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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Mountain Party Candidate

Air Date: Week of

Denise Giardina is a novelist who has formed the Mountain Party in West Virginia where she is taking on the coal industry in a bid for the state’s governor seat. West Virginia Public Radio’s Jeff Young reports.


CURWOOD: In the state of West Virginia, a novelist is waging a campaign to unseat an incumbent Republican governor and outdo his Democratic challenger. Her name is Denise Giardina. Her party is called the Mountain Party and she's running on a largely environmental platform against the coal industry. From West Virginia Public Radio, Jeff Young reports.

YOUNG: For most of her life Denise Giardina has been an unruly subject in King Coal's domain. Giardina grew up in McDowell County, West Virginia, where coal determined everything from where adults worked to where children played.

GIARDINA : I couldn't wade in the stream because of mine drainage. I saw the slag piles that were covering the sides of the mountain. I've just grown up with this awareness of coal and the problems it causes.

YOUNG: Giardina returned to McDowell County after earning a degree in theology. She lead an Episcopal church but soon left the ministry to pursue a writing career. She's published four novels. Two of them, Storming Heaven and the Unquiet Earth , trace a hundred year history of coal miner families. Her characters fight to unionize the mines and keep their mountain lifestyle, only to lose the jobs to mechanization and lose the mountains to strip mining. In this excerpt from the Unquiet Earth , a union organizer watches his kin leave for jobs elsewhere.

MAN READS: I have heard of people in South America, religious fanatics, who cut themselves and whip themselves and until they bleed and even nail their hands to boards. I think the boys who leave are like that, returning to the place that is no longer home, coming back again and again until they are cut and bleeding and the pain of loss is all that binds them to these hills. Those of us who stay are like that too, holding on to what wounds us like picking up ground glass.

YOUNG: Giardina says her writing focused her emerging political views - but it took the controversy over mountain top removal mining to move her to political action.

GIARDINA: My dad's company was the first to do mountain top removal back in the 1960s, so I've been aware of it since I was a teenager. Last couple years though as the mining industry's gotten more and more blatant about their total disregard for the law and regulations and have been creating larger and larger mines. A lot of people have gotten to be very upset about it.

(Mountain top removal operation)

YOUNG: In mountain top removal coal companies blast and bulldoze the tops off mountains and dump the waste rock and dirt into neighboring valleys. The companies say it's the only cost effective way to get the region's thin seams of low-sulfur coal into a competitive market. But opponents say the process has flattened thousands of acres of wooded hills and buried more than 700 miles of streams in West Virginia alone. Giardina started speaking out against mountain top removal and crowds, like this one at West Virginia's capitol, started listening.

(Crowd noise)

GIARDINA: They have the nerve to say to us they should be allowed to destroy our mountains because they create jobs. The mafia creates jobs. The Colombian drug cartel creates jobs, pimps create jobs, and they're the same kind of jobs that destroy communities and even exploit the people that they employ. King Coal is dead. Long live the people of West Virginia.

(Cheers, etc.)

GIARDINA: Several people said to me then you know, you ever think about running for governor?" and I was sort of like well that's a new thought (laughs), a new and interesting thought. And I guess it kind of stayed with me. As time passed and it became clear that no one was going run and speak out against the issue it seemed to me someone should.

YOUNG: But it's been an uphill effort for Giardina and her newly formed Mountain Party. Third party advocates say West Virginia's laws on ballot access are among the nation's most restrictive. And last year the legislature doubled the number of petition signatures needed to get on the ballot. Giardina's campaign has a budget of only about twenty-four thousand dollars and only one paid staffer. Giardina has little visible support from the union coal miners she portrays so sympathetically in her fiction. And while her pro-environment platform has attracted an enthusiastic core of volunteers, members of West Virginia's oldest and biggest environmental group fear she will only be a spoiler in the tight governor's race. Tom Rodd is with the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy.

RODD: Well, I certainly understand why people are attracted to her message of abhorring mountain top removal mining. But I think the practical consequence of a vote for Giardina is to increase the likelihood that the incumbent business Republican, Cecil Underwood, will remain in office another 4 years.

YOUNG: Governor Underwood sparked much of the controversy on mountain top removal mining when he signed a law that doubled the allowable size of valley fills. Underwood is a former coal company executive and a strong advocate of the practice.

UNDERWOOD: If we can resolve mountain top mining issue, it does two things. It will attract, re-employ unemployed miners and secondly, it creates level land sites in West Virginia, which is one of our greatest needs. We have so few acres that can be used for industrial building sites. Mountain top mining creates flat sites where none existed before.

YOUNG: Underwood's Democratic rival in the governor's race is West Virginia's second district congressman Bob Wise. Wise says he would make coal companies obey the law.

WISE: Mountain top mining has to be done a lot more strictly than it has been, that you can do it appropriately, but it has to be tightly regulated and unfortunately under Governor Underwood and this administration it's not been.

YOUNG: Giardina pledges to end mountain top removal mining. She says that difference between her and the major party candidates points to the need for a third voice in West Virginia politics.

GIARDINA : The Republican governor is a strong advocate of the coal industry and does everything he can to make sure that they get everything they want. The Democratic congressman was part of the effort to attach a rider on a bill this past session that would have gutted the Clean Water Act and he was doing that in order to try to support mountain top removal. He has said that he supports the coal industry on that issue. I think a lot of people at that point realized that the Democratic party was not going to be the vehicle to challenge the coal industry in the state. And so they were trying to find someone to run as an Independent and I agreed to do that.

YOUNG: But, Giardina must find a way to make the Mountain Party stand out on a ballot crowded with five candidates for governor. And she has been shut out of all but one of the televised debates with the major party candidates. So far the novelist-turned-candidate's run for governor has not been a storybook affair.

GIARDINA: If this were a novel, you know, you'd be like something's got to happen to keep you turning the pages. It Îs just a real up and down process.

YOUNG: Happy ending?

GIARDINA: Oh, see happy endings aren't necessarily what they're cracked up to be. I guess if happy ending means winning the election, it's probably, it a very long shot. If happy ending means that the dialogue has changed, it's already been happy. I think a number of issues I've staked out are being talked about that wouldn't have been talked about otherwise. Younger people realize the days of coal are over and I think that's a new thing for West Virginia.

YOUNG: Denise Giardina needs at least one percent of the vote in the gubernatorial race for her Mountain Party to win official party status in West Virginia. And, right now, polls show her close to reaching that goal.

For Living on Earth, I'm Jeff Young in Charleston.



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