Alternative Spring Break trips that include a community service component have increased in popularity over the past decade as hundreds of Gustavus Adolphus College students have participated in week-long experiences through the non-profit organization Habitat for Humanity. Gustavus juniors Anna McDevitt and Jill Oxborough wanted to spend this year’s Spring Break giving back, but they wanted to try something different.
When Gustavus’ Spring Break commences on March 29, McDevitt and Oxborough will fly to Annapolis, Maryland where McDevitt’s parents currently live. Three days later they will drive several hours to the Appalachia region of southern West Virginia where they will volunteer for the non-governmental organization Coal River Mountain Watch (CRMW).
CRMWs main missions are to stop the destruction of local communities and the environment by mountaintop removal mining, to improve the quality of life in the region, and to help rebuild sustainable communities. Coal River Mountain is approximately 45 miles south of Charleston. It sits nestled in the Coal River Valley between the Clear and Marsh Forks of the Big Coal River, and is the last major intact mountain in the Coal River Watershed. Ironically, McDevitt became aware of CRMW and the grassroots movement to halt mountaintop removal methods while studying abroad.
“I studied abroad in India this past semester and while we were there we took a really critical look at things going on in the United States,” McDevitt said. “We watched the documentary The Last Mountain, which is all about the grassroots movement in the fight against the coal industry in this area of West Virginia. I came home really fired up about it.”
When she returned to Gustavus, McDevitt talked to Oxborough about the documentary and the situation in West Virginia as a result of the coal industry’s political domination in the region. After contacting CRMW to learn about possible volunteer opportunities, the two decided to embark on the Spring Break trip together.
“I’ve been on two Habitat for Humanity trips and it feels so good to spend your time giving back to a community that you otherwise would not have contact with,” Oxborough said. “I like laying in the sun as much as any other person, but it feels good to actually be productive during that week off.”
If the coal industry is allowed to strip-mine Coal River Mountain using mountaintop removal methods, CRMW says that it will devastate the last intact mountain ecosystem in the area, and it will endanger the lives and negatively impact the livelihoods of the residents living below the mining. Mountaintop removal would cut off access to those who have used the mountain for generations for recreation, hunting, and gathering of mushrooms, ginseng and other wild plants. It would also subject residents in local communities to an increased risk of flooding, blasting damage, clouds of blasting dust, and destruction of clean water sources.
McDevitt and Oxborough will be staying at CRMW for four days. While there, they will participate in a two-day river clean up, tour several mining sites, participate in other volunteer activities, and meet with community members to hear firsthand about their daily struggles as victims of the effects of mountaintop removal mining methods. They hope to come back to Minnesota and Gustavus with knowledge and other tools to educate their peers about some of the injustices taking place in the Applachia region.
“That is why we are going because we want to find out what can we, from Minnesota, do to help,” McDevitt said. “It doesn’t matter that we live so far away. Our energy consumption affects these people’s lives so we want to see what we can do about that.”
Anna McDevitt is a junior political science major from Lakeville, Minn., who is also a member of the Gustavus women’s track and field team. Jill Oxborough is a junior elementary education major from Minneapolis. You can learn more about Coal Mountain River Watch online at cmrw.net.