Some people picture Spring Break as a mix of tequila hangovers and Facebook photos that should never be posted, but a contingent of U.S. college students is spending those precious five days of freedom in a very different way: fighting dirty coal and mountaintop mining in Appalachia.
Mountain Justice Spring Break, now in its third year, brings more than 150 young people from around the country to witness the devastation of mountain top removal and coal waste, undergo intensive activist organizer training, and take action.
This year, 14 members of the group were arrested in a direct action protest and "die in" on the steps of the Tennessee Valley Authority headquarters in Knoxville.
The TVA, of course, is responsible for what has been called the greatest man-made environmental disaster since the Exxon Valdez.
On Dec. 22, a coal ash retaining pond at the TVA's Kingston power plant ruptured, sending more than 1 billion gallons of toxic, mercury-laden sludge spilling into the Emory River. It poisoned the drinking supply of hundreds of people downstream, killed wildlife and wiped out a dozen homes. The spill was 100 times greater than the Exxon Valdez oil spill that devastated Alaska's Prince William Sound 20 years ago.
And yet, days after the coal ash spill, the major media weren't covering the Tennessee coal ash devastation. It wasn't until youth bloggers working for Fired Up Media, the firm that launched ItsGettingHotInHere.org, broke the story and got the attention of the national news.
Young people's role in highlighting the TVA coal-ash disaster is emblematic of their leadership in the mountaintop removal fight.
They are crossing more lines, devising bolder actions, and implementing more diverse and powerful strategies than ever before in this fight.
Their movement is fundamentally based on justice – protecting the people and rebuilding vibrant communities in a region devastated by decades of coal abuse. And their leaders are as idealistic as they are charismatic.
Take 22-year-old Ivan Stiefel, whose untamed beard and mild mannerisms might at first obscure his fierce commitment to the cause.
Ivan's long direct-action arrest record should be enough to earn anyone street cred. He's also the co-founder of the Mountain Justice Spring Break program, and he was a lead negotiator with the CEO of an electric utilities company during a protest involving an elementary school impacted by coal waste in 2007. The protest culminated in a raucous sit-in at the office of the governor of West Virginia, where Ivan and 12 other organizers were forcibly dragged out and temporarily jailed for demanding that the governor build a safe new school for the children of Marsh Fork Elementary. The governor has yet to commit to moving the imperiled school, and children still play at recess only 400 feet from toxic coal slurry containers.
Ivan has been honored for his efforts with the prestigious Brower Youth Award for his work. He says:
"Mountain Justice Spring Break has furthered the movement for environmental justice, climate justice and a just transition away from coal."
Leaders like Ivan are surely unique, but if your stereotype of an Appalachian is a techno-phobic hillbilly, think again.
Mountaintop mining opponents have harnessed the power of the internet and media for their cause more aggressively than many environmental groups. Web sites like faux-frontpage Coal-Is-Clean.com and biting videos that circulate virally on the web add media punch to the anti-MTR repertoire of tactics.
I Love Mountains is the online hub for mountaintop removal activists, and it is one of the most important tools in their struggle. Its blogging, tweeting, T-shirt-selling, congress-hounding membership consists of seven grassroots organizations from five Appalachian states. The group was kick-started with the help of Mathew Gross, a pioneer in online organizing and former director of Internet Communications for the Howard Dean campaign.
Even students outside of the mountaintop removal states are doing their part in the fight. A week ago, more than 60 Middlebury College students in Vermont orchestrated a mass "freeze-mob" in their dining hall, to call attention to their Power Past Coal campaign. They froze in place for two full minutes, holding a chunk of coal in their hands, and then spent the rest of the day answering their peers' questions about coal (they wore green arm-bands to signify their involvement and generate more buzz).
The Middlebury students want their university, which scored an A on the national Sustainability Report Card, to divest from any energy company that uses mountaintop removal coal mining practices.
Similar campaigns are being run on campuses around the country. Thanks to Appalachian Voices, all the students have to do is type their zip code into a page at I Love Mountains to find out if their power company uses mountaintop coal and see who that coal production is effecting.
Washington, D.C., is also a hub of anti-coal activity, especially this week, officially End Mountaintop Removal Week. Students from across the country are getting involved by calling their representatives in support of legislation to strengthen the Clean Water Act. The new bill would add "mining waste" – i.e. blown-up mountaintop debris – to the list of illegal pollutants that cannot be dumped in our nation's rivers.
With Congress up in arms over the massive AIG bonuses, banning outrageous toxic waste that has survived scrutiny via loopholes should be a no-brainer.