Friday, December 16, 2005

The Ugly Legacy Of Coal

Mary Hufford took this photograph of mountain top removal. This and others are at the Library of Congress site Tending the Commons: Folklife and Landscape in Southern West Virginia. Posted by Picasa

When a thing is funny, search it carefully for a hidden truth.

---George Bernard Shaw

Searching for words, hunting for phrases, when will it end?
Esteeming knowledge and gathering information only maddens the spirit.
Just entrust yourself to your own nature, empty and illuminating---
Beyond this, I have nothing to teach.


Dying cricket,
His song so full
of life.


One of the first questions people ask when they move to a mining area of the Appalachians---or even just drive through mountains of West Virginia, Kentucky, Pennsylvania, Ohio---is "What's happening over there?" They're referring to a startling bare spot on the horizon, out in the middle of nowhere, no towns around, maybe a big crane thing sticking up. What you're seeing is called strip mining or mountain top removal, and the little part of the machine inadvertently visible from the highway might be something like The Big Muskie, which was the largest mobile land machine in the world . It would take a stack of books to describe the history of coal mining and its effect on the lives of the people here---and certainly other regions of the Earth too---but did you know that history continues? Mining goes on here, providing jobs and taking them away, with mountain folks wrestling the same issues they've had to deal with for 200 years.

A great warrior and inspiration to me is Elisa Young, who lives among the coal-powered electric plants around Racine, down on the Ohio River. That's just a couple dozen miles and around a few riverbends from Cheshire, the town American Electric Power BOUGHT rather than clean up their stacks to remove the toxicity that brought poison to the lives of people who used to live there---and toxic rain to the Adirondacks. She's down there going to public meetings and hearings day and night, and reports on her work (all sparetime, as she has a regular job) at a Sierra Club website our local group maintains.

Earlier this week she posted an editorial I'd like you to read. It appeared in the Lexington Herald-Leader on Monday, and was written by Erik Reece, who teaches writing at the University of Kentucky, and wrote a piece called "Death of a Mountain" in the April Harpers Magazine~~~

Coal companies' damage easy to see

By Erik Reece

Bill Caylor (President of the Kentucky Coal Association), in his latest apology for the damage that large coal corporations are inflicting on Eastern Kentucky, claims that while pessimistic editorialists never change, the coal industry has. Certainly no one is getting gunned down in the streets of Matewan anymore. But how much has the industry changed?

Ask Larry Gibson, who, because he refuses to sell his mountaintop homeplace, has seen his cabin set on fire, his two dogs shot and his solar panels sabotaged.

Ask Judy Bonds and Bo Webb of Coal River Mountain Watch, who received death threats last month because they dare to criticize the industry.

Ask Patsy Carter, who, after her daughter was killed by an overloaded coal truck, began speaking out. Since then, she has had 22 flat tires. At night, she can hear nails hit her mailbox as coal trucks speed by.

I have met a whole lot of decent people in the coal industry. But despite corporations' legal right to operate as "persons" under the law, a corporation is not a person. And as the 2000 Martin County disaster showed, corporations often operate without the moral compass that we hope will guide individuals.

How else can one explain why, over the last four years, 65,000 coal trucks have left Massey Energy's treatment plant in Sylvester, W.Va., and, according to an internal document, every single one was illegally, dangerously overloaded.

To look at the eastern coalfields on an aerial map and to see the black scars left by mountaintop removal is like looking at the X-ray of someone suffering from lung cancer. Caylor asserts, correctly, that only "7 percent of all of Appalachia" has been mountaintopped. But what if 7 percent of someone's lung was cancerous, and a doctor said there was no need to treat it?

"But won't it spread?" asks the patient.

"Of course it will," the doctor replies.

"But shouldn't we stop it?"

"Nope. Keep smoking. It's good for the cigarette industry and good for our economy."

I don't evoke this sad analogy lightly. Strip mining is destroying life in the streams of Appalachia and, as an Eastern Kentucky University study of Letcher County found, that polluted water is causing cancer and many other serious health problems throughout the region.

Without serious state or federal intervention, mountaintop mining will continue to spread havoc across Eastern Kentucky.

