruling this week, a federal judge agreed that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers may disregard studies on the health impacts of mountaintop removal mining in its permitting process, only two weeks after Goldman Prize Award-winning activist Maria Gunnoe wrote an impassioned plea to President Obama to renew withdrawn funding for U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) research on strip mining operations and redouble federal action to address the decades-old humanitarian disaster.

(Gunnoe's full letter is below.)

"We all must recognize and resolve these mountaintop-removal-caused health problems and end the onslaught of pollution on people. Ending mountaintop removal could be as simple as passing HR 526," said Maria Gunnoe (right).

The prophetic call for immediate federal action by Gunnoe, a community organizer for the West Virginia-based Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition and a long-time witness to the tragedy of mountaintop removal, has never been so timely."Appalachian citizens are the casualties of a silent “war on people” who live where coal is extracted," Gunnoe wrote the President. "Citizens of all ages are dying for the coal industry’s bottom line."

Gunnoe concluded:

We all must recognize and resolve these mountaintop-removal-caused health problems and end the onslaught of pollution on people. Ending mountaintop removal could be as simple as passing HR 526: the Appalachian Community Health Emergency Act, or possibly even an Executive Order. The ACHE Act will place a moratorium on all new mountaintop removal permits. This bill, when passed, will immediately improve the lives and health of the people who live with these impacts daily.

Two years ago, in fact, the USGS published preliminary findings on "unusually high" toxic compounds in the soil and water near strip mining operations. That USGS research team is no longer funded.

"Our state politicians display a willful ignorance of some 24 peer-reviewed scientific reports about mountaintop removal’s human health effects," Gunnoe wrote. "Studies show a correlation between living near a mountaintop removal site and significantly increased rates of cancer, birth defects and premature deaths. We believe they’d have a much harder time ignoring studies put out by the USGS."

Besieged residents in strip mining areas of Illinois, including Rocky Branch, and Kentucky, where a similar ruling over ignored human health risks, have long called for federal enforcement and action of flawed mining regulations.

Read page 1

Last night in Charleston, West Virginia, the premiere screening of a new feature film, Moving Mountains, based on the award-winning book by journalist Penny Loeb, was a reminder of the decades-long struggle by citizens for civil rights and health protection in coal mining communities in the courts and political corridors. Here's a trailer of the film, which stars actress Theresa Russell:

Moving Mountains, tragically enough, dates back to 1994. In fact, Aug. 3 marked the 37th anniversary of the flawed Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act, which granted federal sanctioning for mountaintop removal, which President Jimmy Carter called a "disappointing effort" and a "watered down bill."

"Very little has changed," Gunnoe said, referring to the film's true life heroine, Patricia Bragg, a coal miner's wife who defends her community from water contamination. "There are only more Patricia Braggs now."

Even while central Appalachia's coal industry falters to exploding markets in the Illinois Basin and western coalfields, permits for new mountaintop removal operations continue to be filed.

"Judge Copenhaver confirmed what we already know: there is no law in the United States that says a permitting agency must consider Mountaintop Removal's toxic effects on people's health," said Bob Kincaid, with the Appalachian Community Health Emergency Act Movement. "At present, as a matter of law, people in Appalachia simply do not matter at all. If we had the A.C.H.E. Act, these ill-considered rulings wouldn't happen. They couldn't happen. The A.C.H.E. Act's moratorium on new permits would stop them."

Gunnoe's letter to President Obama is below:

July 29, 2014

President Obama

The White House

1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW

Washington, DC 20500

Dear President Obama,

My name is Maria Gunnoe. I live in Boone County, West Virginia, at the base of a mountaintop removal coal mining operation. My family has been here for generations, before the mine moved in above us.

Since the mine moved in, my family has experienced problems we trace directly back to that mine. (Details on some of that are below.) My outspokenness on what has happened to us, to my neighbors and to others living near these mines has led to my current employment as an organizer with the Huntington, W.Va.-based Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition (OVEC). It also led to my receiving the 2009 Goldman Prize for North America and the 2012 Wallenberg Medal. I am also an active member of the Appalachian Community Health Emergency campaign.

I write on behalf of OVEC, because something I read in the July 26 edition of the Charleston Gazette shocked me. An article titled, “USGS halts research on mountaintop removal’s public-health effects,” reports that, “Last year, the Obama administration quietly put the brakes on any new field work to gather data on the potential public-health threats posed by mountaintop removal.” (http://www.wvgazette.com/article/20140726/GZ01/140729409/1419)

I write to ask you restore the funding for Dr. Bill Orem’s team at USGS to gather data on the human health impacts of mountaintop removal coal mining. I believe any data gathered so far that is ready for publication should be released at once. In order to re-fund these studies, any USGS research on the health and environmental effects of unconventional oil and gas extraction should not be halted.

I think Dr. Orem’s work will show that the practice of mountaintop removal coal mining is not good for anyone, including the men and women who work on mountaintop removal operations.

