February 17, 2010

Top heavy

Ben Sollee and Daniel Martin Moore draw awareness to destructive mining with Dear Companion

A former Peace Corps volunteer, a coalminer’s grandson and the frontman of Louisville’s biggest rock juggernaut have dropped the issue of mountaintop removal mining squarely at independent rock’s doorstep.

Like Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen and other protest songwriters before them, local musicians Ben Sollee and Daniel Martin Moore, along with producer Jim James, of My Morning Jacket, found a common cause in the fight to end mountaintop removal (MTR) mining in Appalachia . On Tuesday, they released Dear Companion in an effort to raise awareness about the destructive mining practice used to produce 113 million tons of coal annually.

Mining companies have taken to blasting off mountaintops to access coal because it requires less manpower than traditional mining techniques, leaving devastated Appalachian communities in their wake. Environmental groups, like Boone, N.C.-based Appalachian Voices and Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, say coal companies pollute streams, rivers and nearby communities with the byproducts of mountaintop removal mining, resulting in lower property values, environmental disasters and health hazards.

One of mountaintop removal mining’s most controversial byproducts is the toxic coal sludge stored in dams. In 2000, a dam broke in Martin County, Ky., resulting in 300 million gallons of toxic sludge flowing into tributaries of the Big Sandy River, killing aquatic life for 70 miles downstream, according to Appalachian Voices. A similar disaster unfolded in Kingston, Tenn., in December of 2008.

Though reluctant to call themselves activists — one track is even called “Only A Song” — Sollee, Moore and James keep the theme of justice in the natural world front and center on the album, and not just musically. Sollee and Moore are donating their artist royalties to Appalachian Voices, and in keeping with the concept of “green touring,” their spring trek’s carbon footprint will be offset by wind power. They perform Feb. 26 at Brown Theatre. 

LEO Weekly: Recycling is now a culturally accepted practice. People do it publicly and privately. How do other environmental causes transition into cultural acceptance and, beyond that, everyday behavior?

Ben Sollee: This is a question better suited for a sociologist. However, I have learned that we take cues from each other and that learning is experiential. I guess people learn most quickly when there are rewards involved, even if that is only acceptance. There is no greater reward than the acceptance of one’s child so our parents are watching us closely. Our generation is giving the cue that things need to change in regards to MTR and the challenge of climate change.

Daniel Martin Moore: Just by repetition, and by folks setting a good example for others — much the same way recycling took hold. Reduce, Reuse, Recycle — the three Rs. I can remember hearing that all the way back in grade school, 20-plus years ago.

LEO: If corporations were no longer considered people in the eyes of the Constitution, do you think the problem of mountaintop removal mining would be easier to litigate?

BS: A pretty abstract idea and one, as a musician, I have no idea how to answer. But even if corporations weren’t considered “people” they’d still have piles of money to get their point across. It matters not I think.

DM: Yes, I do. Because at that point, surely we would have established that the rights of an individual (an actual human being) supercede the rights of a business, particularly in a case like MTR where negative health effects and degraded quality of life are undeniable. I cannot understand how corporations are to be considered people… But they have all sorts of special rights, like being able to broker unique tax breaks and receive government subsidies. As of (last month’s U.S. Supreme Court decision), they’re also able to wield nearly unfettered influence through their fathoms-deep bank accounts. Something just doesn’t seem all the way square about that.

LEO: What is an artist’s role in movements of social change?

BS: We, as artists, have cultivated the ability to communicate through many unique mediums. But at the end of the day, we’re just another voice. If one cares about something they protect it … using art is our way of conversing with others.

DM: To speak the plain truth, as best as you can.

LEO: In what ways does conservation play a role in your life? Are you conscious of the source of the electricity used at your shows? (Though you play mainly acoustic…)

BS: Being a touring musician has little to do with conservation. We travel great distances to play for an audience, who may have traveled distances... Conservation and distance do not share the same table. What our lives boil down to is sustainability; how do we do what we do with as little impact to the environment as possible and still be able to feed our families? Little things: bringing our own utensils and containers to minimize trash. Broader things: offsetting the carbon footprint of the tour with renewable energy and trees. In another life I’ll dump these handheld computers and cross-continental flights to be a farmer.

DM: I try to be mindful, just like everyone else, I’d imagine. We are very aware of the source of the power that runs our shows and tours, yes. The Dear Companion Tour with Ben will be offset with wind power, for example. It’s a small step, but we think it’s important.

LEO: When did you first learn about mountaintop removal mining?

BS: Not sure … maybe listening to Silas House read from one of his books on the radio show I grew up playing on, “Woodsongs Old Time Radio Hour.”

DM: It must’ve been when I first heard Jean Ritchie singing her song “Black Waters.”

LEO: What short-term and long-term effects from MTR have you seen/experienced?

BS: Central Appalachia remains extremely impoverished. There’s no reason billions of dollars of coal is mined from Martin County in southeast Kentucky and 35 percent of its residents should remain below the poverty line. Really? In the United States of America? Come on!