Caylor asserts that coal mining supports 14,000 jobs in Eastern Kentucky. But according to the Kentucky Coal Association's own Web site, only 5,237 of those jobs are on surface mines. That's about 100 jobs for each Appalachian county in Kentucky. Is destroying entire watersheds -- their trees, their water, their soil, their people -- worth 100 jobs?

"It's the lack of jobs that creates poverty," Caylor writes. It sure is, and it is the increased mechanization of the coal industry over the last few decades that is directly responsible for the lack of jobs in Eastern Kentucky.

It is no coincidence that the counties that have seen the most strip mining remain the poorest.

Caylor is right about one thing, though. We should retire the phrase "act of God" when talking about the damage caused by mountaintop mining. The floods and mudslides that, over the past five years, have killed 14 people who lived under strip mines in southern West Virginia were clearly acts of man. The only act of God was the creation of the Appalachian mountains -- the most biologically diverse ecosystem in North America.

Genesis 2:15 says that the creator put human beings on the Earth "to work it and take care of it." But we have been very poor stewards of the creation, and there may be hell to pay.

But because Caylor says that opponents of strip mining never have a "vision for the future," I want to offer one in the form of the Appalachian Regional Reforestation Initiative.

Paul Rothman and Patrick Angel from the Office of Surface Mining have been encouraging coal companies to reclaim strip jobs with the kinds of trees that the bulldozers unearthed.

There is so much abandoned mine land in Eastern Kentucky right now that a tree reforestation program, funded by the state's severance tax, could reduce the region's unemployment rate to zero. Erosion and flooding would decrease, carbon sequestration would increase and Eastern Kentucky would finally have a wood-products industry that might bring an end to the ugly legacy of coal.

© 2005 Lexington Herald-Leader and wire service sources

Erik's Harpers essay, with photos, is preserved here

Elisa added the following in her post~~~

"Thought I would forward this and say the violence is not exaggerated.

"Larry called me one night about a month ago when he dropped a friend of ours off after they'd been out to speak against on MTR (mountain top removal), and her husband was waiting for her - with a pistol. He called to ask me to find out what kind of trouble they were having.

"Halloween they tried to burn Maria's footbridge to her home in the hollow while I was on the phone with her and she had to leave to run and put the fire out. If she loses her bridge it's a one mile walk back into the hollow and a half mile down the hill, and they are carrying in all of their drinking water since MTR started. The estimate to install city water is over $30,000. They don't have that kind of money and the coal company refuses to take responsibility."

People who live in the mountains around here tend to be fiercely independent, trying to sustain their lives without receiving charity from anywhere. You can't depend on government benefits because the next election may wipe them all out. So they garden a little bit, gather herbs and roots, barter, make crafts and moonshine, and grab jobs when one comes around. It's a rough life, but they think living in the mountains is worth it. Mountain top removal? I heard one guy say, "Hey, the top is the best part!"


jazzolog said...

I'm very grateful to Dana for finding and sending this out last night. Let me urge you to click the links in case you're not aware yet of the work private, individual researchers are doing with their home computers to bring the power elite to check in this country. I know many of us, me included, have been feeling pretty hopeless lately, as evidence of corruption and crime mounts daily within the network of corporate and political cronies that runs the United States and its global "partners" now, and yet nothing seems to get done about it. Events like the Sago mine disaster seem to shake the country awake for a few minutes, but the next entertainment comes on the tube and soon we shrug tragedy away with confessions of powerlessness and apathy. One of my elder mentors, who has been an activist all of his life, told me last night he was thinking to cancel his online subscription to TruthOut because "everything is too negative." I was so shocked I could barely respond...and besides, the meeting we were at was called to order just then. I hope he thinks better of it, and like me takes heart with the struggles of ordinary people still working hard for peace and justice.

Incidentally, if you want to get involved with the problems of coal mining---which go on literally in our backyard here in Southeastern Ohio---and you're close to Athens, there is a meeting tonight on just this topic. Elisa Young, whom I mention in the main text of this entry, is driving up here from the River, to bring us up to date, as will Bill Price, Sierra Club Environmental Justice Resource Director for Central Appalachia (whew). He's from West Virginia, I believe. The meeting is at the Athens Community Center in Room C at 7:00 PM. This is the regular meeting night for the Sierra Club here, but the notice I received was from the Appalachian Ohio Group---which may or may not be an official part of Sierra. You know how liberals are! I'm sure everyone is welcome...and we can always make more room at that place.

