by Blair Halcyon, Swarthmore Mountain Justice
Organizing on a college campus is a unique experience, and one that differs in many ways from classic “community organizing.” As part of our listening tour, we had the opportunity to shadow an organizer from the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition (OVEC) and get a good sense of what environmental justice organizing looks like in a rural area.
On Saturday, we went to a small rural community with an OVEC organizer to meet with residents who had just received the results of water testing. The effort was spearheaded by one family, the Pierces,* after the coal company went door-to-door asking people to fill out a water quality survey. Suspicious that the company wanted this data without giving any background on why they wanted it for, the Pierces contacted OVEC, which was able to provide free well testing for the Pierces and 10 of their neighbors.
The Pierces were fortunate enough to have clean water, but the same was not true for some of their neighbors. Many had high levels of manganese and iron, but at levels that would be covered by a home filter. The most serious finding was that several families had arsenic levels in exceedance of EPA standards. We learned that arsenic poisoning is frequently misdiagnosed as Crohn’s disease, and two people within a block of each other had been diagnosed with Crohn’s in the last year. Many folks in the area have also lost somebody to cancer in recent years. The impact of the extraction industry is measured here in lives.
The community is literally surrounded by extractive industries. A mountaintop removal mine, a valley fill, a filled-in coal sludge pond, and two natural gas wells are all located within several miles, so it’s hard to say exactly which site is causing the groundwater contamination. Residents speculated, based on the dates when their water started to taste and smell unusual, that the recently drilled gas wells might be to blame. More water testing and a hydrological analysis of the area will be necessary to be sure.
As we discussed this information with the families, the OVEC organizer was careful not to push his own views. He explained that folks with high arsenic levels should not be drinking their tap water, and volunteered that OVEC could help the community organize to get the city water line extended to their homes, but he didn’t aggressively connect the water quality to the nearby extraction sites. When asked what could have caused the pollution, he gave the facts—that arsenic contamination is correlated with industrial mining and drilling activity. He explained to us that at this stage, the most important thing is to respond to the community’s needs. Many folks have a conflicted view of extraction industry, and it could be alienating to come into town with a clear anti-corporate agenda. For now, helping the community organize to improve its water is an achievable goal, and will hopefully lead to greater engagement with OVEC’s political initiatives in the future.
The next steps in this community are to confirm the test results with a second sample, and then decide what course of action to take. Organizing to get a water line put in is a likely option. Additionally, once the source of contamination is definitively identified, the community may decide to sue the responsible company.
Many of us in the fossil-fuel divestment movement wish for a fundamental economic transformation. We want a sustainable economy in which people, not corporations, assert control over their own lives. While we hold these aspirations, it is important not to lose sight of the all-important work that is happening to meet people’s immediate needs—for clean water, good health, and economic stability. The key to OVEC’s work is that it helps meet people’s needs, but it isn’t charity. OVEC empowers communities to realize their own political power, and in doing so diminish that of corporations and politicians.
As OVEC and other grassroots groups confront corporate power from below, we can leverage the institutional power of our universities to cut off corporate funds. All the parts of the movement can work together, as long as we acknowledge and listen to each other.
**Names have been changed to respect people’s privacy**