LEO: Is mountaintop removal mining a practice for the federal government to stop? If so, what is it going to take to propel it to that level given two wars, a recession, the possible failure of health care reform and now a Haitian quake? Is it more book tours on Stephen Colbert (I’m only half kidding)?

BS: MTR is an issue for the people, all of us, to decide on. Our biggest challenge is letting people know it exists and what the costs are. Dear Companion hopes to spur conversation. What is it going take? A whole lot of people saying “no.”

DM: I don’t really have a preference as to who puts an end to it, as long as that end is reached. I think it’s most likely to come from the federal level, but we’ve got the Stream Saver Bill here in Kentucky that would really help. But then, of course, we’d like to stop MTR everywhere, not just here in the commonwealth. Our neighbors are dealing with it, too. 

LEO: Would the movement against mountaintop removal mining benefit from being repositioned as part of the larger movement to stop climate change?

BS: It’s difficult to reposition MTR as anything other than what it is: an exploitation of land and the people who have made their homes there. Organizations like the NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council) put the issue on the roster with other acts against nature tied to climate change, but mountaintop removal coal mining remains unique. Appalachia, with it’s ancient mountains, diverse plants and animals, and remarkable cultural legacy, should be as treasured as the Adirondacks or the Rockies. If wishes were horses, though, we’d all get on a ride.

DM: Probably, and to a large degree I think it is positioned there by a lot of folks. But for me, it’s just about respect for people and respect for our place in this world. It may come to bear on larger issues, but I just don’t like seeing kids poisoned — that’s an immediate problem that is unacceptable.

LEO: Do you think there’s a general bias against nonprofits in this country? A bias that could even prevent robust fundraising from actually leading to effective change?

BS: No. It’s just hard to get people’s attention, and the way the media functions … the efforts of nonprofits are often glazed over or watered down.

DM: It seems like it sometimes, though it’s mostly because of effective PR. Nonprofits can’t really be as loathsome as they’re often portrayed, because a lot of folks give a lot of time and resources to support them. For example, I belong to a group called Kentuckians for the Commonwealth with a membership of more than 6,000 Kentuckians. KFTC gets called all kinds of derogatory things by people who don’t agree with its positions (maybe it’s the bake sales or the singing of traditional folk ballads that are so offensive?). The fact is, though, that there are a lot of people in this state who see the need for tax reform, for ending MTR, and for sustainable development, and who are not afraid to band together and raise a chorus against corrupt politics and entrenched interests. I wouldn’t call that a problem. Democracy would probably be a better word for it.

LEO: The American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity gave $240,000 to Obama’s campaign, and the president talked about it at rallies in Virginia. Can you be clean coal and pro-environment at the same time?

BS: If one believes that “clean coal” is actually clean then it is perfectly logical to assume that supporting it would be in line with the environment. But the process of coal mining, preparation, delivery and consumption can never be clean. Coal has and will always create conflict and compromises for the land and people.

DM: Hard to say. To the best of my knowledge, clean coal hasn’t proved itself scientifically, and certainly never on anything close to an industrial scale. The problem with clean coal is that the issue of pollution is only addressed on the last step of the process. If “clean coal technology” could also clean up the mining (MTR) and processing (with incredibly dangerous/toxic chemicals that somehow end up in the streams and groundwater) then it would really be something. Until then, it’s just another case of the same-ol’, same-ol’ dressed up as something new.

LEO: This year, Kentucky issued more stringent guidelines on surface coalmines, saying that “spoil material” — dirt and rock — be replaced in mining sites instead of streams and rivers. But the guidelines are not mandatory. Are lobbyists at work in legislation like this, where the aim is true but it’s a question of whether those measures will have any teeth?

BS: Boy, I have no idea. Everyone lobbies, but the intricacies of it all are beyond my grasp since I’m only involved in making music. Better to ask someone working in D.C.

DM: I don’t know, but wouldn’t be surprised to learn it. Just seems like political maneuvering to me, where a representative can say, “We tried to clean things up, look at this bill. It’s not our fault the state is being wrecked.”

LEO: Are we searching for water molecules on other planets because we’re all going to need another place to live?

BS: Nah … we’re just searching because we can. I mean, maybe there’s a scientist or a general somewhere, huddled deep in the belly of some fortified mountain plotting a backup plan for the survival of the human race … or maybe scientists are just satisfying their inner child who is still infatuated with that distant, shiny moon.

DM: Ha!

LEO: Final thoughts?

BS: I’ve spent my life listening to and performing music. Issues like MTR are reflected in my music because they are issues that I care about deeply. That being said, I don’t see my music or myself as an activist. Music does not create change. It can challenge and inspire the audience, but they are the ones who make the change. Daniel and I are focusing our efforts on this project to explore our ties to Appalachia and point people to the issue. After that we have no expectations or control over the matter. If we tried to use the music for anything other than that it would deflate its ability to carry the conversation to new places and people.