Women Against Mountain Top Removal Coal Mining Shave their Heads in Protest

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Posted June 6, 2012

Interview with Marilyn Mullens, Women Unite to End Mountaintop Removal , conducted by Melinda Tuhus


West Virginia is one of the nation’s biggest coal producing states. Coal is transported from the southern Appalachian coal fields by truck, barge and rail, and is often cleaned on site before being shipped to fuel the nation's power plants. But both the production and treatment of coal produce major health risks for local residents.

Many residents adversely effected by the coal industry have been protesting for decades, especially against mountaintop removal coal mining, which involves blasting the tops off mountains to reach the coal seams underneath, then dumping the earth and rock in the valleys below. In late May, activists from Mountain Justice and Radical Action for Mountain People's Survival, or RAMPS, organized two actions to disrupt coal business as usual, employing nonviolent civil disobedience to block nine coal trucks and a coal barge. Then on Memorial Day, a group called Women Unite to End Mountaintop Removal gathered on the steps of the state Capitol in Charleston and shaved their heads in protest.

Between The Lines’ Melinda Tuhus spoke with Marilyn Mullens, a native of Southern West Virginia, describes some of the events in her life that led her to become an anti-coal activist and discusses her idea behind the symbolic Memorial Day protest where 12 women and some men shaved their heads.

MARILYN MULLENS: Around the end of the 90s is when mountaintop removal started around where I live, on both sides of the holler, so, you know, it's one mountain on one side, and one on the other. They were pretty much blasting both of them. A lot of damage to our home, a lot of dust -- not just your typical brown dust, but this grey/white almost powdery-looking dust. Sometimes big rocks in the road. It's a little one-lane road and the kids would play and ride their bikes out there. Didn't pay a whole lot of attention because I was a single mom and a full-time nursing student and still in the military, so life had me pretty busy. In 2001 we had a big flood; we had a heavy rain and a lot of my family and friends lost their homes. And everyone who lives there knows it was because there was no topsoil or trees left on the mountain, so we'd had a lot of heavy rains before, but this was the first time we'd had floods like that since the early 1900s. And that sparked another little interest in me to pay more attention. But in early 2004 my husband and I both got deployed to California as medical people, taking care of some of the injured soldiers coming back from the war. We were out there a couple years, and during that time my house was literally blown off its foundation. A big sinkhole dropped under it and it shifted off its foundation, so we had to come home. And basically the coal company refused to take any responsibility. I came back from deployment in 2006 and I didn't even go back to that area. I just left my house there for sale, and it sat empty for five years. Property values are horrible. And my husband and I moved to Raleigh County -- which is also a mining county, but we moved to a more rural area out of the middle of all of it, because, I say, we were the lucky ones because we could afford to do that -- most people can't But that's my connection; I started paying more attention to the news; some local activists getting arrested. Pretty much they shamed me, you know, I thought, I have to do something. So since that time I've tried to be more active, inviting this.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Marilyn Mullens, there's been some recent activity to draw attention to the damage coal mining and processing is doing in Appalachia. Can you describe those actions?

MARILYN MULLENS: Some activists boarded a coal barge on the Kanawha River, chained themselves to it, had a banner -- the banner said, "Coal Leaves, Cancer Stays" -- we have a lot of bad health effects because not only of the burning of the coal, but the extraction process they use. And also some activists blocked an access road on one of the mountaintop removal sites on Kayford Mountain, stopped them being able to take equipment, or take coal out.

BETWEEN THE LINES: In the past couple of years, some health studies have come out showing increased levels of both cancers and birth defects among residents living close to coal mining operations, as compared to similar populations not living in coal country.

MARILYN MULLENS: Oh, yeah, I mean, I guess the one that sticks out most in my mind is the study with the birth defects. You know, it shows much higher rates of people that live within a 50 mile radius of an active mountaintop removal site; more neurological, more respiratory problems. You know, my children were small and breathed that dust for three years, and it really concerns me...well, I did, too. What are the long-term effects? There was silicon in that blasting material and stuff that they used. But you know the coal companies' response was to the birth defects study was they didn't account for the inbreeding here. Well, I've lived here all my life and I've never had a cousin marry a cousin...that's just ridiculous.

BETWEEN THE LINES: So, how did you come up with the idea of women shaving their heads in protest?

MARILYN MULLENS: I guess I was just fed up. Back in January-February time frame, I went to bed one night just so frustrated, and that happens. Sometimes you feel like you have to either stop, or you'll lose your mind, because it's so frustrating, because nobody will listen -- nobody that can do anything. I think I'd been to a DEP [Dept. of Environmental Protection] hearing or something, and just...you know, the DEP is supposed to be on our side to protect the people, and they're not. Here in West Virginia, they're owned by the coal companies. And I just went to bed so upset, and I woke up in the middle of the night with this idea that, okay, I've got to do something. I can't quit; I can't quit. I can't keep talking because it's not doing any good. What can I do to make a loud statement? And that just kind of came to me. I thought, well, something that's really important to women in the U.S., in our culture is their hair. So I'm going to take mine off in solidarity with our mountains being stripped of everything. I mean, they don't leave anything -- they don't even leave the topsoil on these mountains -- in solidarity with my people who are sick and dying, and who have already passed away.

For additional information, visit Women Unite to End Mountaintop Removal.

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