CULTURE BEAT: Moving a mountain school with music

mountain_aid_logo.pngMusic lovers and activists working to stop mountaintop removal mining will gather in North Carolina this weekend for a benefit concert to help schoolchildren imperiled by a dangerous mining operation in West Virginia.

The first annual Mountain Aid concert kicks off today at Shakori Hills in Chatham County, N.C., on the western edge of the state's Triangle region. The concert is a fundraiser for the Pennies of Promise campaign, which aims to build a new school for the students of Marsh Fork Elementary in Raleigh County, W.V., where a 2.8 billion gallon toxic coal sludge impoundment owned by the Massey Energy mining company perches precariously above their classrooms.

The concert, sponsored by the West Virginia-based Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, runs through Saturday night and features Nashville artist and West Virginia native Kathy Mattea, whose recent CD titled "Coal" pays tribute to what she calls "my place and my people." Other scheduled performers include noted cellist Ben Sollee, eclectic roots ensemble Donna the Buffalo and North Carolina-based singer-songwriter-activist Si Kahn.

Though it's not mining territory, North Carolina is connected to mountaintop removal as the second-biggest user of coal obtained via the method, surpassed by only Georgia. Legislatures in both states, as well as elsewhere across the South, are considering legislation that would ban the use of mountaintop removal coal, but they face stiff resistance from the utilities and coal companies. (To find out whether your local utility uses mountaintop removal coal, visit the website and enter your ZIP code.)

Mountain Aid was inspired by a film titled "Mountain Top Removal," Mike O'Connell's award-winning documentary about the destructive mining practices imperiling Marsh Fork Elementary and other communities throughout the coalfields. There will be a screening of the film tonight at 7:30 p.m. in nearby Durham, N.C. at the Durham Arts Council, followed by a question-and-answer session with film subject Ed Wiley, O'Connell and OVEC activist and West Virginia resident Maria Gunnoe, the winner of this year's prestigious Goldman Environmental Award.

The event comes as the grassroots fight against mountaintop removal mining is intensifying. Just yesterday a group of activists scaled the boom of a 20-story dragline at Massey Energy's Twilight Mine in southern West Virginia, unfurling a huge banner that said simply,  "Stop Mountaintop Removal." The protest came less than a week after the Obama administration disappointed opponents of mountaintop removal with an announcement that it would not ban the destructive practice but rather try to reduce its environmental impact through the permitting process.

For a preview of the powerful performances you can expect at Mountain Aid, here's a video of Mattea performing Hazel Dickens' "Black Lung" at Joe's Pub in New York: