Interview with Jason Howard

Katy Oliver

Like many native sons of Appalachia, much of Jason Howard's family history was spent digging for coal in dark tunnels, deep below the Appalachian mountains. At age nine, his maternal great-grandfather went underground to drive a mule team. And, like the coal blighted branches of his family tree, coal exposure blackened the bronchioles of his lungs, cutting short his life. The coal mines also claimed the life of Jason Howard's paternal great-grandfather, who was murdered in the mines for protesting during a union dispute. However Jason Howard is eager to relate his personal experience to the larger Appalachian picture. A picture which, he says, is being irrevocably ruined by the widespread destruction caused by mountaintop removal.

Photograph by Larry Thacker

Mountaintop removal is the most destructive form of coal extraction. With little regard for local wildlife and inhabitants, corporations fell miles of trees, and charge explosives 800 feet beneath the caps of the Appalachian mountains. Once destroyed, the ruins are then bull-dozed from the mountainside, and left in large pits in the valleys. Then machines, typically as large as a twenty-story buildings, scoop deep into the earth to retrieve the coal. This devastating process results in the irreversible contamination of water supplies, increased risk of flooding, and annihilation of ecosystems.

Mountaintop removal is favored by corporations because it is a highly mechanized method of mining, making it more cost-effective than employing a vast workforce. Therefore the coal corporations' traditional claim that coal extraction is the primary source of jobs in Appalachia is wearing increasingly thin. Howard reveals that such excuses are a "big lie that we mountaineers have been fed for so long." He goes onto question: "If coal is so profitable, why is there a 31% poverty rate in Bell County? Why are people leaving the mountains to find jobs? Why are our best and brightest kids not coming back after college?"

Howard then poses an answer: "Many people think of Appalachians as lazy, apathetic, uneducated, and illiterate...Mountaintop removal could only happen in Appalachia. There's a reason that these things don't happen in New England, in Malibu, in Washington State. It could only happen in a place that has been ignored for years, whose people have always been made to feel less than and who have been beaten down. It could only happen when one-third of the population lives below the poverty line." And it is a result of such exploitation that, Howard claims, causes many Appalachians to forget "their history of collective action."

However, Howard’s first book (co-written with LMU writer-in-residence Silas House), Something's Rising fully documents the "history of social protest in the mountains," through the distinctive stories of twelve "hard-working, outspoken, courageous and articulate" Appalachian individuals. Howard has first hand experience of the strength of such an empowering message. "Writing this book changed me. To see these individuals—many of whom have faced serious threats, lost their jobs, lived in the shadow of mountaintop removal—be so stoic and committed and optimistic, well that becomes contagious. Courage is catching. Hope is contagious."

The title, Something's Rising, refers to the collective Appalachian voice, which is gaining strength, and rising in outcry at the extent of such exploitation. Howard states: "We Appalachians are just plain sick and tired. We're sick of seeing our coal be shipped out of state along with the profits. We're weary of double-talk from our politicians. We're fed up with being treated like we're a throwaway people, held at the mercy of big corporations with headquarters in New York and Germany, who have no connection to the land we love. We're tired of not being able to get a decent drink of water, sick of being flooded out every spring. At some point you just say, "Enough." And when mountain people have had enough, you'd better watch out. So in my mind, it's no longer a question of ifmountaintop removal is stopped, but when." -e-