----- Original Message -----
From: dana carlson
Sent: Wednesday, January 04, 2006 10:56 PM
Subject: An Ancient Horror In Mining Country

digby 10:49 AM Comments (44) | Trackback (0)

in light of the deaths of 12 coal miners , a timely reminder that Mr. Alito is on the record as deciding that the Federal Mine Safety and Health Act should protect miners less than it does .

It's also worth remembering that since reaching office, Our Fearless Leader cut MSHA (Mine Safety and Health Administration) funds in real dollars, fired a whistleblower, put a mining company executive in charge , reduced staff by 170 , tried to slash funding even more , and exempted the MSHA from the Freedom of Information Act .

He did, however, arrange a photo op with the last group of high-profile miners trapped in the ground, and said this for the cameras:

"It was their determination to stick together and to comfort each other that really defines kind of a new spirit that's prevalent in our country, that when one of us suffer, all of us suffers."

Mr. Bush, we are told, has given up spirits.

Scott and Barb tell us that the mine in question had (among other issues) a full 273 safety violations in the past two years

Leah puts all this into context:


If you have time for nothing else, please click Leah's blog!

jazzolog said...

For some unknown reason I've found myself rather thoroughly involved during the past month in activities and conversations about Appalachia. I come from an area of Southwestern New York that is considered Appalachia. I didn't know about that classification until I was an adult, and remember with burning vividness the first time I was called a "hick" when I went to college in New England. I never felt I was "one of them" so haven't talked about Appalachia from that point of view...and didn't feel "qualified." Gee, I'd have to be a sociologist or some expert like that to do so. In fact I still pronounce Appalachia the way the "outsiders" do. But maybe the 22 years I've lived in Southeast Ohio, where there's no question about what the region is, finally is giving me an Appalachian voice. Neverthless, I was sorta surprised to see myself spouting off in a blog comment this morning about problems here---as I interpret them anyway. I'd like to submit this piece of thread to you for any additions or corrections.

The first comment is from a conservative online friend of mine, who lives in New Hampshire. The link is to a fascinating, to me, collection of writing by a graduate of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary who's now a monk in Kentucky. The particular entry linked really struck a chord. The comment that follows is from a very interesting, though volatile, spiritualist lady in California. Since she's been watching the Sago mining disaster on TV and makes some remarks about the lifestyle around here, I started to reply. Here's what ensued...and thank you if it's of enough interest for you to read~~~

7 Jan 2006 @ 00:42 by jmarc : you may find
this blog interesting.


7 Jan 2006 @ 01:18 by vibrani : Yes, jmarc
change does not come easy to that region, and it's pathetic that students drop out of high school generation after generation. You'd think they'd have enough love and respect for their parents AND be able to make them happy by having a better life. It's not a put-down. It's a complicated matter but no one making the step to change isn't helping. Highest unemployment and insurance rates, lowest educational levels, no factories anymore, and so on. Why are they settling for this? Is it a lack of self-esteem - yes, and that comes from religion that teaches a person is sinful and life is always a battle. I noticed one thing watching the miners' families this week - most of the women are really overweight. I don't think the Gospel as it is is what people need. The article is right - they don't need religion. They need to really understand what the Gospel says - not the twisted versions churches teach. And what they teach is BE THE WAY YOURSELF.


7 Jan 2006 @ 10:21 by jazzolog : The Destructive Gospel Of Appalachia
The wit and author/narrator of Christmas Story, Jean Shepherd, used to talk on his WOR radio show a lot about his midwest childhood. He was from south of Chicago, which ain't Appalachia but certainly Bible Belt. He liked to remember strange and violent storms that would pop up out there---like the black cloud that hung over Zeke's farm for a few minutes before...POW...nothing left but a hole in the ground: next Sunday the churches were full. Much fundamentalist religion is punishment-based, with Old Testament attention to a fearsome God who protects and rewards the faithful to bring them victory over the infidels. The whole fear thing fits very nicely into current Administration strategy for corporate profits. The megachurch is essentially a huddle of the frightened, no matter how loud the self-righteousness blares. Here in Ohio the current attorney general, Jim Petro, is running for governor this very minute with a political ad displaying his pro-life church involvement. The frightened voter goes for that pitch like a lemming.

