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From the Abused Heart of Coal Country, Warnings and Lessons On Next Steps

Saving the land cannot be separated from saving the people, their livelihood, health and the best of their way of life, from the reach of profiteers. The first peoples, the new pioneers of mountain farms, veterans of mining, labor in unions and not, coal-resistance activists have tales that can teach their more modernized would-be helpers. Learn to listen. It will take patience and perseverance to renew coal country, and the rest of the Earth too.

Coal River Mountain, Matt Noerpel of Coal River Mountain Watch

This June I traveled to the heart of coal country in southern West Virginia, my native state.  Over recent years films and news stories have exposed the ravages of mountaintop-removal mining on that land and its people’s health and livelihood.  The documentary Blood on the Mountain, a feature last year and this in our metro DC LaborFest, is one such source.  It portrays this most intensely mechanized technology as an acceleration of a century of Appalachian exploitation by the mining industry.  Shaving off mountain tops, it now extracts many more tons of coal with fewer workers. That has shrunk the scope for comparatively well-paid work that United Mine Workers long struggled hard to negotiate. Mountaintop-removal has intensified risks of damage from flooding, blasting, ambient coal dust, sludge storage and water pollution.  State – and now federal – officials fail to enforce what regulations exist against workers’ risks, water pollution and greenhouse gas emissions.  Fracked cheap natural gas nevertheless outcompetes coal.

Well before mountaintop-removal sped up mining’s harmful impact, federal-state partnerships had been aiming to “tune up” the core Appalachian industry for “more desirable social outcomes,” but with modest funding and negligible effect (John Alexander Williams, Appalachia: A History, 2002).   It was in large part an economic draft that swept many young millennial mountaineers into our military. Those who returned from duty in Iraq or Afghanistan were apt to suffer post-traumatic stress disorder, for which they were prescribed opioids. Today the southeastern coal region looms as a national epicenter both of rural poverty and of addiction.

I wanted to see and hear for myself just how bad the situation there is, and what the people make of their prospects.  Van Jones’ recent watchword to an anti-Trump audience- “I don’t like coal but I love coal miners, ‘cause they go down in holes”- was on my mind.  How to think distinctly about moving to green energy and yet dealing justly with fossil-fuel workers? 

For my short visit I’d arranged an appointment with staff of Coal River Mountain Watch (CRMW), based in Raleigh County at Naoma, not far from Beckley, WV.  For nearly twenty years this small nonprofit has pursued its main goals: to halt permits for further mountaintop-removal mines and to reduce violations by current operators of clean-water and occupational-safety law. Thus I got to speak with two among the relatively few local people who actively resist the coal-industry ties of business and government. One is Debbie Jarrell, CRMW Co-Director. The younger activist, Junior Walk, drove me on a brief tour with distant views of mountaintop removal in action and of a former reclaimed mine site.

CRMW aims to save what’s left of Coal River Mountain -- the tops of its neighbors Cherry Pond and Kayford Mountains having been blown away-- and to salvage the community’s quality of life. Its strategy is largely on the legal front.  Since state mine inspectors do no more than a pro forma job, the nonprofit has enlisted citizens to help its staff monitor mining activity that erodes mountainsides and pollutes streams and drinking water. Some volunteers are mapping a watershed plan to keep impurities out of Marsh Fork, a tributary of Big Coal River.  CRMW files lawsuits against the most flagrant violations and publicizes judicial outcomes.  It campaigns for stronger measures to contain massive toxic coal sludge. It succeeded in getting closure of an elementary school located near a strip mine and sludge impoundment and building of a new school at a safe distance.  This summer it has been testifying at hearings about the health impacts of surface mining for a study currently underway by a National Academy of Sciences panel.  CMRW is one of about a dozen advocacy grassroots member groups of the Alliance for Appalachia, joined in multi-state pushback against the coal industry.  Yet it views these efforts as mainly a “holding action.”  To carry on much more against entrenched powers would be an act of futility.   