Our state politicians display a willful ignorance of some 24 peer-reviewed scientific reports (http://ohvec.org/issues/mountaintop_removal/articles/health/) about mountaintop removal’s human health effects. Studies show a correlation between living near a mountaintop removal site and significantly increased rates of cancer, birth defects and premature deaths. We believe they’d have a much harder time ignoring studies put out by the USGS.

Living with the impacts of mountaintop removal daily, while others get the pleasure of pretending it is not really happening, takes fortitude. When you see community members dying because of toxic air, it is truly devastating to take your next breath. We have watched so many people living near mountaintop removal sites become sick. I think the USGS studies will give scientific support to what we know, to what we live.

OVEC volunteers and staff members have worked in the communities that are heavily affected by mountaintop removal pollution. We have members, staffers and friends living in toxic air because of the practice of blowing up mountains for coal. The communities that are most affected by mountaintop removal are those in which we live, work and recreate, and OVEC demands better for everyone. We work to improve lives in these communities with community leadership. The communities tell us what is important to them and, right now, they need an end to mountaintop removal coal mining. They need healthy air, healthy water and medical follow-up on the health problems caused by the pollution from mountaintop removal operations.

The toxic dust from mountaintop removal operations has invaded our homes and our bodies. It overcomes everything. Our state politicians ignore these facts, thus allowing people to become ill and even die prematurely!

In some cases, mountaintop removal is happening just hundreds of feet from occupied structures such as schools, churches and homes. It’s taking place directly above parks in communities such as Twilight, Madison, Artie, Peach Tree, Blair, Marsh Fork, Ashford, Williams Mountain, Prenter, Kayford, Whitesville, Mud, Sylvester and so many more. Even historic family cemeteries are surrounded by exploding mountains.

OVEC has witnessed an overall demise in the mental and physical well-being of people living in these communities. We worry that this is the worst of the effects of mountaintop removal. What this practice is doing to people is inhumane and cruel; they are living in hell on earth in the communities where mountaintop removal is happening, and they are not being heard by the politicians and regulators who should be listening.

Again, we believe they’d have a much harder time not listening when it is the USGS telling us about the human health impacts of mountaintop removal coal mining.

We hope that our politicians see what a massive mistake they have made in fighting hard for more mountaintop removal coal mining. We all should recognize the risk to human lives and immediately end all mountaintop removal operations in order to protect human lives. This is the coal industry’s and the politicians’ chance to show that they truly do care about the people of Appalachia and not only the production of Appalachian coal.

Coal miners and their families deserve better living conditions in their homes and communities than they have on their job sites, but not even their children have safe air to breathe. It must be terrible to have to pollute your children’s air for a paycheck. The enforcement of regulations protects lives on the job and the lives of people in our communities. The companies’ rights to mine coal ends when it infringes on citizens’ rights to live healthy lives in our homes.

There should never be another mention of the “war on coal” by our state leaders. The truth is that Appalachian citizens are the casualties of a silent “war on people” who live where coal is extracted. Citizens of all ages are dying for the coal industry’s bottom line.

We all must recognize and resolve these mountaintop-removal-caused health problems and end the onslaught of pollution on people.

Ending mountaintop removal could be as simple as passing HR 526: the Appalachian Community Health Emergency ACT (http://acheact.org/the-legislation/), or possibly even an Executive Order. The ACHE Act will place a moratorium on all new mountaintop removal permits. This bill, when passed, will immediately improve the lives and health of the people who live with these impacts daily.

As you can tell, I want an end to mountaintop removal today. I’m tired of watching the people in our community get sick and die too early. I believe the science is already in showing this type of coal mining is dangerous and deadly. I believe that the passage of the ACHE Act would end mountaintop removal. But, still I ask that you restore the funding for Dr. Orem’s team, because their findings would arm us with the scientific evidence we need to finally convince Congress and you that we are saying is indeed true.

The health of those of us here in central Appalachia does matter. Please restore the funding and help us end mountaintop removal!

With deepest respect and sincerity,

Maria Gunnoe
OVEC
P.O. Box 6753 
Huntington, WV 25773

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In early October, Britain's Prince William teamed up with conservationist David Attenborough to launch the Earthshot Prize, a new award for environmentalist innovation. The Earthshot brands itself the "most prestigious global environment prize in history."

The world-famous wildlife broadcaster and his royal sidekick appear to have played an active role in the prize's inception, and media coverage has focused largely on them as the faces of the campaign.

But the pair are only the frontmen of a much larger movement which has been in development for several years. In addition to a panel of experts who will decide on the winners, the prize's formation took advice from the World Wildlife Fund, Greenpeace and the Jack Ma Foundation.

With more and more global attention on the climate crisis, celebrity endorsement of environmental causes has become more common. But why do environmental causes recruit famous faces for their campaigns? And what difference can it make?

