Posts Tagged ‘Health’

One fish, two fish … Dead fish

Wednesday, July 9th, 2014 - posted by matt

USGS Study: Mountaintop Removal Decimates Fish Populations in Appalachia

onefish_twofish

A study from researchers at the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) published this month provides strong new evidence that mountaintop removal coal mining in Appalachia is devastating downstream fish populations.

That’s hardly news for long-time followers of the controversy surrounding mountaintop removal, a coal mining practice that involves blowing off the tops of mountains to access thin seams of coal and dumping the waste into valleys below. In 2010, a group of 13 prestigious biologists published a paper in Science, the nation’s premier scientific journal, that found:

“Our analyses of current peer-reviewed studies and of new water-quality data from WV streams revealed serious environmental impacts that mitigation practices cannot successfully address… Clearly, current attempts to regulate [mountaintop removal mining] practices are inadequate.”

The authors of the study published last week found a 50 percent decline in the number of fish species and a two-thirds decline in the total number of fish in streams below mountaintop removal mines in West Virginia’s Guyandotte River drainage. They made this important contribution to the science by using rigorous methodology to isolate several types of water pollution most likely to have caused these staggering declines.

But a more important contribution of the study may be that it draws the focus of water pollution impacts away from mayflies and other aquatic insects and onto a far more popular and charismatic organism that not only is important to rural people’s way of life, but supports a multi-billion dollar sportfishing industry in Appalachia.

Tellingly, industry spokespeople contacted by local reporters did not dispute the science as they typically have in the past. Those that didn’t dodge reporters entirely were quick to change the subject to the purported benefits of mountaintop removal to create more flat land for industrial and commercial development (in a region where less than 10 percent of the more than 1 million acres of mountains that have already been flattened has been used for economic development).

This muted response is in stark contrast to the coal industry’s response to previous science linking mountaintop removal to the loss of aquatic insects downstream from mine sites. The “EPA puts mayflies ahead of jobs” or “pests over people” became the rallying cries of coal industry supporters when the EPA first began bringing science back into the permitting process in 2009.

One suspects that the coal industry knows it isn’t likely to win a “jobs vs. fish” debate with America’s 33 million anglers.

Widespread damage to fish populations could also be important from the pocketbook perspective that political leaders in Kentucky and West Virginia take seriously. According to data [PDF] from the American Sportfishing Association, recreational fishing creates a lot more jobs than mountaintop removal does in the states where it occurs:

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In fact, sportfishing accounts for more than 12,000 jobs in Kentucky, which is more than the entire coal mining workforce in the state, including all underground and surface miners, coal preparation plant workers and industry office workers combined. Moreover, unlike coal, sportfishing is a growing industry in Appalachia — the number of jobs it created in West Virginia more than tripled between 2001 and 2011.

Of course, even if “jobs vs. fish” were a popular argument, it would be just as false a narrative as “pests over people.” Declines in populations of both fish and aquatic insects are important indicators of declining health of an ecosystem on which all organisms depend, including people. The “ecological indicator” theory is consistent with the dozens of scientific studies published in the last few years that show communities near mountaintop removal mines suffer poor health outcomes ranging from high rates of cancer, respiratory illness, heart disease and birth defects to low life expectancies that are comparable to those in developing nations like Iran, Syria, El Salvador and Vietnam.

Thus, the USGS study is an important contribution to the debate about mountaintop removal for anyone concerned about recreational fishing, human health or the economy of Appalachia. Hopefully that’s everybody.

It’s also a very timely contribution because it turns out that the EPA and other federal agencies are right now grappling with important rules to protect streams that will determine whether the pollution that leads to the kinds of declines in fish populations seen by the USGS researchers will be allowed to continue.

