Thursday, May 22, 2008

Rivetting Essay on the MTR War in WV

Bob Kincaid, host of Head-on-Radio Network ( has offered this poignant essay. It cuts to the heart of the conflict in the coalfields, between miners and those working to protect the mountains and the communities around them - a conflict propogated by coal companies and shrouded in fear. Bob graciously permitted me to post it here.

I live in Fayette County, West Virginia, the heart and soul of West Virginia’s whitewater rafting tourism industry. Thousands and thousands of people come here every year to raft the New and Gauley Rivers. They roar down gorges as old as the earth itself, past the ghost towns that are all that’s left of the mine wars of a century ago; towns where Mary Harris “Mother” Jones worked to organize the slaves of the coal industry: Thurmond and Glen Jean and Brooklyn and Cunard and Hawks Nest and Prince and McKendree; places that are little more than wide mossy spots by the riverside, with a few squared stones marking where entire generations played out. These are the Dodge Citys and Tombstones of Appalachia.

If asked, most folks would tell you that the days of the mine wars are a long gone piece of West Virginia’s violent past. Most folks would be wrong. I saw on Saturday, April 5 that the past is never so far away that we can’t see it come to life before our eyes. There’s a war going on in West Virginia again, only the combatants have changed a bit.

A hundred years ago, when my Great-grandfather was mining coal in these hills, he and his folks understood that human dignity required a community to stand together against the coal bosses who treated them like slaves. They knew they were slaves and resented it. A lot of blood got spilled, but in the end, the coal miners of the early twentieth century won the right to form a union, be paid a living wage (in actual U.S. cash, no less), have health care and a pension for their old age; but you probably know all that.

Anyway, about fifty folks from my hometown went up on Gauley Mountain Saturday for an event termed a “Blessing of the Mountain.” See, the mountain in question is presently in the early stages of its execution. A coal company has gotten a permit to utterly destroy the mountain right up to the boundary of the New River Gorge National River, all in the name of seams of coal that are sometimes as thin as six inches. The company controls 18,000 acres or more that almost completely encircle my town. The mountain’s drainages are the Gauley and New Rivers themselves. The coal company has begun the process of blasting the mountain to death from the top down. Here at my home about four miles from the site, we already hear the distant rumbles, like bombs going off, as the blasting of Gauley Mountain proceeds.

Like I said, that mountain’s been mined before. Like all played-out coal mines, it’s full of water. Heaven help the mariner when some blast breaks the mountain open and sends those millions (if not billions) of gallons hurtling down onto our HeadStart Center right before it washes the rest of our town and its people down the creek and into the New River. By the way: the coal company owns the HeadStart Center’s property, so HeadStart won’t even complain about little poor kids being the first to go. See how it works?

We drove up the winding mountain road, intending to go up to the scene of the crime. Where the road turns to rock and dirt, we found it had been barred by the Company, and a hastily spray-painted “No Trespassing” sign erected on steel cable crossing the road. The Episcopal priests who were leading the worship service weren’t fazed. They began setting up to hold the service where we were. Prayers for Justice, after all, being prayers, can reach the ears of the Almighty whether those doing the praying are standing over the victim’s bleeding heart or standing at her feet. So the fifty or so of us prepared for the little service that was planned. Folks passed around flyers with the Order of Worship. Photocopied song lyrics were passed around in lieu of hymnals. My three children and I stood together among the assembled congregants.

That’s when everything changed. Charging around the further curve came a couple of four-wheelers, roaring up the road past our group. Immediately following them were all manner of vehicles (mostly pick-up trucks). Out of the vehicles poured what looked like the majority of the coal company’s demolition crew, along with their wives and even some of their children. They were all clad in identical sky-blue t-shirts with a logo on the back and the slogan “Protect An Endangered Species- Save a Coal Miner” or some such corporate drivel. They deliberately blocked our little group in between the mouth of the road and the No Trespassing barrier, like some group of penned animals they planned to slaughter just like the animals that die when they push the filth from their “mining” into the valley below.

