By DJ Coker of SOCM (Statewide Organizing for Community eMpowerment) (This essay was originally published by Equal Voice News.)
I grew up in the Cumberland Mountains near Jellico, Tennessee. My great-grandfather was a coal miner and my grandfather was a coal miner, on my mother’s side.
I was the first in my family to go to college. I went to Alice Lloyd College in Knott County, Kentucky, to study science and biology. But I came back to Tennessee before I could finish my degree to help take care of my mother.
I put my education on hold because of her, because family always comes first for me. When I know she’s taken care of, then I’ll take care of myself. In June of 2010, my mother was in a pretty bad car accident. There was a log truck that ran her off the road, and the trucker didn’t call 911. She sat in the vehicle about three hours and had to be cut out. So she lost a leg from that.
I got interested in the environment an early age. I think I was 10 when I first made a stand against people littering. I went as far as buying some recycling bins for the community – well, my dad was the one who bought them, but I came up with the idea.
When I told him about all the littering, he asked me what the solution was. So, I thought about it and said that we need recycling bins at the end of each driveway, and it helped a lot.
Science was always my passion. I never really thought about it, but I guess I studied biology so I could help the environment.
Clean water is necessary for life – you can have all the dirty water in the world and what good is it going to do you?
I was invited to the first meeting of the Citizen’s Water Monitoring Project in 2015, and I have not missed a meeting since. There are a lot of old mines that I think the Office of Surface Mining and Reclamation Enforcement has no clue about.
I don’t think that people had proper permits for them. People would just buy a plot of land and mine it themselves between the 1950s and 1970s.
There’s one old abandoned mine about four miles from my house. It was from before the Surface Mining Reclamation Act. So, they didn’t have to reclaim it, and it’s got acid mine drainage running into a stream that runs right by my house.
I just tested it recently, and it’s very bad. It worries me because a lot of small children play in that stream.
I think that environmental regulations at both the state and federal levels could be more strict on how we deal with these old mines and especially any new mines like Cooper Ridge.
The environment is what everybody has in common. In my own mind, the environment is what holds a community together, what holds a family together.
If you don’t have a clean environment, you don’t have a place to live, you don’t have a place to get food from. You don’t have one without the other.
DJ Coker is co-coordinator of the Citizen’s Water Monitoring Project, and a member of SOCM (Statewide Organizing for Community eMpowerment), SEAD, the Tennessee Appalachian Community Economics project, and the Community Economic Development Network of Eastern Tennessee. He wrote this essay, with assistance from Keith Griffith, for Equal Voice News.
To learn more, read the full Special Report from Equal Voice News, “Troubled Waters: Tennessee Families Stand Up for a Clean Environment.”
Interested in environmental justice and rural advocacy? Watch the video or listen to the podcast from our virtual discussion Rural Policy Advocacy & Voice.