The study found that waters downstream from mountaintop removal mines contained elevated levels of two forms of pollution that the researchers believe could account for the declines in fish populations: conductivity and selenium. Conductivity is a measure of metals and salts in water, and elevated levels are toxic to aquatic life. Selenium has caused grotesque deformities in larval fish ranging from s-curved spines and double-headed larvae to fish with both eyes on the same side of their heads.

A two-headed trout deformed by selenium pollution. Photo by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

A two-headed trout deformed by selenium pollution. Photo by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

This study should serve as a wake-up call to federal regulators that have been steadily backsliding from the Obama administration’s initial commitment to put science first in agency decision-making and to rein in the widespread damage from mountaintop removal mining. That backsliding has been particularly evident at the EPA’s Region 4 headquarters in Atlanta, which oversees Clean Water Act permitting for a number of southeastern states including Kentucky.

Enforcement officials at Region 4 have not incorporated the science and recommendations developed by the EPA for the guidance on conductivity since it was announced by previous EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson in 2010. At the time, Jackson predicted the new guidelines would allow “few, if any, valley fills” to be permitted. Since then, valley fills — debris piles composed of the soil and rock that formerly made up the mountaintops of Central Appalachia — have continued to be approved by Region 4, including a massive new mountaintop removal permit with six valley fills that was approved last year.

Region 4 officials also recently approved a weakening of Kentucky’s standards for chronic selenium levels in streams, allowing the state to permit levels high enough to cause reproductive failure in some fish. Worse, at the federal level, the EPA recently released a draft revision to its nationwide selenium rule that is likely to be all but impossible to enforce. That’s a particular problem in states like Kentucky that have proven time and again to be incapable of enforcing rules on the politically powerful coal industry without citizen groups intervening. Here’s what the Lexington Herald-Leader had to say about the state’s “failure to oversee a credible water monitoring program by the coal industry”:

“In some cases, state regulators allowed the companies to go for as long as three years without filing required quarterly water-monitoring reports. In other instances, the companies repeatedly filed the same highly detailed data, without even changing the dates. So complete was the lack of state oversight it’s impossible to say whether the mines were violating their water pollution permits or not.”

Fortunately, the administration has an opportunity to take meaningful action to protect Appalachian streams this winter, when the Office of Surface Mining is scheduled to release a draft Stream Protection Rule to replace the outdated Stream Buffer Zone rule promulgated more than 30 years ago.

The message for the Obama administration from all this is that they are doing nobody any favors by taking half-measures to protecting water quality in Appalachia. When important recreational fish populations, a growing sector of the Appalachian economy and the health of Appalachian people clearly depend on strong water quality protections, the president’s spirit of compromise should not extend to compromising on science.

Here’s what you can do: tell President Obama to instruct his agencies to draft a strong Stream Protection Rule that will prohibit mining near streams and protect the health of people, fish and the economy of Appalachia. Take action here.

North Carolina “off the sidelines” to fast-track fracking

Thursday, June 5th, 2014 - posted by brian

Four months after a massive coal ash spill devastated the Dan River, and before the state has remedied its coal ash problem, North Carolina is poised to open a new can of worms.

Fracking operations like this on in Texas could soon spring up in North Carolina after Gov. Pat McCrory signed a bill lifting the state's moratorium on natural gas drilling. Photo by Daniel Foster/Creative Commons.

Fracking operations like this one in Texas could soon spring up in North Carolina after Gov. Pat McCrory signed a bill lifting the state’s moratorium on natural gas drilling. Photo by Daniel Foster/Creative Commons.

On Wednesday, North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory signed the Energy Modernization Act, lifting a moratorium on natural gas drilling in the state.

With few obstacles left in the way, test drilling to assess the amount of gas in the state’s Piedmont could occur this fall and fracking could officially begin in North Carolina by spring 2015.

Before reaching the governor’s desk, the legislation was rushed through the state House and Senate and ratified in the course of about 48 hours. The 26-page bill covers everything from exploration and permitting to reclamation and severance taxes.

