West Virginia Mountain Party's Jesse Johnson says he'll keep running for Governor of the Mountain State until he wins or until he dies trying. He just hopes there are still some mountains left by the time he gets his chance to govern. Johnson, 53, who declared his most recent of three campaigns for governor in August, was born in Charleston when Appalachia had roughly five hundred more mountains than it does today.
Since the late 1950's coal mining has changed immensely. Rather than men crawling through tunnels and harvesting veins of the fossil fuel, vast amounts of ordinance is used to blow the mountains to smithereens along with every living thing that's on them at the time of the explosion. The mountain top isn't vaporized; it's thrown into the surrounding ravines and flattens the terrain. Or as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency describes it, "Mountaintop removal is a form of surface coal mining in which explosives are used to access coal seams, generating large volumes of waste that bury adjacent streams."
That might not sound good for the critters on the mountain, but it turns out that it's not good for the streams either. In fact, again from the EPA, "The resulting waste that then fills valleys and streams can significantly compromise water quality, often causing permanent damage to ecosystems and rendering streams unfit for swimming, fishing and drinking. It is estimated that almost 2,000 miles of Appalachian headwater streams have been buried by mountaintop coal mining." And that was the estimate back in 2010. More mountains have been blown up since then.
It isn't just mountain top removal that gets Johnson riled enough to run for office. It's everything that Johnson says is making West Virginia a "sacrifice zone" including hydro-fracking and union busting.
Johnson can prove his points. He has proof that past elected officials have made deals with the coal companies to sacrifice safety for profits and that past governors have admitted on tape that they look away when coal companies violate regulations put in place to protect the citizens. And while Johnson's campaigns are poorly funded grass roots efforts he believes that if he works hard enough the people of West Virginia will get the message.
Johnson explains, "I believe in the people. I believe once the message gets around that the people will make decisions in their best interest for a change." Johnson cites mainstream media and its willing or unknowing collusion with the coal and gas companies that are violating the clean water act and contaminating drinking water, "The people aren't told the truth. They don't know why their children's teeth are rotting out or their kids get chemical burns in the bathtub. They don't know that everyone in the country's kids' teeth aren't rotting out. They are fed lies in multimillion dollar ad campaigns. They don't have alternatives to mainstream media." And Johnson adds, "They are denied an alternative in the debates," referencing his exclusion from the October 9 state wide debate which featured incumbent Governor Earl Ray Tomblin and challenger Bill Maloney, even though Johnson is on the ballot as well.
When asked why intelligent elected officials who have to drink the same water let these practices go on for so long Johnson replied, "I'm not convinced all of them drink the same water. And they aren't all in office because they are brilliant. They are in office because they are part of the machine. Anyone knows that if they are a cog in a machine that they can be replaced at any time."
Johnson says that his opponents are just what industry wants to keep their devastating practices in place. "Gov. Tomblin is pro-fracking and Maloney is a fracker." Johnson says that what sets him apart from these candidates is that he's a grass roots activist fighting for his state, "I don't think of myself as a politician, I think of myself as an activist who had to resort to politics. This is my home, my sate, my people, my family."
West Virginia's landscape has been changed forever by the loss of hundreds of mountains and the contamination of ground water caused by thousands of EPA violations. Johnson says these environmental impacts have caused the depopulation of coal country and the U.S. Census statistics concur. Tens of thousands of people fled coal country between 2000 and 2010. Johnson sighs and tries to explain his dedication to the campaign, "I live outside a capital city. It looks like a ghost town. They've lost people. The depopulation is part of the plan. It allows for the decimation of West Virginia. I was raised by a father who was a police officer, who saved lives for a living. People are dying and people are at risk and I can't stand idly by."