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Feeney Fights Against Sludge

“I’m just one person, but I feel like I should be able to do something,” Patricia Feeney told the convocation audience on May 3. That was the feeling that led the 2005 Berea College graduate to become a grassroots organizer for water security in Appalachia and continue working for change all over the world.

Berea grad Tricia Feeney, pictured with sludge-contaminated water.

Feeney, speaking as part of the annual Berea College Service Convocation, emphasized that she could not convey the full range of other people's experiences, but that she could explain her own perspective on the current situation in the coalfields of West Virginia. Feeney currently serves on the state’s Ohio River Valley Environmental Coalition and co-coordinates West Virginia’s Sludge Safety Project.

Feeney showed the audience a small jar of thick, murky brown water, an example of the drinking water contaminated by waste and “coal sludge” from mountaintop removal mining. The water, aside from its horrific appearance, has been known to cause harmful effects in people who live in the region. “You can’t touch the water, much less drink it,” said Feeney.

When Feeney first began working in the region, she talked with a community of people who had been affected by the contaminated water and was shocked by the stories they shared, which included such tales as six year-olds with kidney stones, 14 year-olds with ovarian cancer and women losing their unborn children. “What we’re doing now to people … it’s inhumane,” Feeney said.

Feeney also said that politicians whom she and other activists approached about the situation often claimed, “There is no good water left in Appalachia,” and that there was nothing that could be done. “But there is good water, and it is worth protecting,” stated Feeney. She described the advances that had been made since she and others had begun lobbying for clean water, including the example of one success where a city’s water supply was piped into communities that had previously been without a clean water source.

Anyone can take steps to effect change, said Feeney. “What we need is power. … How can we have a say in the principles that impact us?” Feeney explains that power is the key, and to gain power, you must do two things: organize people and organize money.

“How change has occurred throughout history is through people organizing,” Feeney pointed out. “Rosa Parks didn’t just sit down on the bus one day because she was tired.” It took years of planning and Parks had people to support her act. Feeney also quoted Mother Teresa, who said, “Don’t wait for leaders.”

She stressed the fact that anyone can have an effect on legislation: “We can bring that change home to our local communities. We can know that change is possible.”

Feeney left her audience of peers with one last thought: “If I learned anything at Berea College, it’s to reject neutrality,” said Feeney. “Do something, and there will be people who back you, and your life will be fuller for it.”

Patricia Feeney graduated Berea College in 2005. While she attended Berea, she participated in the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg, South Africa, as one of ten U.S. Greenpeace youth delegates. She also coordinated a national student clean energy campaign with the Student Environmental Action Coalition and was a founding member of Energy Action, a national student organization. She also designed and carried out an independent research project in Para, Brazil, where she lived and worked with women in the Landless Peoples Movement.

In 2005, Feeney was one of only five college graduates in the country to receive the Compton Mentor Fellowship. She used the grant to support grassroots efforts in coalfield communities and address the problem of contaminated drinking water. She also organized a delegation of Appalachian coalfield residents to attend the United Nations Commission on Sustainable Development.

For more information on OVEC and the Sludge Safety Project, see the links below.

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