Now that the bill is law, state-issued drilling permits could come sooner than the legislature previously promised. Oil and gas companies can now receive permits 60 days after the state Mining and Energy Commission’s proposed regulatory program is finalized, even though lawmakers originally said the rules would be reviewed before any subsequent legislation or vote to lift the moratorium took place.

Until recently, North Carolina had no reason to regulate oil and gas drilling, and the rules announced so far align closely with industry interests such as Halliburton and the American Legislative Exchange Council that have put external pressure on the commission.

Gov. McCrory likes to say that North Carolina has been on the sidelines of the U.S. gas boom, spectating while other states reap the economic benefits that can result from rampant natural gas development. But fracking has also burdened communities with the risk of water contamination, air pollution and other environmental and health hazards.

Apparently taking those well-established consequences into account, Gov. McCrory claims North Carolina has learned from other states’ experiences. “The expansion of our energy sector will not come at a cost to our precious environment,” the governor said in a statement. “This legislation has the safeguards to protect the high quality of life we cherish.”

As reassuring as that may sound, the push over the past few years to begin fracking has been mired in the types of missteps, broken promises and conflicts of interest considered characteristic of the state’s leadership of late.

Potential natural gas drilling sites and drinking water supplies. Graphic by Southern Environmental Law Center. Click to enlarge.

Potential natural gas drilling sites and drinking water supplies. Graphic by Southern Environmental Law Center.

The passage of the Energy Modernization Act, viewed as the beginning of the end to the General Assembly’s quest to see drilling begin in North Carolina, is both evidence and a direct result of that process. And a host of provisions that did make it into the final bill seem built to incent natural gas companies to operate in North Carolina.

One provision in the original Senate version would have made it a felony to disclose potentially harmful chemicals used in the drilling process. The penalty was reduced to a misdemeanor in the final bill, but it could still come with jail time, and even in cases of emergency, first responders would have to enter a strict confidentially agreement with permit holders before sharing information about chemicals or health concerns.

The novel approach to protect a company’s frack fluid recipe isn’t all that novel. It’s similar to a section of Pennsylvania’s Act 13, a law passed in 2012. Dr. Alfonso Rodriguez, a Pennsylvania physician specializing in renal diseases, sued the state over its “medical gag order,” which he says abridges his freedom to communicate with his patients and colleagues about fracking chemicals and the health hazards they present to the public. That case went to the state Supreme Court last year.

Like Pennsylvania and other states, North Carolina’s new fracking law prohibits local ordinances that would restrict drilling because it is “the intent of the General Assembly to maintain a uniform system” for fracking statewide. But similar language was struck from Pennsylvania’s laws, and is being challenged in New York.

Less publicized sections of the bill are no less dubious. Our friends at the N.C. Conservation Network who’ve been tracking the issue closely have a helpful breakdown of the bill, which they say does not address the most significant risks fracking poses to our health, communities and the environment.

While most of the attention on fracking in North Carolina is currently on a handful of counties in the Piedmont, the mountains of western North Carolina are not off-limits to gas exploration and drilling in the future. The state plans to analyze rock samples from seven western counties to determine whether there is retrievable gas under North Carolina’s mountains.

The challenges associated with regulating fracking can be as prevalent as the threats that come with it. Across the country, state agencies that regulate oil and gas drilling are spread thin. With recent cuts to the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources, it’s hard to believe North Carolina would be any different.

The proposed 2014 N.C. Senate budget includes $1.7 million to support oil and gas activities. Nearly a million dollars would be used for additional geological and geophysical analysis of the shale basins in the state and $100,000 of what’s left would be spent to market the state’s untapped shale gas resources. At least this time around, funding for additional agency staff is mostly directed to meet another desperate need: monitoring and better regulating coal ash ponds. But those funds are contingent on Gov. McCrory’s coal ash bill passing.

