From the Gulf to Appalachia, We Are in the Fight for Our Lives

This guest blog was written by Crystal Mello. Crystal is a Community Organizer with POWHR and a fellow with the Equation Campaign. She lives in Shawsville, Virginia.

We are in the fight for our lives.

I never thought I’d be in a struggle like this. The struggle for my home, the struggle for air and water, the struggle for the planet… it’s a lot.

And being in the middle of all this injustice in a country that has a long history of denying its wrongs sometimes feels lonely. 

The fossil fuel industry targets communities that they don’t think resist their projects strongly. In the case of the Mountain Valley Pipeline, this is because they know that many of our homes are far apart, spread out over the mountains, streams, towns, and farms of West Virginia, Virginia, and North Carolina. In the tough moments of this fight, I feel isolated.

Late last year, I got to meet members of our national community who live hundreds of miles south of Montgomery County. Russell* and I flew to Houston and went on a five-day toxic tour of Port Arthur, Lake Charles, and St. James. We met community organizers at Port Arthur Community Action Network, Healthy Gulf, Rise St. James, and the Pueblo Action Alliance.

The point of our trip was to build relationships with other frontline organizers and see the work they are doing to protect their communities from fossil fuel projects.

I can’t stop looking at the photos I took when I was there. I read about what was happening in the Gulf before the trip but there’s nothing like being there – your eyes burning, reaching for your inhaler.

We visited the area around a giant 960-acre lake of “hundreds of millions of gallons of toxic, radioactive water on top of a 200 ft pile of waste byproduct” (which looks like a big white wall). The byproduct is the result of making fertilizer and is formed with phosphogypsum, a naturally radioactive element. Every ton of phosphate fertilizer creates about 5.5 tons of phosphogypsum which has to be kept indefinitely because it is “weakly radioactive”. 

It is owned by the Mosaic Company, which produces fertilizer. Rise St. James is fighting to stop industrial development here, alongside their many other fights to stop health and environmental destruction. This land is known as Cancer Alley. It has the highest cancer rates in the nation.

[Above] The Mosaic Company plant. Photo credit: Crystal Mello

[Above] The sugarcane fields next to the Mosaic Company plant. Photo credit: Crystal Mello

This is what it looks like when the fossil fuel industry is allowed to poison and pollute communities of color and working class communities indefinitely, despite strong community resistance and opposition. Shame on every government official that let this happen. 

As a cleaning lady, I am held to high standards around chemicals. Small businesses around me are held to standards about chemical use. Why aren’t these massive companies held to standards for human health? 

There is endless evidence for how and why fossil fuel industry build-out and industry waste impacts human health. For example, a new study just declared that fracking expansion has caused a public health crisis because of how it impacts people and the number of people it impacts – more than 17.6 million people in the U.S. now live within a mile of a fracked oil or gas well.

But our government is acting like none of this is happening, thus forsaking their duty to represent and protect us. The Biden administration just approved the application for a new offshore oil export terminal in Texas called the Sea Port Oil Terminal (SPOT)… despite just announcing he will prioritize climate action in a speech at COP27.

We are not seeing the action we deserve, demand, and need from our elected officials. But that won’t stop us from fighting. What we are going to do is keep uniting our fights because that’s how we win. We saw that in September when we raised fierce opposition to Manchin’s Dirty Deal and witnessed its ensuing defeat.

This work is hard – there is no getting around that. But it’s much better together.

[Above] The best meal we had was at Blue & Sons Grocery. I had a really good sandwich in the company of a frog and shared root bear with Russell*. Photo credit: Crystal Mello.

*Russell Chisholm is Mountain Valley Watch Coordinator at the Protect Our Water, Heritage, Rights Coalition.