Since we’re fairly new to having our homes attacked by Mountain Top Removal here in my neck of Fayette County, some of us were surprised at the show of force. I checked with my friends down in the Southern WV Coal Fields, however, and they said it’s a typical company tactic. Here’s what happens: the coal company tells its people that the Evil Environmentalists (who, they’re told, love trees, fish and numerous species of snails more than people) are trying to take away their jobs. The bosses tell their people that America can’t have electricity without blowing the hell out of the oldest mountains on the planet. The company people are told that they’re actually even “patriots.” They get some spiffy new t-shirts and are told, not asked, to take the wife and kids to help intimidate the “Environmental Wackos.” Failure to do so can mean one of these peoples’ jobs.

Of course, the bosses DON’T tell their people that as quick as the last seam has been scraped from the earth, as soon as they’ve pushed the last bit of mountaintop over into the valley that is my home and killed every living thing that walks, creeps, swims, hops or crawls, the Company will be gone like all companies do when the seams play out. They don’t tell their “associates” that two or three spins of the Wall Street roulette wheel will reduce those much-vaunted “profit sharing plans” to the value of your Great-granny’s cache of Civil War Bank of Richmond Confederate notes. Nope. All those pathetic company people hear is that “Coal Keeps The Lights On.” All they know is that as long as they keep up the bombing, the paychecks keep coming.

As the mountaintop removers swarmed up the little dirt road in their bid to intimidate a couple of priests and a bunch of mostly fifty- and sixty-something activists, I looked at my own kids (14, 12 and 11). I told them “Kids, these people are more to be pitied than despised. They’re slaves. They don’t even have the freedom to wear their own clothes. See? On the job and off, they have to wear what the Company tells them. They go where the Company tells them to go. They say what the Company tells them to say. They’re not even allowed to think for themselves.” Amid shouts of “Turn your lights off, then!” and “Coal keeps your lights on!” from the company people, my kids looked at me and nodded in understanding. One of them said, “Go talk to them, Daddy.”

It was what I call an “Atticus Finch” moment: a moment when a parent can’t do anything but be straight with his kids, knowing that everything he’s tried to teach them before hangs in the balance. “I can’t talk to them, baby. They’re past learning. They’re past comprehending the harm they’re doing. They’re hurting themselves and their own children with what they do, and they don’t even care. They’re slaves. Slaves live in fear of the Master. Nothing I can say can take away the fear their Master has put into them. They think the only thing in the world they’re capable of is dynamiting our mountains so they can have a payday.”

I didn’t have to say any more. My spoken lesson was interrupted by a much more visceral one. The service started, with Father Roy leading the call and response. My kids learned the truth as the company people snickered and guffawed as the priest said “We invite the mountains to worship with us” and the people responded “Deep forests, babbling brooks and clear mountain streams.”

The cat-calls and jeering rose to outright mockery when, responding to the priest’s confession that “We remember and confess that we have become alienated from the earth. . . ” the people replied with “We have polluted rivers with waste from mountain mines . . . We are sorry.” Forced laughter rose from the people who were paid and threatened to compel their attendance. More cries of “Coal keeps the lights on” and “Turn off your lights.” As it turned out, the company people knew their catechism far better than we did ours.

Undaunted, the priests continued on. There was some singing. Then Father Stan moved into his homily. He began preaching facts about mountaintop removal. Some of the company wives ratcheted the tension up, beginning to scream at the priest. They hollered “stop lying” as he described the toxic effects of mountaintop removal.

When Father Stan got into the meat of his homily, a short, squat company man came storming down from the Company’s hastily-erected, makeshift gate, yelling at the priest all the way. “I worship the same god you do,” he cried, as though addressing some be-robed shaman from an alien, distant land, “but I ain’t gonna let you tell these lies! Who’s gonna feed my family? Who’s gonna send my kids to college,” never managing to identify just what “lies” had slain him in the Spirit. Suffice to say, at no time had any of us suggested his children starve for want of either food or education. That bit of mendacity had come, of course, straight from corporate HQ.

People around the man gently explained to him, “Sir, this is a worship service.” It didn’t matter. The company people had managed to put an end to it. They began hollering their same, tired, chants of “Coal Keeps the Lights On” like some holy, soul-saving mantra, and waving their “Friends of Coal” placards like pieces of the True Cross. A company wife standing in the bed of a pick-up truck began squealing again about putting her children through college and what she apparently thought was her husband’s constitutional right to destroy anything upon which he set his eye, as long as they made a nice living at it; as long as it came with a new truck every couple of years, some clothes and a big screen TV from some slave-labor sweatshop in China.