Poorly regulated, fracking poses intractable risks to water, air and human health – all of which have been demonstrated without a shadow of a doubt. It’s happening in Appalachian states including Tennessee, Virginia and West Virginia, with operations concentrated in rural, agricultural and coal-mining communities, where residents rely on private well water for drinking and irrigation. And it is creating strife in communities just as other destructive methods of resource extraction such as mountaintop removal coal mining have for decades.

Now, when they should be more concerned with improving rules to protect clean water and remedying coal ash pollution, state policymakers are luring gas companies to North Carolina and welcoming fracking with open arms.

Read more of our coverage of fracking in Appalachia from the Front Porch Blog and The Appalachian Voice.

N.C. coal plant neighbors ask: “At what cost?”

Tuesday, April 29th, 2014 - posted by brian

Near the beginning of our new video, “At What Cost?”, longtime Stokes County, N.C., resident Annie Brown says, “I love to turn the switch on and have my lights just like anyone else, but at what cost?”

It’s a question we should all ask of ourselves. Our everyday lives come full of choices that influence how we relate to the environment and each other. But we also must routinely direct our elected officials and the companies that sell us electricity to consider the question: at what cost do our outdated, and often dangerous, energy policies and practices come?

In the video, Brown and other residents and former residents wonder about the relationship between their communities’ health problems and their proximity to Duke Energy’s Belews Creek coal plant, the largest in the Carolinas.

Live in North Carolina? Click here to take action on coal ash.

The plant also has the largest unlined toxic coal ash pit in the state, only increasing locals’ concern about the likelihood that their health problems could be linked to the coal plant in their backyard.

Duke Energy’s marketing team says: “You don’t think about all that’s going on behind that switch, because we do.” But Annie Brown thinks about, and so do we.

North Carolina deserves better. And with the Duke Energy shareholders meeting this Thursday, and the 2014 state legislative session beginning in just two weeks, now is the time to demand stronger protections from coal ash pollution.

Please check out our Facebook and Twitter pages to help us share this video widely. If you live in North Carolina, contact your state senator and ask him or her to support legislation that will eliminate the worst threats coal ash poses to clean water.

Study Confirms Air Pollution from Mountaintop Removal

Monday, March 3rd, 2014 - posted by meredith
A recent study connects air pollution from mountaintop removal mines with health problems in nearby communities.

A recent study connects air pollution from mountaintop removal mines with health problems in nearby communities.

For generations, Appalachian mining communities have raised questions about local health problems, wondering whether or not they may be linked to air pollution from surrounding coal mines.

A recent study conducted by a group of West Virginia University researchers has confirmed that suspicion, reporting that potentially dangerous air pollution levels are more likely in areas surrounding mountaintop removal coal mines than in mine-free communities. This suggests a significant correlation between coal mining areas and rates of cardiovascular disease, birth defects and cancer.

Published last week in the Journal of Exposure Science and Environmental Epidemiology, the paper is the latest of more than 20 peer-reviewed studies dating back to 1991 examining the health impacts of mountaintop removal in Appalachia.

Explosives used during the mountaintop removal mining process are one of the suggested causes of increased particulate matter, a type of air pollution made up of very tiny particles that can easily be inhaled and become lodged in the lungs. With large blasts of rock and vegetation, mountaintop removal sends these particles into the air, where they are carried far beyond the site of the explosion and into surrounding communities. Previous studies have proven that contact with excess particulate matter is associated with breathing and heart complications, hospital admissions and even death.

This map captures the correlation between deaths from respiratory disease in Appalachia and mountaintop removal coal mining.

This map captures the correlation between deaths from respiratory disease in Appalachia and mountaintop removal coal mining.

Over the course of a year the researchers studied three West Virginia communities, two of which were near mountaintop removal mines, while the third was a non-mining site. By evaluating hospital records and the presence of airborne contaminants in the air, the WVU researchers calculated that there were significantly higher concentrations of dangerous particulate matter in the coal mining communities than in the mine-free zone.