The kids don't drop out of school as much as they're thrown out. Some of us think the diet problems Vibrani mentioned are involved in their poor performance. I know tons of teens who eat nothing but pizza or something deepfried you can dip in ketchup. They'll throw up before they'd touch a green leafy vegetable. Nearly a quarter of the 7th grade in Athens has IEPs (individualized education plans) which means a student has some sort of disability or challenge identified that hinders learning. Often the more serious the problem, the more the kid is moved around. Foster homes, aunts, grandmothers, cousins, mom's new boyfriend in Florida...these are the living conditions. Time with dad? Weekend on the road to the next NASCAR race...or a run in his semi on loan.

Behavior problems from all this? Schools can't be bothered with such things. Funding is so low, particularly in areas where property taxes pay for education, teachers buy their own supplies---some of which expense they can deduct from income tax. The pressure is on for high scores on tests issued by the state. Your school doesn't get a good score you lose government funding. Students who bring the score down may find themselves transferred, because of ongoing discipline problems, to "alternative school," places where little is taught and the boot camp is modeled. In defense, Appalachian kids, like inner city ghetto kids, begin early to prepare aggressively for such detention...wearing punishment like a proud badge of initiation. Redneck is a compliment here, and what one might view as a lack of self-esteem may be worn like a new tattoo or piercing...or blood-letting in the beautiful and eternal hills, where there've been no jobs for 3 generations.


Well, I see Vibrani already has replied to I'd better get back there~~~

jazzolog said...

The Sierra Club meeting I mentioned in the January 5th comment above was so inspiring and chock full of issues and information that I've been hoping for a writeup somewhere I could post here. I'm really not very expert in the technical aspects of all this, so I hesitated to try it myself. Finally this morning a good review of the meeting turned up in our Athens NEWS~~~

In Athens, Sierra Club raises concerns about 'true cost of coal'
By Jonathan Hunt
Athens NEWS Writer
Monday, January 9th, 2006

Fresh off last week's coal-mining disaster in Upshur County, W.Va., members of the Appalachian Ohio Group of the Sierra Club met in Athens Thursday to discuss "the true cost of coal" and statewide mining trends.

"In some coal executive's office, there's a dartboard with Ohio in the target," said Bill Price, an environmental justice coordinator for the Sierra Club. "Be ready for it."

The push to decrease dependence on foreign oil is making untapped coal reserves in southeast Ohio more attractive, according to Price, and horizontal coal seams in Ohio are well suited for longwall mining, which moves more laterally than other methods. The more rugged landscapes in neighboring states are conducive to room-and-pillar mining - the type used in the Sago Mine where 12 miners died last week - and mountaintop removal.

"We have got to be able to say, 'if you're going to do coal mining, you're going to do it right, or you're not going to do it at all,'" asserted Price, a resident of Dorothy, W.Va. He said the Sago Mine deaths "highlight" a lack of safety enforcement by federal regulators. The Upshur County mine was cited 273 times for safety violations since 2004, but its owners paid just $24,000 in fines.

"What we always see is a repeated pattern of violations," charged Price. "MSHA (the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration) has a terrible record in enforcing the law. The good-old-boy network is killing people."

Former coal company executives have occupied key regulatory positions in the Bush administration, including former MSHA head David Lauriski and former Deputy Interior Secretary J. Steven Griles.

Lauriski resigned after MSHA whistleblower Jack Spadaro lost his job for saying the agency ignored safety problems at a Martin County, Ky., coal waste pond that ruptured five years ago.

Energy policy is being driven by the energy industry, charged club member and Athens resident Loraine McCosker. "It's real important that we take control of that," she said.

