Equal Justice Works alumnus Mike Becher found his love for the environment and activism as a Biology and Geology major in college. As an undergraduate, he did not imagine that his passions would lead him to become an attorney at the Appalachian Mountain Advocates. Before entering law school, Mike moved to West Virginia and became the Director of the Stream Partners Program where he worked to help improve the water quality for communities. During his time with the Stream Partners Program, Mike was introduced to habitat degradation and the negative effects of coal mining on poor communities. He knew that more needed to be done, so he pursued law school. “I believed that law school would provide me with the tools I needed to more accurately address the problems I witnessed,” he said.
It was in Mike’s first year of law school at University of Cincinnati College of Law that he was introduced to the Appalachian Mountain Advocates (formerly the Appalachian Center for the Economy and the Environment). With a local economy based heavily on the coal mining industry, it can be challenging to have citizen buy-in when it comes to protecting natural resources. However, Mountain Advocates works to ensure that economic development and environmental protection can coexist while improving the lives of Appalachian residents. This mission was in line with Mike’s passion and he knew that after graduating he would return to West Virginia to pursue environmental justice. Applying for and receiving an Equal Justice Works Fellowship sponsored by Friends and Family of Philip M. Stern gave him this opportunity.
Mike started his two-year Fellowship in 2010 working with the Mountain Advocates, based in Lewisburg, West Virginia. His project focused on elements of surface coal production that perpetuate poverty in the coalfields of Appalachia. “The effects on human health and safety make life difficult and dissuade alternative forms of [economic] development. Residents commonly endure fouled drinking water, property damage from blasting and a threat of coal dam failure,” said Mike. Through his project Mike represented environmental organizations to help sustain economic viability through state reclamation rules and guarantee that healthy communities could flourish in a healthy environment. He continues to work for the Appalachian Mountain Advocates today as a staff attorney.
For Mike, this work is more than just about reciting rules and regulations. It’s about impact. By working with people in affected communities, Mike knows that change is possible. At one educational workshop he hosted, a citizen and activist became so inspired that he took what he learned back home to Fayette County, West Virginia – an area known as a national destination for whitewater rafting, rock climbing and biking. Using many of the skills Mike taught him, this citizen was able to rally hundreds of people to challenge a coal mine threatening their local recreation industry. But, for as many victories he witnesses, Mike knows there is still much work to be done. “This work can be emotionally and intellectually challenging yet rewarding at the same time,” Mike admits. “I’ve learned that when it comes to environmental law there are no simple cases and you have to be passionate about what you do.”
Coupling the pursuit for justice with the desire to protect the environment and those directly impacted by it, Mike has found his niche.