Given the clouds of dust rising up around mountaintop removal explosions, it is no surprise that residents held suspicions about the toll this type of coal mining may take on their health. This study adds to the growing evidence that mountaintop removal coal mining is a harmful practice not only to mountains, but to people.

Click here to learn more about the human cost of mountaintop removal.

A Watched EPA Never Acts: 5 Years After the TVA Coal Ash Disaster

Sunday, December 22nd, 2013 - posted by amy
Graphic courtesy of Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, www.cleanenergy.org

Graphic courtesy of Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, www.cleanenergy.org

It has been five years since the TVA Coal Ash disaster in Tennessee, which sent 1.1 billion gallons of toxic coal ash into Emory and Clinch rivers. While the nation has watched and petitioned the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the agency responsible for issuing federal standards for coal ash disposal, little action has been taken. Perhaps this is similar to the old adage that says “a watched pot never boils.”

On Dec. 22, 2008, the spill alerted many for the first time to the very real threat posed by coal ash impoundments, which can range from 100 to 1,700 acres. While the Kingston spill brought the issue to the forefront, there are also concerns that extend past the threat of a singular catastrophic spill. The slow leakage of contaminated waste into ground and surface waters from unlined coal ash impoundments and landfills has become a major issue across the country, and across the Southeast in particular. Coal ash toxics have leached from impoundments and landfills carrying heavy metals into streams, creeks, lakes and drinking water wells.
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Paige Cordial: Minding Mental Health

Tuesday, December 10th, 2013 - posted by Rachel

By Rachel Ellen Simon

Photo courtesy of Paige Cordial

Photo courtesy of Paige Cordial

Post-traumatic stress disorder is most commonly associated with soldiers who have seen combat, but psychologist Paige Cordial has found similar symptoms in the coalfields of Appalachia. Cordial recently received her doctorate in counseling psychology at Virginia’s Radford University, where she wrote her dissertation on the relationship between physical proximity to mountaintop removal coal mining and the mental health and well-being of Appalachian communities. Among area residents, Cordial documented symptoms of PTSD, anxiety and emotional distress related to the physical destruction wrought by large-scale surface mining.

Originally from Fayette County, W.Va., Cordial first learned about mountaintop removal mining as a student at Berea College in Kentucky. Noting the way in which the natural richness of the region can help people cope with its social problems, Cordial began to wonder: “What does it mean for people who already live in a region plagued by economic problems to have the beauty and richness of the natural environment taken away from them too? What must that do to people emotionally?” She delved deeper into these questions at Radford.

Cordial’s dissertation contributes to the already-considerable scholarship documenting the health effects of mountaintop removal mining, which include elevated rates of cancer, birth defects and heart, lung and kidney diseases. Yet, Cordial is the first to focus specifically on mining’s psychological impacts.

“If you look at interviews and listen to what people [in mining-affected areas] are really saying, they’re talking about a lot of emotional effects – but no one is really highlighting that,” she says. Cordial’s research demonstrates how drastic environmental changes can trigger psychological stressors that, in turn, exacerbate the region’s pre-existing socioeconomic problems, such as high rates of poverty and drug use.

27 Visionaries

Deeply committed to staying in the region, Cordial now works as a clinical psychologist in southwest Virginia. There, she uses her expertise to help individuals with their personal battles, and continues her research to help fight a much larger one.

The Clock is Ticking on Coal Ash: EPA Given 60 Days to Set Deadline on Regulation of Toxic Coal Waste

Thursday, October 31st, 2013 - posted by brian
This week, a federal court gave the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency 60 days to propose a deadline for rules regulating toxic coal ash. Photo from southeastcoalash.org

This week, a federal court gave the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency 60 days to propose a deadline for rules regulating toxic coal ash. Photo from southeastcoalash.org

After years of delays and setbacks, the clock is finally ticking on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to propose a deadline for federal regulations of coal ash.