'Count Me In'

"We need celebrities to reach those people who we cannot reach ourselves," says Sarah Marchildon from the United Nations Climate Change secretariat (UNFCCC) in Bonn, Germany.

Marchildon is a proponent of the use of celebrities to raise awareness of environmental causes. In addition to promoting a selection of climate ambassadors who represent the UN on sustainability issues, Marchildon's team has produced videos with well-known narrators from the entertainment world: among them, Morgan Freeman and Mark Ruffalo.

"We choose celebrities who have a lifestyle where they are already talking about these issues," Marchildon explains.

"Sometimes they reach out to us themselves, as David Attenborough did recently. And then they can promote the videos on their own social channels which reach more people than we do — for example, if they have 20 million followers and we have 750,000."

Environmental groups focused on their own domestic markets are also taking this approach. One Germany-based organization that uses celebrities in campaigns is the German Zero NGO. Set up in 2019, it advocates for a climate-neutral Germany by 2035.

German Zero produced a video in March 2020 introducing the campaign with "66 celebrities" that supported the campaign, among them Deutschland 83 actor Jonas Nay and former professional footballer Andre Schürrle. They solicit support as well as financial contributions from viewers.

"Count me in," they say, pointing toward the camera. "You too?"

"We are incredibly grateful for the VIPs in our videos," says German Zero spokeswoman Eva-Maria McCormack.

Assessing Success Is Complex

But quantifying the effectiveness of celebrity endorsement of campaigns is not a straightforward process.

"In order to measure effectiveness, first of all you need to define what is meant by success," says Alegria Olmedo, a researcher at the Zoology Department at the University of Oxford.

Olmedo is the author of a study looking at a range of campaigns concerning pangolin consumption, fronted by local and Western celebrities, in Vietnam and China. But she says her biggest stumbling block was knowing how to measure a campaign's success.

"You need a clear theory of change," explains Olmedo. "Have the celebrities actually helped in achieving the campaign's goals? And how do you quantify these goals? Maybe it is increased donations or higher engagement with a cause."

A popular campaign in China in recent years saw famous chefs Zhao Danian and Shu Yi pledge to abstain from cooking endangered wildlife. While the pledge achieved widespread recognition, both Olmedo and Marchildon say it's difficult to know whether it made any difference to people's actions.

"In life we see a thousand messages every day, and it is very hard to pinpoint whether one campaign has actually made a difference in people's behavior," she explains.

Awareness Is Not Enough

Many campaigns that feature celebrities focus on raising awareness rather than on concrete action — which, for researcher Olmedo, raises a further problem in identifying effectiveness.

"Reach should never be a success outcome," she says. "Many campaigns say they reached a certain number of people on social media. But there has been a lot of research that shows that simply giving people information does not mean they are actually going to remember it or act upon it."

But anecdotal evidence from campaigns may suggest reach can make an active difference.

"Our VIP video is by far the most watched on our social media channels," McCormack from German Zero says. "People respond to it very directly. A lot of volunteers of all ages heard about us through that video."

However, some marketing studies have shown that celebrity endorsement of a cause or product can distract from the issue itself, as people only remember the person, not the content of what they were saying.

Choosing the Right Celebrity

Celebrity choice is also very important. Campaigns that use famous faces are often aiming to appeal to members of the public who do not necessarily follow green issues.

For certain campaigns with clear target audiences, choosing a climate scientist or well-known environmentalist rather than a celebrity could be more appealing — Attenborough is a classic example. For others, images and videos involving cute animals may be more likely to get a message heard than attaching a famous face.

"We choose celebrities who have a lifestyle where they are already talking about these issues," says Marchildon from the UN. "You need figures with credibility."

McCormack cites the example of Katharine Hayhoe, an environmental scientist who is also an evangelical Christian. In the southern United States, Hayhoe has become a celebrity in her own right, appealing to an audience that might not normally be interested in the messages of climate scientists.

But as soon as you get a celebrity involved, campaigns also put themselves at risk of the whims of that celebrity. Prince William and younger members of the royal family have come under fire in recent years for alleged hypocrisy for their backing of environmental campaigns while simultaneously using private jets to fly around the world.

But Does It Really Work?

While environmental campaigns hope that endorsement from well-known figures can boost a campaign, there is little research to back this up.

"The biggest finding [from my study] was that we were unable to produce any evidence that shows that celebrity endorsement of environmental causes makes any difference," says Olmedo.

This will come as a blow to many campaigns that have invested time and effort into relationships with celebrity ambassadors. But for many, the personal message that many celebrities offer in videos like that produced by German Zero and campaigns like the Earthshot Prize are what counts.

The research may not prove this conclusively — but if the public believes a person they respect deeply personally cares about an important issue, they are perhaps more likely to care too.

"I personally believe in the power this can have," says Marchildon. "And if having a celebrity involved can get a single 16-year-old future leader thinking about environmentalist issues — that is enough."

Reposted with permission from DW.

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