At the height of the tension, a clear, pure voice rang out among us. One of our folks sent “Amazing Grace” onto the air. It was quickly picked up by the rest of us, silencing the coal people.

Once it was clear that the service would go no further, that Almighty God would no longer be implored to save our community from mountaintop removal, the company people seemed content.

It looks like the mine wars are on again here in West Virginia. Those of us who are struggling to save our communities are committed to principles of non-violence, emulating Dr. King, the fortieth anniversary of whose murder had passed only the day before this confrontation. The company people, however, have shown their hand. Kept in the depths of pitiful ignorance darker than any of the underground mines in which my Great-granddaddy, Granddaddy and Daddy labored, they will bluster, scream, shout, intimidate, threaten and perhaps engage in actual violence to protect not themselves, but their Masters. That’s the saddest part of this whole tableau: these people are so far gone down Big Coal’s toxic garden path that they don’t realize we’re struggling for their children’s future every bit as much as we are for our own.

As I looked at the company wives in attendance, smirking, cat-calling, hooting and hollering, I couldn’t help recalling a statistic that stays on my mind: because of all the mercury coal has put into our lives, every company wife there, like my own wife, and my own daughters, had within her body enough mercury to ensure that every child she bears will suffer at least a ten point IQ deficit. Her very breast milk contains enough mercury to qualify as toxic waste under the EPA’s own standards. Her husband’s proximity to the blasting, not to mention the poisons he’s forced to work with, in and around, promises a tormented old age, if the couple have mind enough left to comprehend it. Yet, that gray April Saturday in the oldest mountains on earth, she saw me as the enemy.

After they left Pharaoh’s bondage and ran into some tough sledding in the desert, it’s said that a great number of the Children of Israel preferred a return to Pharaoh and his three-hots-and-a-cot. The preacher in Ecclesiastes said “There is nothing new under the sun.” I reckon he was right.


Anonymous said...

Mountain top removal employees are not coal miners; they are big equipment operators. The two jobs are distinctly different requiring training and skills unique to the jobs they are performing. Many true coal miners are angered by the coal companies manipulation of the name for these two professions.
This is a wonderful essay. The description of the "coal company slaves" is familiar to anyone who has gone to the mountains to save our land, water, wildlife, and trees. How can West Virginia proclaim to be "Wild and Wonderful" while this destructive practice continues in our state?

Unknown said...

How will these workers feed their families if we dont mine the coal. I have not heard one person who opposes mountain top removal suggest anything to take the place of those jobs.

Anonymous said...

How will these workers feed their families if we dont mine the coal. I have not heard one person who opposes mountain top removal suggest anything to take the place of those jobs.

What is the point of feeding their families on one hand while killing them with mercury on the other?

How are they or their children going to feed their families once they have destroyed the land?

There must be a sustainable way to live in West Virginia. Its our responsibility as a society to figure out a non destructive way for people to earn their livings.

MtnButterfly said...

How are you going to feed your families when the coal is gone and the mountains and streams and forests are destroyed??? What happens to your health insurance and your income when the coal company says they're done and thanks for your efforts but you get no pension?? And for alternatives, these mountains are the richest in natural resources in the whole country. there are SO MANY ALTERNATIVES possible its ridiculous, but your employers suppress anything that will prevent them from mining as they see fit, when they see fit, and how they see fit. Take a good look at the people living around you, ask THEM how they feel about what you're doing to the streams that are the NATURAL HERITAGE of everyone living within the valleys. No one has the right to destroy the livelihood, quality of life or basic resources for living that another depends on. not for a job, not for profit, not for anything. Yes, you depend on coal for your job, but what does that mean about the society and economy within which you live, when you have no other options? Its not the fault of those who speak out against Mountaintop Removal that you dont have alternatives. Its the fault of the employers for whom you spout your misguided and misinformed slogans. And it is them that will eventually lead to your kids not having anything upon which to build a life. I have an alternative, wind power, solar power, sustainable forestry, tourism, local craft-making, localized agriculture, clean water, clean soil, clean air, affordable insurance, and the knowledge that you can work toward a future that wont be taken out from under you by a large strip-mine being put in place over your head and causing you to lose sleep at night, or causing you to lose everything that your family has known for generations. How's that for an alternative? If it were me, that would sound pretty good.

