Monday, March 10, 2014

Philly Beyond Coal Campaign Protests Coal-Industry Water Pollution at EPA Region 3 Headquarters

Philly Sierra Club Beyond Coal activists teamed up with activists from Rising Tide, Protecting Our Waters, Earth Quaker Action Team, Mountain Justice and other allies from Appalachia to put on the second rally at the EPA this year, and the third event the group has staged since the organizations started working together in late 2012. The two actions were the most successful series of rallies that the Philly Beyond Coal Team has organized in the last three years, because of the high turnout, diversity of groups involved in planning and turnout, volunteer-led process used in planning that involved groups from Appalachia and Philadelphia who hadn’t worked together, the creativity and forcefulness of the events, and the press coverage received (two media outlets covered each event for a total of four media hits).  It’s telling that the TV news crew that questioned the EPA for their reaction to the second protest were told, "The state of West Virginia is overseeing the clean-up and the EPA is ready to help if asked."  This reply makes it clear that the EPA is leaving water quality up to states that are in cahoots with the coal companies.

In blowing snow and subfreezing temperatures, dozens of Sierra Club and Rising Tide Philly activists marched from Love Park to the EPA Region 3 headquarters carrying a 30 foot long black plastic “river,” (made by volunteer Dave Moscatello) part of it polluted with spots of chemicals labeled with their side effects, and part of it blue and filled with fish—the goal we seek. A “hazmat-suited EPA representative” (Eli Schewel of Rising Tide Philly) led the march. Drums punctuated the air as the group arrived at the EPA, where the sidewalk began to fill with fellow demonstrators asking, “What is the EPA going to do about coal industry pollution of Appalachian rivers and streams and threats to communities' health?”

Against a backdrop of the blackened “river” and a huge puppet representing the EPA, Johanna DeGraffenreid from Coal River Mountain Watch in West Virginia spoke about the devastation and illness that plague Appalachia wherever mountain top removal coal mining occurs.  She also talked about the numerous leaks and spills of coal ash, coal ash slurry, and coal industry chemicals in West Virginia, Virginia, and North Carolina that have left residents worried about their health and the safety of their children—all with no response from the EPA.  She explained that state departments that are charged with protecting the environment are in bed with the coal industry and turn a blind eye to these recurring tragedies.  And the EPA Region 3 office here in Philly is charged with overseeing coal-mining pollution in the mid-Atlantic states.  She asked when they are going to fulfill their duty.

Coryn Wolk from Philadelphia's Protecting Our Waters extended the theme of fossil fuel pollution by highlighting the parallel struggles in Pennsylvania with natural gas fracking, which causes water despoliation and the resulting incidence of illness and birth defects. She talked about the need to fight on both fronts and to work together to get EPA to stop the poisoning of our communities both in Philadelphia and Appalachia.

Sierra Club volunteer Sue Edwards added that the bitter cold we were experiencing is part of the story of global warming, which alters the jet stream and causes disrupted, record-breaking, weather of all kinds.  What is needed, she said, is shifting from fossil fuels to clean, renewable energy.  She led a chant:  FOSSIL FUELS LEAK AND SPILL, WIND AND SUN NEVER WILL!  More chants followed, including one spontaneously led by Vietnam veteran Gerald Brown:  EPA, CLEAN IT UP!  ALL THIS FILTH HAS GOT TO STOP!  He was there with a group from the Veterans Multi-Service Center who have become frequent participants in hearings and rallies aimed at stopping fossil fuel pollution.

The Sierra Club Beyond Coal Campaign in Philadelphia garnered coveted TV news coverage when  WCAU ran an accurate thirty second segment on the early evening news, including a quote from an EPA spokesperson saying, “a clean-up is underway.”  What we need is an end to the spills, not just a clean-up in the aftermath.  A photographer from the Metro, the daily free commuter newspaper read by thousands, took photos, one of which ran on page two the next day with a caption that succinctly expressed why we were there:  Protesters ask "Where is the EPA?  Protesters with the Sierra Club marched to the US Environmental Protection Agency's offices in Center City to denounce mountaintop-removal coal mining and chemical leaks in West Virginia that led to hundreds of thousands of people without access to potable water.

(clink on link below for TV coverage and our own video)

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