In June, I was lucky enough to be among some 250 protestors who walked for five days from Marmet, West Virginia, fifty miles south to Blair Mountain. We traced the path coal miners had taken in 1921, which culminated in the Battle of Blair Mountain where several thousand coal miners fought the forces of Sheriff Don Chafin, including private detectives, mine guards, and deputized men. The miners marched to liberate fellow workers living in oppressive company towns and to unionize the southern West Virginia coalfields. Chafin’s forces repelled the miners, and Blair Mountain became a powerful symbol of the coal industry’s violent, repressive tactics. Now, Alpha Natural Resources (formerly the notorious Massey Energy) will soon destroy Blair Mountain if we do not stop them.
On our first day, after marching about eleven miles, we arrived at John Slack Park in Racine where a small crowd of nearby residents gathered to shout obscenities at us and try to intimidate us. We pitched our tents and ate our dinner while coal trucks and members of the volunteer fire department drove back and forth, blaring their horns for hours. As I went to our group’s portapotty in the parking lot, a man drove by in a truck and called me a “mother***er.” Then, at ten o’clock p.m., the Boone County Commissioner and the county police notified us that if we did not leave the park we would be arrested and put in jail. The verbal commitment local officials had given our organizers had been revoked. Welcome to coal country.
Appalachia Rising, a coalition of environmental and historic preservation groups, organized this march to protest the impending destruction of Blair Mountain. The organization announced that we were marching to end mountaintop removal (MTR), to strengthen labor rights, and to support sustainable union jobs. We did not aim to end all coal mining.
Why then did so many people have signs that read “Coal Keeps the Lights On” and “Coal Feeds My Family”? Why did so many shout “Go home, treehuggers!” and “Get off welfare!”? I had followed the issue of MTR from a distance, from my new home in southwestern Pennsylvania. Like so many, I had to leave West Virginia to find a job, and I have great sympathy for those who are clinging to their jobs. But I realized that the counter-protestors believed that the issue of MTR boiled down to a single choice: jobs or the environment. We—the wild-eyed radicals—were on the side of the environment, and they—the working class—were on the side of jobs.
It did not take much research for me to figure out how some people arrive at this conclusion. First, the media fuels this notion. For its story on the march, the Wall Street Journal headline read: And CNN reporters who followed the march the whole week came to a similar conclusion. The preview for their —intercuts footage from an anti-MTR rally with another rally sponsored by the Friends of Coal where a speaker shouts: “Whose jobs?” “Our jobs!” respond the people. CNN anchor Soledad O’Brien captured some of the poignancy of the march in her blog but simplified the issue in her title which reads:
The coal companies have also done their best to encourage local residents to see this struggle as one of jobs versus the environment and working people versus treehuggers. In 2008, Jason Bostic, spokesperson of the West Virginia Coal Association, said that if the state legislature passed a ban on valley fill (meaning filling valleys with blasted earth) then the And in June, during the March on Blair Mountain, Bostic said: “If you save Blair Mountain you’ll watch the entire social and economic structure of that community dry up.”
Finally, many of West Virginia’s politicians have also oversimplified the issue of MTR down to jobs or the environment. On July 21, U.S. Senator Joe Manchin criticized the Environmental Protection Agency for issuing water quality guidance that acknowledges the harmful impacts of MTR and states that the EPA will work with state governments and companies to “protect our nation’s waters and people’s health.” This EPA guidance is not legally binding, but Manchin, choosing to speak for the people of West Virginia, issued a statement that read in part: “Since the EPA hasn’t listened to the people of my state on this issue, I know that West Virginians would tell them that this guidance puts our workers in the coal industry in a tough position, jeopardizing their jobs, our communities and our state’s economy.”
The jobs-versus-the-environment question is false for several reasons, especially in the case of MTR and the March on Blair Mountain. First, the “environmentalists” and the “workers” are not two separate groups. Many of the marchers were from West Virginia, many from the coalfields, many from miners’ families, and some were even former miners. And just as many people in the coal towns supported our march as opposed it.
Second, corporations do not have the best interests of local communities in mind. As my friend and Mingo County resident Wilma Lee Steele recently observed, it is the coal companies who have been destroying communities in southern West Virginia. MTR often requires companies to buy up whole towns—houses, schools, and all. Those who remain see their property values drop to nothing, their water and air polluted, streams eradicated, and health problems explode. People who think that MTR will help them preserve their families and communities are forced to ignore the destruction MTR coal companies have left in their wake and are forced to pretend that their jobs are sustainable.
The biggest fallacy in this particular environment-versus-jobs myth is that MTR creates jobs. In fact, MTR destroys jobs. One of the reasons coal companies use MTR instead of underground mining is because it eliminates workers. Furthermore, the counties with MTR activity also have among the highest rates of unemployment and poverty in the Appalachian region. To add insult to injury, MTR only recovers a fraction of the coal that underground mining can retrieve. If we were to force companies to solely mine underground (safely and responsibly), the environmental impact would be lessened, mining jobs would increase, and more of the coal seam would be mined. Companies that say otherwise are focused on short-term profitability, not the long-term health and stability of coalfield communities and residents.
Finally, we have to acknowledge that working people have often had to bear the brunt of any change in policy or laws, including free trade agreements, spending cuts, andenvironmental regulations. We need to do a better job of foreseeing economic dislocation, planning transitions, and building sustainable economies. But I assure you, coalfield communities and working people will not be better off if we leave these important tasks in the hands of company executives.
Lou Martin is an assistant professor of history at Chatham University in Pittsburgh, and he researches rural-industrial workers in the twentieth century.