Bob Kincaid said...

Anthony's comment above highlights the degree to which the coal corporations have succeeded in distracting the debate from its primary inquiry.

I can't help asking these coal company employees what right they think they have to destroy entire communities in order to feed their families. Most other undertakings that require people to assault the rest of their community are generally illegal. People can't "feed their families" by burglarizing their neighbors' homes. They can't feed their families by killing their neighbors. They can't feed their families by giving dangerous chemicals to children in the schoolyard.

Yet in the case of MTR, that's exactly what the workers are doing: robbing their communities, killing their neighbors and hustling chemicals into the bodies of schoolkids.

While the MTR opposition actually IS involved in exploring sustainable alternatives in the work force to MTR demolition jobs, Anthony displays the classic diversionary tactic of the MTR industry in demanding that the workers be compensated by the people trying to save their communities before they'll stop killing the communities. Most folks I know call that extortion.

I realize that's rather harsh, and apologize. To paraphrase the Book, the MTR people won't light a candle and dare not curse the darkness, for fear their masters won't approve of either. They have my abiding pity.

Finally, Anthony, the fact that you've not heard one person . . . suggest anything to take the place of those jobs does not prove that such suggestions have not been made. You've made a fundamental logical blunder. Your lack of knowledge is not proof that the knowledge doesn't exist.

Those of us who are trying to save our communities are actively engaged in seeking renewable, sustainable, good paying jobs to replace the destructive jobs the MTR workers are doing. We could use a little help, though. A nice start would be getting our elected representatives to stop throwing stones in our path as we seek those jobs. Let's encourage the development of wind energy in this windy region. Let's explore solar and solar-geothermal. Let's make the future a part of the present.

Anonymous said...

Renewable energy jobs will replace coal mining jobs, and then some! Not to mention, the wind doesn't pollute water and crack foundations.

There are plenty of jobs to take the place of coal mining, while still providing for the energy needs of the country. Only those who are beholden to the coal barons choose not to hear them.

Great eesay, Bob!

Rod Adams said...

I grew up in the flat lands of South Florida, but spent nearly every vacation in the mountains of North Carolina, Georgia, and Tennessee. In the past several years, I have once again taken up camping and have tramped about 300 miles of the AT in Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia and a tiny slice of West Virginia.

It pains me to my very soul to watch the videos and hear the stories about mountains being blown up in the name of low cost, reliable electricity.

Electricity is very important to modern society - there is no denying that. We all suffer when the power goes out, but that does not give us the right to destroy other people's lives or God's creation in order to produce the fuel that supplies 50% of the country's electricity.

Wind turbines and solar panels are simply not going to cut it - they depend on inherently variable and unpredictable weather and require massive collectors to obtain small quantities of power from often weak or non existent natural forces.

There is another way that provides reliable, emission free power and exceptional job opportunities. Nuclear fission power produces vast quantities of power from tiny amounts of fuel - uranium has 3,000,000 times as much energy per unit mass as coal does. As a former submarine engineer officer, I can testify that the power plants are safe, reliable, and clean enough to seal inside a steel tube full of people.

The average nuclear plant in the US employs about 500-800 well paid workers. Many of those workers have similar skills and training requirements as the heavy equipment operators that currently think that mining coal is their only opportunity for a good job.

Since the average nuclear power plant in the US will run for about 60-80 years, allowing new plants to be constructed in a community provides a lifetime employment source - those plants will never move once they are built.

If you are a true environmentalist who is concerned about the mountains, please think about what I have said and ask whatever questions you think need to be addressed. If you want to learn more, you can also visit my Atomic Insights blog (

Rod Adams
Editor, Atomic Insights
Host, The Atomic Show Podcast
Founder, Adams Atomic Engines, Inc.

DJ Shiva. said...

in response to ron adams:

i am gonna have to debate you on this point.

nuclear energy is problematic for a number of reasons.