Driving all a Sunday afternoon on the main - mountain country highways, I had spotted little that marred the beauty of the lush late-spring landscape.  The worst effects of mining are hidden from passersby. Next day Junior’s guided tour took us on unpaved roads, the property of mining or land companies that long ago cheaply bought up huge tracts and mineral rights from settlers.  There even secretive distant views reveal evidence of damage.  Parking his truck atop a ridge, my guide pointed across a valley to where an earthmoving machine was taking out chunks of the neighboring mountaintop—chapter one of modern mining operations. A dubiously renewed permit to mine there had recently been issued. We didn’t linger long.  Unofficial inspection, a task Junior regularly assumes, sometimes on campouts, can get you charged with trespassing.  Likewise from a distance, we viewed a scene from the final chapter, “reclamation” as law requires of mining companies on an abandoned site. Amidst the original forested summit, grass rather sparsely covered a broad flat area and the slope around it: a cosmetic effect with some signs of new erosion evident. 

Genuine restoration practices apply much more science and care than even law-abiding mine companies generally muster. Though they can’t attain the state of the natural ecosystem in a single human generation, they are here and there already bringing woodlands and watersheds back to much of their ecological function, such as flood protection and carbon sinks; moreover, they are allowing sustainable new forest farming and clean energy enterprises.

Regrettably, I hadn’t allowed time to meet anyone involved in such emergent regional enterprises focused on renewing the ecosystem and economy.  I did, however, ask about a design CRMW touted on its website for a high-mountaintop wind energy project.  The answer made clear the priority of “first, do no harm.”  Mining operations on the intended site have since been allowed to resume. That wind farm has become a dream deferred, damage control more than ever the preoccupation of CRMW.  Its small herbal medicine garden hosting periodic clinics at least sustains knowledge of mountaineers’ traditional gathering of wild ginseng and other useful forest plants.

Junior is the son and grandson of coal miners. His sister’s fiancé is a miner.  Living in what was once a company-town house, he is steps away from similar homes of his mother and grandparents.  First in his family to graduate from high school, he is one of only two classmates remaining in the local community nine years later. All the others have left to take their chances in more prosperous places.  To my question “Do you ever think about leaving too?” he replied “Every day.” (I admitted to having joined that long exodus of these mountains nearly fifty years ago.) But Junior has laid aside for now his hopes to go to college.   Driving up a graveled road, he told me how he’d first started in his family’s line of work.  His employer prepped (cleaned) freshly mined coal and conveyed it from mine to plant to train in large cylindrical belt lines. His job involved maintenance of these high-slung lines. His supervisor expected the crew to disregard official safety regulations in the interest of saving time. Preferring not so to risk his neck, he quit that job.  Now among the few in the mining-resistance game, Junior faces other risks.  Once gunfire blew out his tires, and anonymous callers have threatened much worse. Mine workers have credible fears of getting fired for associating closely with resisters.  But this engaging young man keeps on sociable terms with old friends and neighbors, though their conversations don’t dwell on political topics. 

Debbie and Junior took time to share their thoughts about why the rural West Virginian majority persists in holding conservative attitudes. They pointed out that of the state’s decreasing total population a greater proportion is now composed of retired and disabled miners, the small current mining workforce, and their families and long-time friends.  So it seems quite understandable that most remaining residents close ranks to defend the coal industry.  Junior maintains they don’t deserve outsiders’ stereotypes as “ignorant hillbillies.”  Of course they are aware of mining’s long trail of damages, prefer it become safer and cleaner, and would like occupational choices to be more diversified.  Nor was it surprising to learn that many citizens turned out to vote last year for the first time in their lives because candidate Trump promised to bring back lost coal jobs.  So far Junior has heard none admit to feeling disappointed by the new President.  Debbie observed that West Virginia politicians don’t offer any vision of a different kind of future. Even the CRMW volunteer mine-site monitors, at first enthusiastic about that role, no longer bother to track evidence of mining offenses; their complaints brought no effective response from state environmental protection officials, who apparently feel insulated against any charge of criminal negligence of duty.  King Coal still keeps a tight hold-- even if it turns out a death grip-- on economic and political power hereabouts.  In short, folks feel stuck with the coal-centered economy and cling to hope for its revival.   Even though contrary evidence mounts, it can be hard for people accustomed to unstable times to accept that the coal industry may well be nearing its last gasp, or to imagine a better way of life based on letting it go.

