Bomb Appalachia (and Face the Music)


They don’t take it lying down, these people.

And King Coal sure does dish it out. Last week, Massey Energy Company continued the bombing of Coal River Mountain, West Virginia, the Friends of Coal distributed "Let’s Learn About Coal" coloring books to kids, and the Senate confirmed a coal company-approved "Dirty Coal Czar" as director of the U.S. Office of Surface Mining.

Meanwhile, the good people of Appalachia and their friends in the climate justice movement plotted their next move and hoped that you might join them.

Theirs is a coast-to-coast campaign to save Appalachia’s mountains and streams — and Appalachians’ homes, jobs, and culture — from the devastating coal mining practice known as mountaintop removal.

On October 30, they took on King Coal the way Mother Jones took on King Coal: with courage, coordination, creativity.

They sat in at the offices of the Environmental Protection Agency in DC. They descended on the local outposts of the EPA and JP Morgan Chase — Big Coal’s biggest bankroller still standing — in over twenty cities nationwide, with zombie marches, bank sit-ins and "carnivals of destruction" at corporate headquarters.

Hundreds have already been arrested in a campaign of nonviolent direct action crisscrossing the Appalachian warzone, which stretches across some of the poorest regions of West Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, and southwestern Virginia. Massey machinery has been blockaded. Mountain bombing missions have been called off.

A burgeoning alliance — recalling the "Teamsters and Turtles" alliance that rocked the World Trade Organization in the streets of Seattle 10 years ago this month — has united the fed-up-and-not-gonna-take-it-anymore residents of coalfield communities with the civilly disobedient youth of the climate justice movement.

In essence, they are doing what the Environmental Protection Agency was supposed to be doing all along — the work of environmental protection–while fighting for their lives and the future of life itself on the frontlines of America’s new coal wars.

Mountaintop removal involves a simple, 5-step process of coal extraction.

  1. Clearcut forest (Cost to date: 1.2 million acres and unknown numbers of species).
  2. Blow top off mountain (Cost to date: 500 of the world’s oldest mountains).
  3. Dig for coal; double profits. (Cost to date: Billions of dollars in federal subsidies).
  4. Dump waste in local streambeds (Cost to date: Over 2,000 miles of streams).
  5. Process coal, leave toxic "slurry" in open impoundments (Cost to life: Unknown).

Following extraction, there is "reclamation." Three further steps inevitably follow that exact a human cost on everyone but the coal barons:

  1. Replace local community with golf course, parking lot, or other "higher use" where mountain used to stand. (Cost to communities: Unquantifiable.)
  2. Replace workers; hang out to dry. (Cost to workers: Over 25 years in WV, as coal production grew 75%, jobs were cut in half, and less of them were union.)
  3. Neglect to clean up or care for victims. (Cost to Appalachia: From 3,975 to 10,923 "excess annual age-adjusted deaths in coal mining areas" — every year — according to a recent study published in Public Health Reports.)

All you need to blow up a mountain these days is an EPA permit, a handful of nonunion workers, and massive quantities of explosives (around 4 million pounds a day). Use of mountaintop removal has exploded since 2002, when the Bush administration began changing the wording of exemptions to a rule requiring stream buffer zones.

This administrative sleight of hand, undertaken directly on behalf of the coal companies, allowed them to begin depositing all the waste from the coal mining process in streambeds and waterways and to continue what author Jim Biggers has called "one of the largest displacements of U.S. citizens since the nineteenth century."

Many of these folks looked to President Obama for a new era in Appalachia. But instead, as they’ve seen over at Coal River Mountain, it looks remarkably like business as usual.

While the Obama administration has expressed its intent to regulate mountaintop removal — and the EPA is taking a closer look at 79 pending mountaintop removal permits — it has done nothing on the ground to put a halt to the work of the draglifts and the dynamite.

Last month, the Department of the Interior announced its decision to put off any changes to the Bush rules until 2011 — at the earliest.

And an original draft of the American Clean Energy and Security Act passed in the House in June was, according to Rep. Henry Waxman himself, based on a blueprint from the Climate Action Partnership, an industry group that includes Duke Energy and other coal companies. The loopholes are vast–as vast as the Coal Lobby’s spending this year.

The "clean coal" lobby is playing as dirty as ever, not unlike other "clean energy lobbies." The American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity has a budget of over $45 million, according to a report from the Center for Public Integrity, and its PACs and employees made $15.6 million in campaign contributions in 2008 (extending their generosity to McCain, Obama, and 87 percent of Congress).

In a classic case of astroturfing, a contractor for the coalition sent 14 forged letters purporting to be from members of the NAACP and Creciendo Juntos, a Latino community group, to members of Congress arguing against new regulations.

But even new regulations are not enough. While Congress fiddles, the heritage of Appalachia is going up in smoke. Whatever hope there is now rests with the growing ranks of the bluegrassroots movement to ban mountaintop removal once and for all — and replace it with green jobs, clean energy, and an economy that doesn’t blow up but builds up.

In the land of black lung, a green heart beats.

And green looks a little different from here than it does from Washington, DC or Wall Street. Here, green has long been a way of life. The deep green of the mountains and the valleys, the "cricks" and the "hollers." The fiddler’s green of an old-timey song or a story of hardbitten everyday heroes born of the blackened belly of these mountains.

Once upon a time in Appalachia, these folks’ grandfathers moved mountains for pennies — their grandmothers, too, for less — working for these very same coal companies. From the Battle of Blair Mountain, WV to Bloody Harlan County, KY, they fought and died so that their own children might live a better life on this once-green land.

Now, the onetime movers of mountains are mounting a movement, together with the children of another America, to keep those mountains where they belong.

And they, like the mountains, aren’t going down easy.

 

 

Michael Gould-Wartofsky is a writer from New York City whose work has appeared in The Nation, Z, AlterNet, TomDispatch, CommonDreams, Jewish Currents, Monthly Review, and Poets Against the War (Nation Books, 2003). He is a graduate of Harvard College and is currently a MacCracken Fellow at New York University, as well as a longtime activist, novelist, fiddler and photographer.

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