1) we have no way of disposing of the used nuclear fuel rods. there are 77,000 tons of irradiated fuel rods with nowhere to go. they remain radioactive for hundreds of thousands of years, and thus far the only solution anyone has come up with is to bury them in yucca mountain, a seismically active spot in nevada. years ago studies found that water runs through the mountain at a rapid rate, therefore guaranteeing the decay of the casks used to store the rods. once that happens, radioactive gases will leak out and build up. the DOE's own documents say that it's not a matter of IF there will be some kind of disaster because of this, it's a matter of when. not to mention the same water movement means that radioactivity will contaminate the groundwater eventually as well. clean? i guess that depends upon how you define "dirty".

not to mention this requires transporting the waste by truck and by train across the country in casks that are substandard safety-wise (when the casks didn't make the standard, they lowered the standards). all that is at taxpayer expense. go subsidies for the nuke industry!

all of this when it would be less expensive and safer to store the used rods in dry cask storage on-site. but then the industry would have to pay, and they would rather the taxpayer deal with it.

2) it uses an immense amount of water. nuclear uses 25% MORE water than coal plants, about 50-60 million gallons per day. this is a resource we cannot afford to waste either.

3) coal power is used in many cases to provide power for uranium enrichment plants. one of the dirtiest coal plants in indiana provides power for a uranium enrichment facility in ohio.

4) do i really have to talk about safety? three cases: three mile island, chernobyl, and the fermi 1 reactor near detroit. read the book, "we almost lost detroit". one read of the safety reports from reactors across america will scare the living shit out of you. add to that the fact that our nuke plants are prime strategic terrorist targets, and,

as far as renewables go:

a) research and development has, for years, been stifled by the coal and nuclear industry, because it provides cheaper power and therefore, less profit for the industry (either because of regulated markets, or market forces in deregulated states...although i don't doubt there would be collusion to keep the kwph costs high regardless). but the market has driven up demand for renewable technology, and it's not frickin sci-fi anymore. the technology for wind is being used successfully all over the world, and research and development on both wind and solar technology is currently moving at a rapid pace due to high demand for renewable power.

b) wind and solar require no additional fuel costs after construction. the same cannot be said for coal or nuke. and as long as we are talking about mining for resources, you should probably do a little research on how uranium mining affects the communities around it as well.

c) a financial example: the vogtle nuclear plant in georgia is a 2400 mW plant. the cost was 8.87 BILLION. the fowler ridge wind farm being built in benton county, indiana is 740 mW and costs 1.1 billion (this will be one of the largest in the country). you could build three wind farms of that size, with minimal spacial footprint, for around 3.5 billion. no additional fuel costs to produce electricity, much less environmental cost, and no need to store waste.

with construction and traditional construction material costs skyrocketing, the price of building nuke plants WILL go up. and with nuclear energy already the most costly form of energy, this doesn't bode well for ratepayers either.

don't drink the kool aid. the nuclear industry is shoving propaganda down our throats, because they are an industry in serious trouble and they know it. the only way for them to survive is to try and spin this in their favor, but the facts just don't support a damn thing they have to say.

Anonymous said...

The fact remains that the mountains you all are talking about aren't yours. It is owned by someone and they have a right to use it as they see fit.

All the talk about poisioning our children is just that, talk. There is no evidence of such poisioning nor will there be because it is all BS. Do you really think that moving earthen materials (dirt and rock) exposes us to toxic materials that will kill us. I've played in dirt my entire childhood and haven't been sick because of it. Mining companies are regulated by the state and feds and have Effluent discarge limits for water that are more strengent than drinking water standards. All this talk is a scare tactic to bring attention to people who don't have a job to keep them busy.

I have lived in the coal fields my entire life and thanks to coal mining I am educated and now earn a good living and am in good health. Everyone needs to remember that coal companies don't have condemnation rights. If they mine it, it's because they have purchased those RIGHTS from someone and they now OWN them.

Anonymous said...

It's the chemicals they put on the coal I know exactly what they are talking about because I worked at a "clean lignite" plant in Texas. I had to quit my job because I got sick after 5 years of working there. It was from chemical exposure. The chemicals they put on the coal/lignite to keep it from being dusty, wet etc. They put several chemicals on it and then when you work around it you breathe it in. The companies our ruining our health and our environment. I know because I worked in it.

mountain homes in virginia said...

I've seen photos of the mined mountain and it's so sad to see because it's more beautiful to see mountains planted with trees and lived with animals.


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