Back in 1970 the writer herself, freshly graduated from West Virginia University, had taken a job in coal country as a social worker for the McDowell County WV Department of Welfare.  For a bit over a year it took me up and down many country roads to visit benefit-recipient families. Many of these clients took the opportunity to raise complaints about coal-mining pollution of their creeks and water supply; never mind that such issues were not in the domain of my agency that sent its staff on house calls.  My landlord was a longtime coal miner, earning very good pay by local standards even though he had never learned to read, let alone earn a diploma. One client-family teenager proudly invited me to his high school graduation. But this year I was surprised to learn that young men there still tend to drop out to take coal jobs; Junior, my young tour guide from Coal River Mountain Watch, was likewise pleased to tell me that his graduation was a milestone for his family.  A number of his classmates had left school earlier.  Back then many miners who survived accidents succumbed to black lung disease; it had killed the middle-aged father of a friend in McDowell County.  Now such miners can claim more health care, but their work still pollutes their lungs.  Junior’s retired grandfather suffers from a bad case of the same disease. Little has changed.

Why have mountain people stayed loyal so long to King Coal?

After so much economic instability, so much risk to human life and health and damage to the landscape-- why, oh why do so many stick with coal? Economist Ada Haynes points out that even the first most isolated generations of miners and their families relied for survival on pioneer-style subsistence farming and other supplements to the market economy.  Thus able to ride out the marked boom-and-bust waves of the coal industry, they were fast being integrated into the world economy, albeit its periphery.  Reviving some local grassroots activities, she suggested twenty years ago, might go far to improve the livelihoods of later Appalachian generations.  Exploited in the long term and on the world-market scale, coal miners in boom times were and are well paid by rural Appalachian standards. Set aside- as they seem to- that in the long term that bargain shortens their lives. Haynes’ work helps explain their long endurance of economic and environmental risks (Poverty in Central Appalachia: Underdevelopment and Exploitation, 1997). Then, too, generations of mining communities have won a series of legal victories forming some bulwark against the most excessive dangers to their lives, health and landscapes.  It is not entirely unreasonable to believe that the coal act may be further cleaned up.

Besides, there is growing hope for a newly more diverse economy- evidence of an economic counter-trend has appeared in recent accounts of mine-site restoration projects and hopeful start-ups of alternative industries, notably various kinds of sustainable forest farms and wind and solar energy plants.  Even in the heart of coalfields, early steps are being taken toward sustainable new fields of work. This summer’s issue of The Appalachian Voice presents details of how nonprofits and businesses working together in the southern coalfields have created jobs that produce blueberries, paw paws, medicinal herbs, honey, aquaponic fish, industrial hemp, and native species seedlings for local and distant plantings. There’s a plan for displaced miners to build a huge solar farm on at least one flat abandoned mine site.  There is considerable mountaineer grassroots support for the renewal of the federal Reclaim Act, which since 1977 has required mining companies to contribute to the Abandoned Mine Lands Fund. The goal has been to clean up the old mine sites. Renewing the act would accelerate spending of those funds for all such sites. The grassroots activists have insisted that funded projects go beyond land restoration, that they be required to gather input from local communities and plan economic development that helps local residents (Section on “Reclaiming Mined Mountains,” The Appalachian Voice, June/July 2017, pp. 17-23). 

