United Mountain Defense

"There's no media out here, except for independent media."

Freshwater, accounting for only 2.5% of the earth’s water (most of that frozen in glaciers and polar ice caps), is one of our most important natural resources. And yet, despite the Clean Water Act and EPA regulation, we are allowing our limited supply of freshwater to become polluted.

Early the morning of December 22, 2008 in Roane County, Tennessee, an ash dike ruptured at the Tennessee Valley Authority’s Kingston Fossil Plant causing over one billion gallons of coal fly ash to be released damaging over forty homes, destroying some, and spilling into the Emory and Clinch River, contaminating them with toxic metals including arsenic, lead, and mercury.

United Mountain Defense knew that getting information out about the spill was crucial. Not content to let the company responsible for the spill be in the only voice on the matter, UMD lead a diligent effort to keep the interests of their communities at the forefront of the conversation.

“Right after the Kingston Ash Disaster happened… we were watching the news and another coal-fired power plant, about an hour away from us, had another large issue. We dropped everything, and got there as quickly as we could and we were basically witnessing another slurry pond failure. We didn't have any equipment beyond our testing kits and so I stripped down to my boxers and got right in the water and started taking samples,” said James Kane, president and director of field operations at United Mountain Defense (UMD), about the coal waste spill at the TVA’s Widows Creek plant in northeast Alabama, which occurred less than three weeks after the spill in Tennessee. “I ended up in my boxers in the ash spill; literally swimming in the nasty ash.”

Founded in 2005 and based in Knoxville, TN the United Mountain Defense fulfills its mission of “protecting Tennessee’s watersheds, air, mountains and people” by keeping companies and regulators honest. This involves going out in the field and collecting samples. Along with a commitment to anti-racist organizing and coalition building in the region, the UMD also conducts outreach and education programs, letter & email writing campaigns and listening projects to better understand the needs of coal-impacted communities. They are active within the state of Tennessee, primarily in Campbell, Claiborne, Scott, Fentress, Bledsoe, Knox, Blount, and Roane counties..

When asked about the risks of fieldwork Kane said, “there's always risk involved, and that's one of the reasons that we love what we do: you're not just doing desk work.”

United Mountain Defense also “works to halt the practices of mountaintop removal (MTR) and other destructive industries in Tennessee. UMD monitors coal corporations and their regulators, and holds them accountable through scientific monitoring, community organizing, engaging in the permitting process, and legal actions when appropriate. These activities are supported by conducting outreach and education on the issue of MTR and hosting anti-MTR events and actions.

Moving from watersheds and river beds to transistors and transmitters, United Mountain Defense wants to do its part to make sure the media landscape remains diverse, and vibrant. UMD is preparing to apply for a Low Power FM license in October of this year.

“I think this is something the community really needs,” said James Kane, president and director of field operations at United Mountain Defense (UMD). “We want to have our voices heard - local, community voices heard - because too long in Tennessee people haven't had the means to get their messages out and tell their stories.”

Rather than seeing a Low Power FM station as just an opportunity to promote environmentalism, UMD sees it as a community resource. “We want something that’s diverse, that appeals to people in the community, that’s about where we live,” says Kane. “We want to put community members on the airwaves.”

UMD is planning on having an accessible studio, promoting diverse content, and multi-lingual material. They are especially interested in showcasing Knoxville’s “vibrant and active” music scene.

“We’re just really committed to this; we’re all in,” said Kane of UMD’s efforts to grab a piece of the airwaves.