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environment | labor

The battle for Blair Mountain

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
The battle for Blair Mountain

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.

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 EPA 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 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.

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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.
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