The most impoverished and environmentally degraded communities in America are found in the Appalachian coal country and the isolated mining communities of the Mountain West. For many, these problems are invisible. For Allan Comp, they are all-consuming.
“I thought no one ever cared about us and no one wanted to do anything to clean up the water and address the poverty,” said West Virginia native April Trent, who works with Dr. Comp. “When I saw what Allan does, I was so excited. He’s passionate about getting people the help they need and he’s providing the voice for people who live near abandoned mine sites.”
A program analyst with the federal Office of Surface Mining, Dr. Comp is improving these degraded environments by empowering its people.
Working with few resources, Comp conceived and created the Appalachian Coal Country Watershed Team. This is a unique partnership between the Office of Surface Mining and VISTA Volunteers—often referred to as the domestic Peace Corps—who work in coal country with local citizens. Recently he launched the Western Hardrock Watershed Team to create a similar effort in Western mining communities.
These OSM/VISTA Volunteers, mostly recent college graduates, work for one year helping local citizens and civic groups apply for federal grant money, organize community volunteers to conduct various clean up initiatives, monitor water quality, and conduct community education and outreach programs.
“I’m the choreographer,” says Comp. “I organize and direct the dance, but I don’t get to choose the dancers. I have gazelles and elephants and everything in between. It’s challenging, but great fun.”
More than 100 Vista volunteers have cycled through the Appalachian team, working in eight states whose counties comprise the Appalachian region. And they are making a difference.
Since the program was launched in 2001, Comp’s teams have helped local residents secure $11 million in funding or in-kind contributions. These OSM/VISTA Volunteers and the many community volunteers they attract have logged nearly 116,000 hours of work. They are building sewer systems, engaging high school students in community projects, leading reforestation efforts, enhancing civic engagement in their communities and returning their rivers and streams to a much-improved condition.
The teams have monitored 600 acid mine drainage discharge sites for biological and chemical compositions, flow, bacteria, fecal coli form and sedimentation, and started 13 new remediation projects. In the last year, the teams trained 224 people from local communities in water monitoring and evaluation, and had 357 community volunteers participating in these programs. In addition, the teams conducted 220 presentations and training session at local schools and community centers.
Danny Lytton, Abandoned Mine Land Administrator for the Office of Surface Mining, estimates that for every dollar Dr. Comp spends on his team, it returns $100 for environmental cleanup.
Dr. Comp said that what makes him most proud, though, is that his initiative has become a “net importer of talent to the Appalachian coal country” and he expects the same results in the newer Western team.
“More people who have worked with us have stayed in the region than have left. And that’s cool,” said Comp. “In a place where there’s a mass exodus of talent, they’re finding ways to stay and keep making a difference.”
Dewey Houck, a West Virginian who started a local watershed association as a result of Dr. Comp’s efforts adds, “One thing people don’t really focus on is the young people that go through his program. These young people are gaining a better understanding of not just what it takes to improve the environment, but to be a community leader.”
Dr. Comp is now working to apply his successful model to other impoverished regions of the country.
Two years ago, officials in Colorado’s state mining office called Dr. Comp’s boss and asked if they could have a team like the one working in Appalachia. Thus, the Western Hardrock Mining Team, described on its site as a “coalition of change-minded community improvement groups,” was born. This new partnership currently has 18 OSM/VISTAs working in Colorado, and is likely to have 30 volunteers working in the area by the end of the year.
Similar programs are underway in New Mexico and Montana.
Allan Comp’s creativity in addressing the needs of impoverished regions is generating measurable results in terms of logged volunteer hours and money raised for environmental cleanup. But its greatest impact is difficult to quantify. It comes from the restored beauty of mountains and rivers that were once desecrated by decades of coal mining. It comes from the work ethic and commitment to national service being instilled in young volunteers. And it comes from the new outlook of local residents who are breaking the shackles of the past and taking the initiative to reclaim their communities.
Asked to assess the impact of his work, not surprisingly, this man who is charged with cleaning the environment, focused on people. “My great joy is that I can help others make a difference,” said Dr. Comp. “It’s really nice.”