Meigs County resident and club member Elisa Young, a self-described seventh-generation Appalachian, said it's too difficult for Ohio citizens to find information about proposed coal mining in their communities. Young said permit applications should be available at a centralized database - more like what's available in other coal-producing states - and that Ohio is "behind the times" in this regard. She's trying to get more details about proposed longwall mining near her home, which she fears may be threatened. Longwalling causes subsidence of the land above the mine, which leads to ecosystem and property damage when everything shifts and sinks.

"There's no other piece of land I would go to that has that generational value to me," said Young.

Mike Sponsler, chief of the Division of Mineral Resources Management of the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, said Friday there's simply no money to create online coal-mine mapping on par with what West Virginia offers.

"We don't have the resources at this time," he said.

Once Sponsler's office has received a completed mining permit application, he explained, a public notice must be published once a week for four consecutive weeks in a newspaper "of general circulation" in the affected area. The division then accepts public comment for 30 days after publication of the final notice, or citizens can request an informal public conference during this period. Finally, after an application revision process, the mine permit is approved or denied. Any party can then request an appeal, which is reviewed by the Ohio Reclamation Commission.

SIERRA CLUB MEMBERS ON Thursday also discussed companion bills in Ohio's Senate and House that would create an oil, gas and timber leasing board and make it easier to extract resources from state-owned land. They questioned whether state Rep. Jimmy Stewart, R-Albany, would support the bill.

Stewart said Friday he's not committing to a decision on House Bill 193 yet, but he's leaning towards voting no.

"I'm not convinced there will be adequate protection for some of these areas that will be extremely sensitive," he said.

Club members and Stewart agreed it's unfortunate that state legislators have attached the bill to spending projects based on revenue that would be generated by increased drilling, mining and timber cutting.

"What they're trying to do is take the money and use it for wonderful purposes that everyone supports," Stewart said. If the bill earmarks funds for public lands such as Ash Cave or Forked Run, the state representative acknowledged, "Who could vote against such a thing?"

"That is an incredibly important piece of legislation that's going to be decided in the fall," said McCosker.

Stewart thinks he has received about 25 letters on House Bill 193, but said he had hoped to hear more, and that anyone wishing to testify before a House committee on the matter should contact him.

STATE SIERRA CLUB MEMBERS are also preparing to petition American Electric Power (AEP) - an electric utility giant and major coal consumer - to make environmentally responsible decisions about how the coal it buys is mined. "Clean-coal technology" and the politics of foreign oil are improving coal's reputation - last week's deadly accident notwithstanding - even among some environmentally concerned people, according to some who spoke at Thursday's meeting.

"There's nothing clean about coal," asserted Price, who added that the notion of "cheap electricity" is also a shibboleth. These rosy calculations look at what consumers pay and what pours out of smokestacks, he said, but often fail to take into account the impact of mining. "Why are we using their terminology?" he asked.

Price warned against letting the Sago Mine disaster sway public sentiment toward increasing surface mining, which could lead to more activity in Ohio.

Overall, Sponsler reported seeing a small increase in mining around the state, but said he wouldn't call it a boom. "Traditionally, Ohio produced more surface coal than underground coal, but that's not the case anymore," he said. Most of the mining is in eastern Ohio, especially Belmont and Jefferson counties, he added.

According to federal data, 31 companies mined coal at 94 mines in Ohio during 2004. Nearly 61 percent of the total coal production came from eight underground mines. One mine currently operates in Athens County north of Glouster.

AEP announced plans last year to build the world's largest Integrated Gasification Combined Cycle (IGCC) power plant - using a form of "clean coal technology" - in Meigs County.

A major longwall mine was proposed for Dover Township in Athens County in the late 1980s but the proposal never went anywhere.§ion=news&story_id=23039

jazzolog said...

With the bodies recovered yesterday of the 2 miners who perished in Alma No. 1 mine in Melville, West Virginia, words of support are arriving from public figures. The director of West Virginia's Office of Miners' Health Training and Safety said the remains indicate the men put up "a valiant effort." The Governor told the families that, like the dozen who died at Sago, "they have not died in vain." (Wouldn't you love to have a politician tell you something like that along about now?)

