The battle for Blair Mountain

May 31, 2011

For decades, the coal industry has demeaned both the people and the land of Appalachia--but a new spirit of resistance is taking shape, says Ben Silverman.

APPALACHIA IS the rainforest of North America.

It's a comparison often made when talking about the ecosystem of this part of the country, and rightfully so. The Appalachian mixed mesophytic forests, which stretch from southern Pennsylvania through most of West Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee and all the way into Alabama, are hands-down the most biologically diverse forests on earth after the tropical rainforests. Trees, fungi, ferns, shrubs, birds, mammals, amphibians, other fresh-water wildlife--Appalachia has a near unsurpassed richness in them all.

The ecosystem is also critically endangered. For Appalachia is also the so-called "Saudi Arabia of coal." This comparison is often made to point out that central Appalachia has a lot of coal in it--not that Appalachia is ruled by a tiny crust of authoritarian oligarchs who hyper-exploit the impoverished residents by extracting resources and destroying the environment. Though both are true.

Coal is an interesting and filthy little mineral. It is the remnant of prehistoric plant matter that accumulated at the bottom of shallow seas and fossilized. If you crush it and heat it for long enough, you'll get a diamond. If you burn it as fuel for power plants for long enough, you'll destroy the world.

A mass march in Washington D.C., organized by Appalachia Rising against mountaintop removal mining
A mass march in Washington D.C., organized by Appalachia Rising against mountaintop removal mining (Rich Clement | Rainforest Action Network)

According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, in 2009 alonem coal-burning power plants generated 44.9 percent of America's energy by incinerating 900 million tons of coal. This country has been made to run on something that's running us off a cliff.

On top of that, coal-burning power plants are extremely bad for your health. The sulfur dioxide that escapes from them causes acid rain, and respiratory and lung diseases, leading to an estimated 30,000 deaths per year, according to a 2000 Environmental Protection Agency Clean Air Task Force study.

Many in the coal industry, jumping on the greenwashing bandwagon, have attempted to portray coal as something it's not with such oxymoronic phrases as "clean coal technology." The truth is that every pound of coal that's burned will create about 2.8 pounds of carbon dioxide depending on the type and quality of the coal. This cannot be avoided by higher efficiencies or other technologies because it's a fundamental byproduct of the burning process.

The most that can be done is to capture and bury the CO2 after its creation in order to minimize its effects, but the coal industry is far better at burying the facts about this fuel and the effects its business practices have had.

According to statistics from the Appalachian Regional Commission, an agency set up by President Lyndon Johnson supposedly to combat poverty, only eight of the 410 counties in Appalachia are equal to or better than the national average on indicators like per-capita income, poverty and unemployment rate. All eight counties are urban or suburban. As Erik Reece says in his book Lost Mountain, a must-read introduction to the subject of mountaintop removal:

Central Appalachia is poor because so much has been taken from it and so little has been returned. The mountains of Appalachia are responsible for the illumination and air-conditioning of millions of houses, and neither the people nor the land has been properly compensated.

While claiming to have developed Appalachia, King Coal has led to its stagnation. While claiming to have created jobs, King Coal has caused the death of many miners. While claiming to help the community, King Coal makes the very land uninhabitable. While claiming to care about Appalachia, King Coal is systematically wiping mountains off the face of the earth. The story of King Coal is one of recreating the social relations of colonial resource exploitation within the United States.

BEGINNING IN the 1870s and '80s, big coal operators came to central Appalachia and set up a total system of exploitation through company towns. Miners would work their life away in the company mines, get underpaid in company scrip, go home to company-owned shacks, buy overpriced food at the company store, get policed by company private detectives, send their kids to be taught by company-controlled teachers and preached to by company preachers.

King Coal had them coming and going, but the miners weren't going to take it sitting down.

The history of the United Mine Workers' (UMW) fight for the rights and dignity of miners has been a bloody one. At every step, King Coal has never shied away from using hired thugs, violence, murder and terror against union organizers, workers, strikers and even their families.

