By Rob Perk
"Children in eastern Kentucky draw creeks black. They don’t know they're supposed to run clear." -- Ashley Judd
She was a vision in white. Just as you might expect from a Hollywood starlet, Ashley Judd emerged from the back of the car stylishly dressed and perfectly coifed. A few fans awaiting her arrival approached for autographs and photos, for which she graciously complied. Then it was up to the top floor for a brief "meet-and-greet" reception with a few honored guests before her luncheon speech at the National Press Club yesterday, which NRDC arranged. With her Southern charm and natural grace, she dazzled the crowd with tales of her Appalachian heritage, her deep love of the land and people, and her extensive first-hand knowledge of the damage wrought by rapacious mining throughout the region she proudly calls home.
Ashley Judd wields the speaker's gavel at the National Press Club. (Photo by Jesse Hamilton)
Fortunately, C-SPAN live-streamed Ashley's remarks on its website.It's well worth watching the entire speech. But for now I'll just excerpt some of her comments:
"I am very proud to be a Kentuckian. And, of the many things my Creator has seen fit to allow me to accomplish, being an eastern Kentuckian is the simple fact that brings me the most honor, the greatest sense of self. I love and am proud of being a hillbilly."
Warm applause followed this eloquent introduction. It made me think that if instead of the nation's capital we were sitting in a room located anywhere west of the Blue Ridge and east of the Mississippi the crowd would have absolutely erupted in cheers. All of the Appalachians I've met have this in common -- they are fiercely proud of their mountain heritage, as well they should be.
Ashley traces her family to the mountains of this region, going back at least eight generations. In researching her own geneology, she has come to realize that her own well-traveled life pales in comparison to "the wonderful adventure of journeying back through my family history in the Appalachian Mountains." She added:
"There is no better home than Kentucky. We have a deeply engrained mystical sense of place, a sense of belonging that defines us. Although I currently make my home in rural middle Tennessee and in Scotland, Kentucky calls to me. It is my Avalon."
In genuinely poetic fashion that appears to come easy for her, Ashley described the ache she feels for her mountain home as more than bittersweet nostalgia -- more akin to a "searing tear, a gaping wound" in the fabric of her life and in the lives of all Appalachians.
"And it gets bigger with every Appalachian mountaintop that is blown up, every holler that is filled, every stream that is buried, every wild thing that is wantonly and recklessly killed, every ecosystem that is diminished, every job that is lost to mechanization, every family that is pitted one against the other by the state-sanctioned, federal government-supported coal industry-operated rape of Appalachia: mountaintop removal coal mining."
The Appalachian Mountains are the oldest in North America. They may well be the oldest mountains in the entire world, as Ashley rightly pointed out. Then she lowered the boom:
"I am here to tell you, mountaintop removal coal mining simply would not happen in any other mountain range in the United States. It is utterly inconceivable that the Smokies would be blasted, the Rockies razed, the Sierra Nevadas flattened, that bombs the equivalent to Hiroshima would be detonated every single week for three decades. The fact that the Appalachians are the Appalachians makes this environmental genocide possible and permissible."
This is happening not just because coal lies beneath those hallowed hills, but because those profiting from it are aided and abetted by political leaders whose vision is willfully blinded by the injustice that is shockingly obvious to everyone outside the region.
"What used to be home for human, flora and fauna, and the potential economic boom for a classically exploited and distressed area, has become, in the coal company’s callous terminology, 'overburden'.
"The Smokey Mountains, as the crow flies, not so far away, generated a billion dollars in tourism revenue last year for the state of Kentucky. Using shovels the size of buildings, the essential ingredients of deep time is pushed into the lauded and mythical hollers of Appalachia, indiscriminately burying all that is produced and lives there: watershed, perennial and permanent streams, all plant and wildlife, contaminating the ground water in the process."
Ashley did a fabulous job covering all aspects of this controversial issue. She concluded by imploring the press club members in the room to wake up to the plundering of Appalachia and to commit their journalistic integrity to stopping mountaintop removal immediately.
We are lucky to have someone unabashed about using her celebrity to shine a spotlight on what truly is a national shame. Her message was clear: The iconic Appalachians may be beloved by those who live there but they should be revered by all Americans. These mountains form the backbone both for our country and our national heritage, in addition to the bountiful natural resources they provide. We are all Appalachians. And like Ashley, we must each of us do our part to bring an end to the madness that is mountaintop removal coal mining.
Learn more about this issue and what you can do to help save America's oldest mountains.
From the NRDC's Switchboard.