I have a colleague at work, who served as a Marine in Viet Nam, now attends THE megachurch in Athens, and refers to me as "my favorite liberal" around the school. When news first arrived about the men at Sago, he declared to me in the hallway that if conditions were unsafe there, why would men be so stupid as to go down in a non-union mine! My reply was essentially the contents of this article---but I was far from this eloquent---which was sent to me the other day by Appalachian community organizer and sociologist Mike Maloney~~~

"Well, bless us all, boys and girls: for today’s story, Jon Carroll, super-columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle, whose wife comes from Cincinnati (and thus has visited these parts), asked me to pass his Tuesday, Jan. 10th column on to all I know and know of in Appalachian areas and approximations:"

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

We begin today with a note from reader Sue Briggs of Benicia: "I had the misfortune of trying to tune in 'Countdown With Keith Olbermann' on MSNBC last night to catch his 'OddBall' segment before bed. Instead I was greeted by Rita Cosby (ugh!) asking a coal miner in West Virginia, in the midst of the drama there, 'Why did you decide to be a coal miner?' "

This kind of stuff happens all the time. TV bigfoots are sent to the sites of breaking news stories, put on camera as soon as possible and told to say something. There's not a lot you can say in the waiting hours of a mine disaster; even more important, there's not a lot you should say. Our duty as humans in that situation is to lend as much dignity to the situation as we can by just shutting up.

The few times I have been in an analogous situation, I've felt a little predatory just for taking notes, which is, after all, a silent activity that can be done discreetly. I know reporters who do it more than I have, and most of them are visited by the same sort of qualms and have developed a personal code of ethics that is more nuanced than anything an official management document could provide.

Of course, I've met some total grief vampires too. It's just that relatively smart and sensitive people can be turned into total idiots simply by putting microphones into their hands and turning the cameras on.

But the nature of the dopey question is interesting. "Why did I become a coal miner? Well, I was all set to become a veterinarian with a minor in classical literature, but there's something about the mines -- the constant danger, the lung damage, the unpredictable explosions, the claustrophobia -- that really spoke to me."

It's a question that comes from the world of "having a choice." It's one of the big dividing lines in American society, the chasm between those who think they have a choice and those who think they don't. (It is my experience that a lot of human growth comes when people realize that they have choices they didn't know they had.) (Underlining mine) As far as I can tell, all the men who were killed in the Sago Mine disaster came from coal mining families. Many of them had lived in West Virginia all their lives.

Most of them were older than 50, so they had lived through the 1968 Consol Mine No. 9 explosion and fire in Farmington, West Va. It was the first big coal mine disaster of the television age, and it was followed coast to coast. Ten days after the fires started, rescue workers had to admit defeat and seal off the mine to put out the fires. The concrete plugs reminded everyone of crypts. Attempts to recover the bodies went on for 10 years. The final death toll was 78; 19 bodies were never recovered. The date of the No. 9 disaster, Nov. 20, is still memorialized every year in that part of the state; it's part of the background narrative that informs the lives of West Virginia coal miners.

Coal mining is inherently a dangerous business, and coal mine operators are notorious scofflaws. The Sago Mine has been charged with 270 safety violations in the past two years; it has paid $24,000 in fines. That is, as the New York Times said, "little more than the cost of doing business." As economic times get rougher, West Virginia men are increasingly tempted to go back into the mines, and operators are increasingly tempted to cut corners.

I've been reading about this obsessively for two days, and thinking about the families of the victims, and thinking that maybe I should never complain again. Death and misfortune and disappointment and fear are part of the human condition, and I've certainly shaken hands with each of them. But I realize I have never done anything as brave as what coal miners do every working day, taking the noisy elevator deep into the ground, listening to the creaks of the mountain settling, holding on to a jackleg drill as it performs the most counterintuitive act possible, removing the rock that supports the earth above me.

So I think you should pray for the families, if you do pray. But I also think you should give a thought today for all the men and women in West Virginia and Kentucky and all places who are, even as you read this, working deep underground, living with fear and fatigue and black, black dust.

"Well, Rita, I'd seen 'Coal Miner's Daughter,' and I really just wanted to be like Levon Helm. He had a great look, sort of a Heath Ledger meets Hank Williams thing."

So bless our hearts and save our souls, and the air we breathe down in the devil's hole; just last week when the ceiling fell and the explosion trapped
©2006 San Francisco Chronicle

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