Look up the Ludlow Massacre sometime, and you'll see the true face of the coal industry. More than a few counties in coal-soaked Appalachia have rightfully earned the nickname "bloody"--Mingo in West Virginia and Harlan in Kentucky. These battles between capital and labor escalated into a full shooting war in 1921 at the Battle of Blair Mountain.

It would take too long to give proper justice to the Battle of Blair Mountain (for that I recommend When Miners March by William Blizzard), but here is a brief overview: In 1920-21, the UMW was attempting to unionize southern West Virginia, particularly Mingo County. The coal companies responded by firing any union miners, sympathizers and their families, and evicting them at gunpoint by the thousands.

The union struck back, and a low-intensity war raged across the Tug River Valley. Things came to a head when Sid Hatfield, who had become a union legend after fighting back and killing the company's hired goons and getting acquitted for it, was assassinated in front of the courthouse by other thugs.

The miners were enraged, and they poured out of the mountains and armed themselves. They began to march, as much as 15,000 strong, toward Logan County to free imprisoned miners, break the anti-union martial law that had been declared, and unionize the county.

The battle was joined in a number of skirmishes around Blair Mountain where the union army met the private army of the coal companies, which included hired airplanes that dropped homemade bombs on the advancing union column. Sporadic gun battles would continue for a week. The battle would end with a demobilizing of the union forces due to fears of armed federal intervention and a short-term victory for management.

This battle was the largest insurrection in U.S. history outside of the Civil War. Working people, who had been beaten down every day by a despotic corporate regime, finally said enough is enough and took matters into their own hands.

OVER TIME, the mineworkers won strikes, and the living conditions for miners slowly improved. Then, in 1950, UMW President John L. Lewis brokered a new agreement with King Coal that would give miners desperately needed health insurance if the union agreed to make no attempts to prevent further mechanization of the industry. The stage was set.

Coal mining conjures up images of men climbing into mine carts and descending into the bowels of the earth to chip away at rock. But beginning in the 1960s, and accelerating throughout the 1990s and 2000s, surface strip mining began to emerge as the new method of choice for the coal industry, with one type emerging above the rest as the most common, most profitable, most destructive and--frankly--most evil of them all: mountaintop removal.

The name "mountaintop removal," often shortened to MTR, is a unique combination of accurate description and gross mischaracterization. The mountaintop is indeed removed, destroyed, annihilated in its entirety. But "removal" implies something surgical, careful, planned--like the precise removal of a tumor.

Mountaintop removal is more like decapitation with a blunt axe. The process begins with clear-cutting all the trees and other plants from the mountain. Remember the mixed mesophytic forests with their incredibly biodiverse tree populations? Gone. They don't even bother to turn the trees into lumber--takes too much time--so King Coal just burns the trees.

The nutrient-rich topsoil is unceremoniously bulldozed and dumped into a ravine, discarding the life-giving "black gold" of soil in order to get at a fundamentally destructive one of coal. Regulations say that the coal companies are supposed to save the topsoil as best they can, but they never do, and they can always get waivers from the government.

Then comes the demolition. The surface rock is blown quite literally sky-high to reveal the thick seams of coal underneath. If it's a legal blast, nearby residents should go unscathed. But this is King Coal we're talking about.

It would take too long to go through the matrix of corruption and injustice that's written into coal-mining regulation. But suffice it to say that, like many industries, the fox is guarding the henhouse. Whatever laws can be enforced, King Coal's agents have probably written, and whatever laws aren't directly at the service of King Coal are likely unenforceable.

Flyrock--again a simultaneously descriptive and misleading name--from these explosions, some stones as big as microwaves, has been known to land in people's yards many hundreds of yards away. The force of the explosions often cracks people's chimneys, walls, wells and their house's very foundations. Every 11 days, the explosive equivalent of an atomic bomb is detonated in central Appalachia.

With the seam of coal exposed by bulldozers, front-loaders come in to dig out the coal and put it into dump trucks, most likely built by Caterpillar. Yeah, that Caterpillar. When not building the reinforced military bulldozers that demolish Palestinian homes and orchards, Caterpillar wages war on the United Auto Workers--and scalps the oldest mountain range on earth.