Surely, more than economic interest ties many minds and feet to the mountains? The West Virginia Public Radio program “Inside Appalachia” broadcasts a series called “The Struggle to Stay.” It tells the stories of others like Junior, members of the younger generation bucking the trend to emigrate.  Some episodes feature youth who stick with the coal business; others report ventures into one of the landscape-renewing careers.  One highlighted an apprentice farmer getting training from “Refresh Appalachia,” a program active in three southwestern counties.  Its aim is to birth an alternative economy while the mining industry fades and dies away. The apprentice noticed proudly that the Mountain State flag pictures a farmer beside a miner.  Farmers after all came here first, and may well stay longer.  Change could be faster if this program could provide its trainees title to farmland. Yet they are now taking a strong step toward a better economy while staying put in their home places. 

Some of “The Struggle to Stay” stories bring out a common thread in the two camps of stayers-on, in coalfields and the new fields of work.  For both, loyalty to home place is rooted in love for the land itself, a still quite beautiful place to live where old customs and community ties persist. Hunting and gathering in the forests was an important part of the old mountaineer economy, and it is still a strong geographic and cultural bond.  Fossil fuel shareholders and executives are not the only parties with a stake in wringing value from past investments in these mountains. Ordinary folks see the coal economy as bound up with a way of life in which they are invested in other than financial dimensions.  Business and political leaders appeal to them by recalling mining’s glory days, when coal was vital to winning world wars and growing the national economy.  One could say these stubborn mountain people seem mentally, not just materially stuck in the status quo.  Yet isn’t their love, the pull of the land itself a cause to hope they will persist in its environmental and economic reclamation?

Some forms of conservatism do good.  At times, the most promising way forward seems to start with a look backward.  Economic anthropologist Eugene Hunn has documented how the wisdom and practices of indigenous peoples around the globe have helped to maintain or extend sustainable agriculture. Not only are their organic methods more feasible for low-income small farmers; their radically conservative ways offer modernized conventional farmers a path back from overuse of machinery, fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides that endanger ecosystems. (“The Value of Subsistence for the Future of the World” in Ethnoecology: Situated Knowledge, Located Lives, ed. by Virginia D. Nazarea, 1969).  Today’s southern Appalachian people may be further removed from their forebears’ traditions, but some of the ongoing old customs and the emergent mountain land restoration and agroforestry enterprises draw on that well of folk wisdom and experience.  

What then are my findings, of facts, and of feelings? 

Seeing for oneself is more memorable than a movie- worth a trip, even if your vantage point is not nearly as close as the camera’s.  Though what you witness may bear no fresh news, it can render the old news shocking.  [rest of this paragraph optional] A new point in my personal stock of facts:  you know that rule that mine bulldozers are forbidden to touch cemeteries? You may have seen a movie shot of a tiny preserved plot on a mine-scarred slope.  I was informed that the rule applies only to graveyards that have been duly registered with the authorities. Unofficial family cemeteries are not sacred in the eyes of the law. Is it not ironic that, anywhere, the rights of the dead should prevail over those of the living? That there are places where they too can be disregarded, is shocking, though a by-thought to the larger concern of what to do for living beings, worldwide?

For any readers loath to forgive Trump voters, my explanation for coal-country loyalists’ stubborn hopes may sound like mere excuses.  But they keep company with all those rust-belt voters, many of them Appalachian emigrants, brothers, sisters, cousins now displaced from factories that burned coal to make steel, skyscrapers, automobiles -- feeders all of the national addiction to fossil fuels. Many Trump voters don’t deny climate change is real, but aren’t ready to rank leaving coal or oil or gas in the ground as top priority. Bigotry cannot explain that vote- let us not forget that many of these same voters had supported Bernie Sanders in 2016 primaries, when “Berniecrats” helped him carry every West Virginia county (http://stansburyforum.com/can-berniecrats-win-in-appalachia, July 16, 2017).  That’s a lot of fellow citizens for white-collar voters to condescend to and blame for capitalist-system failure.   

