Q&A: Confronting Environmental Injustice in Appalachia

Editor’s Note: This interview first appeared in Path Finders, an email newsletter from the Daily Yonder. Each week, Path Finders features a Q&A with a rural thinker, creator, or doer. Like what you see here? You can join the mailing list at the bottom of this article and receive more conversations like this in your inbox each week.


As a summer intern for the Center for Rural Strategies, I moved to Whitesburg, Kentucky. In my very first week I was lucky to meet Elaine Tanner by chance at the farmer’s market. Tanner is an activist and founder of Friends For Environmental Justice (FFEJ). Tanner recently testified in front of the House Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources about coal community protection and revitalization.

At her house and on an ATV tour of Beaver Mountain, the six-generation family tree farm she and her partner Jimmy Hall own 245 acres of and live on, Tanner showed me the environmental destruction created by mountaintop removal coal mining.

Enjoy our conversation about Tanner’s journey to activism, the impact of coal on Appalachia, and her vision for environmental justice and a just transition.


Environmental activist Elaine Tanner sits in front of posters, photos, and symbols of the environmental movement at her home on Beaver Mountain. (Photo: Rebecca Stern.)

Rebecca Stern, The Daily Yonder: To start off, can we hear a bit about who you are, where you’re from and how you got involved with Friends For Environmental Justice?

Elaine Tanner: I’m from Ohio. My mother’s family is from the Coal Fields of West Virginia. My father is from Menifee County here in Kentucky. As a child, I saw the good and the bad. I saw what it was supposed to look like, in the trees in the forest, and I saw what mining and fossil fuel development had done. When we started working with the property here is when we formed Friends For Environmental Justice. There were other people that needed to know what we knew. We were recognized with more power as an organization than just a person standing on a mountain shouting.

DY: Can you talk more about your connection to the land?

ET: I have Cherokee ancestors. We’re on Cherokee lands. We don’t own the lands. We are responsible for caring for the lands, and I take that obligation to heart. I’ve worked with native cultures, and not necessarily Cherokee. I know as much about the Anishinaabe and the Lakota as I do my own culture, because our people were the ones that went over the hill and didn’t go to The Trail of Tears. Our people stayed behind and they were the mountain people, so called civilized people.

That connected me from the time I was a child, spending time with the family, on both sides of the family, and just the nature and the peace and the family connection. Our family lived on a [place] very similar to this compound…After the work days you sit on the porch and you snap the beans and if grandma needs help in the garden, you go help in the garden. Those things that connect us to the land, connect me.

DY: What are the main environmental injustices you see on this land in Appalachia and Letcher County?

ET: I see lack of proper reclamation. I see broken rules that could have fixed things better than they are. We have a lot of problems with mine acid. You saw the high walls that were left and permits call for original contour. Well, we had 200 foot high walls up there, and these rocks will continue to fall forever. Our work here is to be able to sustain the damage that they’ve done. If we need equipment up there, let’s go fix this before they fall down on our houses and we’ve experienced water rushing off the hill, trees coming down, boulders coming down. We see those things in real time. This is ground zero.

DY: Can you tell me more about your vision of a just transition and your advocacy for bills that support it in Congress?

ET: The STREAM Act is going to stop this mountaintop removal, and it’s going to put it back in its place where this past administration got out of hand. I think that we will have the funding to be able to complete and maintain the restoration. We need to make sure that there is adequate bonding on any lack of funds to do the work. Then we need the federal government to step up and to provide these funds. Appalachia coal fields kept their lights on and now it’s time to pay these people back.

A photo of Beaver Mountain shows the damage caused by mountaintop removal coal mining. (Photo: Rebecca Stern.)

DY: What do you see as the most effective or best solutions for environmental justice and how can our readers help support these solutions?

ET: What we need is to start with our headwaters, because [the water is] clean coming out of those mountains. We have straight pipes [which flush raw human waste into creeks, streams, lakes, ravines, and backyard sumps] and we need to have funding to stop contributing to that. There’s no reason that we can’t take some of this infrastructure money, rather than giving it to the coal companies to do reclamation that they should have done in the first place. Let’s put the funds back to the people and give those jobs to the people that operated those mountaintop removal sites and put them on a bulldozer and let them put these lines in.

Once we tap into a clean water supply in our headwater, there’s a kelp remediation system that cleans that water, makes it usable, get that conductivity, and then we can filter it and we could bottle it. We could give it to these communities…I think that if we do start with the headwaters — and Letcher County happens to have three — we can fix what’s broken.

[We need] a lot of money. I think that because the coal companies own the land that they need to give it back to the native people, if they would be willing to take on such atrocity of what they’ve done.

DY: Should people be talking to their representatives about the STREAM Act and can they donate and help support your efforts as well?

ET: Right now, we have bipartisan support on the Stream Savers Act. The ACHE Act is another one that was put out by our representative, Yarmuth, who is from Kentucky, and that would fund health studies. We need health studies. I was in a Zoom call yesterday with one of my friends, and they’re looking at the mental impact of living in these communities. I look back on my early days and my next door neighbor’s little boy had seizures. His wife had gallbladder attacks. The water was so bad, you could not touch it. I think there needs to be educational programs brought to the communities. That’s where funding comes in.

There’s grants available to do this. It’s the work. Sometimes it’s going door to door to tell people, “Hey, we do have a solution. Doing these surveys, how was your water?” When the water was poisoned I went door to door and asked people. We filed a safe drinking water act that failed us. They did not bring one bottle of water to us… but we did get water lines because we opened up a can of worms.

Talk to your representatives. Find out what’s going on. Find out what communities don’t know.


This interview first appeared in Path Finders, a weekly email newsletter from the Daily Yonder. Each Monday, Path Finders features a Q&A with a rural thinker, creator, or doer. Join the mailing list today, to have these illuminating conversations delivered straight to your inbox.


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