After each layer of coal is harvested, the blasting returns to reveal the next lowest one. All the extra stone and soil, as mentioned earlier, is dumped into the nearest ravine or valley. The effect is that the headwaters of the rivers of Appalachia, which have their origins in the streams that run through these mountain valleys, are buried and destroyed. The valley is literally filled.

This has had catastrophic effects on the waterways of coal country, which are now heavily polluted with mercury and heavy metals rendering them undrinkable by humans and animals. The natural habitat of many aquatic species of flora and fauna has been destroyed.

Without the drainage of rainwater that these streams provided, flashfloods that wipe out entire homes and communities have become practically commonplace. This is likely one of the more destructive short-term aspects of MTR, and it comes about purely as a side effect that could be avoided--except for the relentless drive to maximize profits.

Eventually, the mountain is leveled, and the valleys are filled, creating an eerie-looking, continuous grey plateau. It's an image that seems like it was captured during an Apollo mission to the moon, not in the middle of "North America's rainforest." It may not be possible to see the Great Wall of China from space, but you can see mountaintop removal sites from space, spreading across southern West Virginia and eastern Kentucky like a constellation of festering scabs.

To date, 470 mountains have been destroyed this way.

COAL TO fuel the nation is shipped out of central Appalachia, and with it goes all the profits and the jobs. The great benefit of mountaintop removal, in the eyes of King Coal, is that it's very "labor efficient"--meaning that it is not necessary to employ large numbers of workers to do it.

A typical coal mine has gone from more than 100 workers in underground mines to a dozen or so armed with dynamite and bulldozers. In Kentucky alone, the number of workers employed as miners has declined more than 60 percent from 1979 to 2006, according to the Kentucky Office of Energy Policy.

In West Virginia, where coal is by far state's largest industry, only 30,000 workers in a population of 1.8 million are employed by the industry. And you can be sure that the big bucks don't go to the miners--most of it goes straight to the top and out of the region.

But those who stay behind in their homes are left with a little present courtesy of King Coal's wanton drive for profit--coal slurry impoundments.

After coal is mined, it's washed to remove non-coal impurities and then treated with a kaleidoscope of toxic chemicals. The purified coal is shipped off to be burned while the excess water, chemicals and coal particles, or slurry, is "impounded." Coal slurry impoundments are basically gigantic man-made lakes of pure toxic waste totally open to the environment and the elements. There are more than 650 of them across coal country, and they are deadly.

The coal slurry in these impoundments seeps into the water aquifer, poisoning people's water supply through wells and streams. A host of serious medical problems has skyrocketed in these areas, including nausea, bone damage, birth defects, cancers of the digestive track, and liver, kidney and spleen failure, among others. The land is being made uninhabitable.

The coal slurry impoundments have also been known to fail. In 1972, dams holding back coal slurry in Logan County, W. Va., failed. About 130 million gallons of toxic water spilled, killing 125 people, injuring 1,121 and leaving 4,000 people homeless. In 2000, an even larger spill occurred in Inez, Ky. Remarkably, no one was killed, but 300 million gallons of black, toxic filth--30 times the size of the Exxon Valdez disaster--poured out and directly into the headwaters of Coldwater and Wolf Creek.

The livelihood of entire communities was obliterated by a tidal wave of black sludge while the company responsible, Martin County Coal, got off with barely a slap on the wrist by convincing the government that the spill was just a minor violation of the Clean Water Act.

THROUGHOUT THE 2000s, a growing movement of residents, Appalachian community and religious groups and environmental activists have fought against King Coal, mountaintop removal and all forms of surface strip mining. Their acts of civil disobedience in pursuit of mountain justice have been inspiring, yet mountaintop removal continues.

But King Coal may have finally crossed a line that they will wish they hadn't, for Blair Mountain, that beautiful symbol of American working-class power, is currently on the chopping block for mountaintop removal.