Among those voters, miners arguably took the greatest risk; coal country bore the earliest and hardest brunt of the old energy regime.  As Van Jones put it, “They went down in a hole“-- the first miners literally so. Now they and many other blue-collar workers remain stuck in an economic hole.  Should we not view them as veterans of the fossil-fuel era, deserving of certain benefits as are military veterans?  Few who quarrel with the causes of wars dishonor those who sacrificed to fight them.  Though coal country be poor and desperate, it remains part of the land of the free and the home of the brave.  John Alexander Williams argues further that the coal country as a region is owed collective reparations for the damage it has sustained in fueling the national economy (Appalachia… op. cit., pp. 379-80).  That would call for a rather larger fund than what the nation can expect to garner from mining companies subject to the Reclaim Act. But’s it not to say that miners themselves seek special attention- rather just a fair share of a green new deal.

What then is to be done, for coal country and its people- emigrants and stayers? After over fifty years of some degree of national attention to Appalachian poverty, what must change?

Heed needs of land and labor too.  Foremost, it has become clear that saving the land really cannot be separated from saving the people, their livelihood and health and the best of their way of life.  Some national environmental groups, a few years back strong allies of resisters to the coal industry, now less intensely oppose mountaintop-removal mining; their focus has shifted to broader problems, above all global climate change, though fossil fuel profits link these issues. But environmentalists can’t expect to save the land without winning political support of all population groups.  Nor can justice advocates hope that a sustainable new economy, producing enough livelihood for all the people, can be developed without preserving or restoring the land.  So let us make sure serious funds go to fledgling new ventures in the coal region, including the mining reclamation sites and communities supported by the renewed Reclaim Act.

Link causes, seize common ground.  Make that the whole land, and all its people, that need to be swept out of reach of profiteers.  Haynes (op. cit.) attributed Appalachia’s poverty to its not being isolated but rather integrated in the world economy. So situated, it has been subsidizing capital and eroding labor’s position. “Relocation is futile,” she predicted, since all American communities were becoming impoverished by “Appalachianization.”  Wendell Berry makes the same case, seeing that the hardships of coal country (Plundering Appalachia, 2009) and small farms are reaching pretty nearly all the country. “Rural wealth and materials and people…flowed to the cities, from which comparatively little flowed back in return. ...Space-oriented agribusiness…[is] a new kind of farming closely akin to mining.” Key to a turnaround is local independence, with communities having scope to use and care for land and natural resources (Bringing It to the Table: On Farming and Food., republished essays, 2009; pp. 60, 63). Naomi Klein urges alliances of city dwellers with native peoples in campaigns for treating Earth as a common home (This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate, 2014 and later documentary film).  Prime among potential allies are people of color in global South and North, who like Appalachian people have been bearing the worst economic and environmental damages.   Socialists should be especially ready to develop the rationale that the planet has become in effect a colony of capitalism, that therefore we need a global alliance to reclaim the land as commons, our natural inheritance.

Learn from examples of allies.  The first peoples, the new pioneers of mountain farms, veterans of mining, labor in unions and not, coal-resistance activists have tales that can teach their more modernized would-be helpers and allies.  Maybe “stop and listen” is the next guideline after “First, do no harm.” Coping with hard times for generations, coal country people have a lot of practice in self-reliance and resilience.  I suspect a primary lesson they offer is patience.  One doesn’t safely slide pell-mell down slopes nor drive fast on winding roads.  You may have to pause — get unstuck from worn-out ideas, find a secure foothold for the time being, wait for a clear view of the way forward; then proceed step by watchful step toward a new way of life that fits the old place.  With a bit of luck you will find fellow travelers with whom to plan and work for a home land more free, just and sustainable.  It will take patience and perseverance to renew coal country, and the rest of Earth too.

Lucy Duff is a longtime Metro DC DSA member, active in the Climate Change and Environmental Justice Committee. She lives in Prince George’s County.

Part 1 of this article was originally published in the August 2017 Washington Socialist and Part II published in the Weekly Update August 18, 2017. Both parts are now combined in this post, as of August 22, 2017.