Harvard Ayers, a professor at Appalachian State University and longtime environmental activist, is planning a march on Blair Mountain. He helped found the group Friends of Blair Mountain, which is spearheading the organizing, and he expects the march to draw hundreds of environmentalists, labor activists, coalfield residents and other folk. They will begin their trek in Marmet, W. Va., on June 6 and end at Blair Mountain in Logan County, W. Va., on June 11 with a final rally.

According to the group's website:

The Appalachia is Rising: March on Blair Mountain is a peaceful, unifying event involving environmental justice organizations, union workers, scholars, artists, and other citizens and groups. The march commemorates the 90th anniversary of the Battle of Blair Mountain in 1921, when 10,000 coal miners rose against the rule of the coal operators and fought for the basic right to live and work in decent conditions.

Today, Blair Mountain, like dozens of other historic mountains throughout the region, is being threatened by mountaintop removal, and it is here that a new generation of Appalachians takes a stand. By working to preserve this mountain, we are demanding an end to the destructive practices of MTR that threatens to strip Central Appalachia of its history, its economic potential and its health.

The march's key demand is to get Blair Mountain listed in the National Register of Historic Places, thus ensuring its preservation. When asked what this march means to him, Ayers said:

The march is a chance to educate and empower many people to preserve Blair Mountain from destruction by the coal industry. The industry gets a twofer if they get to blow the battle site up. They get the coal, and they get to destroy the symbol of resistance of the miners to the industry's attempts to deny them of their human and constitutional rights. The march will show public interest in the issue of preserving the Blair Mountain Battlefield and may actually help the lawsuit that a coalition of groups has against the National Park Service, asking that the site be re-listed and thus protected.

This march is in remembrance of our past. But it is a past that is meant to give us the strength and inspiration to fight like hell for a better future--a future where neither human nor natural destiny is subordinated to the whims of global conglomerates. Where we as humans can, as Chris Williams says in his book Ecology and Socialism, "develop alongside nature to leave the planet for future generations in an enhanced state of biodiversity, interacting with diverse landscapes and complex ecosystems."

There is an indissoluble link between humanity, its civilizations and nature. As Karl Marx said, "Nature is man's inorganic body...Man lives from nature, i.e. nature is his body, and he must maintain a continuing dialogue with it if he is not to die. To say man's physical and mental life is linked to nature simply means that nature is linked to itself, for man is a part of nature."

The environmental movement and the labor movement have the same enemy when you boil it all down--the bosses and capitalism. Whenever either movement has forgotten this, it has suffered for it. Environmentalism internalizes itself, falling back on "living the change you want to see," "buying green" and attempting the impossible feat of solving global issues with individual solutions. The labor movement loses its militancy and effectiveness as its leadership aims for "partnership" with the bosses.

All the slander and lies from King Coal is meant to build off this weakness so as to divide and conquer these two forces. The coal companies want people to believe that somehow they, despite all evidence and history, have their workers' best interests at heart. That it's the hippy environmentalists who are taking away mining jobs. King Coal wants workers to identify with it so as to more easily exploit them.

But the truth is that it's the bosses and capitalism that exploit some workers while throwing the rest out on the unemployment line. And it is capitalism that is destroying the planet, leveling our mountains, polluting our water, burying our streams and making us sick.

The rising struggle against natural gas hydro-fracking must link with the struggle to end mountaintop removal, and from there spread to the battle against tar sand mining in Canada, and outward to the ultimate and desperately needed battle against fossil fuels in their entirety.

But this too must dovetail at every step with social justice demands for guaranteed well-paying jobs; for green jobs building zero-emission power sources; for employment for all coal, oil and gas workers; and for demands for reparations from the coal corporations to the people of Appalachia for all the decades of senseless abuse and destruction.

Anyone and everyone should join the March on Blair Mountain from June 6 to June 11, and if you can't make the whole march, come to the rally at Blair Mountain on June 11. And if you can't do that, sign the Friends of Blair Mountain petition, read up on mountaintop removal, educate yourself about the realities of coal power and get involved in whatever way you can. This is one of the great, unseen injustices occurring under our noses, and it must be stopped.

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