On Tuesday, a federal judge gave the EPA 60 days to file a written submission setting forth a proposed deadline for its review and revision of regulations concerning coal ash, along with its legal justification for the proposed deadline.

This victory for clean water and healthy communities came almost month after the court sided with Appalachian Voices and our allies, agreeing that the EPA has a duty to stop the delays and issue federally enforceable safeguards for the toxic coal waste. You can read the memorandum issued this week by the court here.
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Appalachia’s Contested History

Wednesday, October 9th, 2013 - posted by meredith

By Bill Kovarik

It has been 50 years since Harry Caudill wrote “Night Comes to the Cumberlands,” a landmark history that rejected stereotypes of Appalachian people as backward hillbillies and described the ruthless exploitation they suffered. The book spoke with eloquence to the American conscience and set off a firestorm of controversy. Within a year, Lyndon Johnson would launch his “war on poverty” from the front porch of an Appalachian cabin.

Labor historian Wess Harris, editor of "When Miners March"- a book about the 1921 battle over labor rights on Blair Mountain - points out flaws in the West Virginia state exhibit on the early 20th century mine wars in central Appalachia during one of his "truth tours" of the museum. Photo by Linda Burton

Labor historian Wess Harris, editor of “When Miners March”- a book about the 1921 battle over labor rights on Blair Mountain – points out flaws in the West Virginia state exhibit on the early 20th century mine wars in central Appalachia during one of his “truth tours” of the museum. Photo by Linda Burton

Coming in the middle of the civil rights movement, Caudill’s book also launched some serious soul-searching about poverty, national sacrifice zones and the worth of people who were in the way of corporations.

Since then, great books about Appalachian history and culture have filled library shelves with descriptions of the suffering poor, the arrogant rich, and the extraordinary cruelty of mining society in the early 20th century.

Not surprisingly, you also find people fighting back all throughout this history — from the Cabin Creek strike of 1912 to the Battle of Blair Mountain in 1921 to the wildcat 1969 black lung strike, and in the environmental protests of the past four decades against strip mining and then mountaintop removal coal mining. There is, in this, a complete and unbroken fabric of human spirit, fighting in support of mine safety, public health and environmental protection.

Why, then, do critics like Wess Harris say we have such poor public history in West Virginia’s state museum, and why does the state of West Virginia refuse to help protect the Blair Mountain Battlefield?

Perhaps the encouraging part is that history does still matter — for all of us. It matters to educators and to the coal industry and its friends. But it also matters to people in labor and environmental movements. There may be several interpretations of history, but very few people would disagree that basic documents and battlegrounds should be preserved. State institutions nearly always approach this obligation with at least some degree of neutrality – except West Virginia.

What’s different today is that the Rust Belt industries are no longer in a position to control their historical messages. The industry that once held the state of West Virginia tightly in its fist is now rapidly losing its grasp.

It’s a moment when history is needed.

Appalachia’s new historians

Labor historian Wess Harris begins his “truth tours” on the steps of the West Virginia State Museum by telling students: “Welcome to our house.” History belongs to the people, he says, not to the corporations. And he tells them to be wary — there are some squatters from the coal companies inside.

With this somewhat tongue-in-cheek approach, Harris has taken about a thousand students and scholars on his personalized truth tours through the museum in downtown Charleston, W.Va. Tours are free, and Harris has encouraged museum officials to join him. So far, none have.

“You know the idea that if you control people’s past, you can control their future? That’s what this is all about,” he says.

A labor historian and editor of two best-selling books about West Virginia — “When Miners March” and “Dead Ringers” — Harris has been particularly concerned about the company store and mine war exhibits.

The re-creation of the old coal company store involves a counter, a cash register and canned goods from the time, framed by a long description of the role of the company store in the center of a mine community’s life. The stores used to pay miners in “scrip,” which was money that could only be spent at the company store. A song about that by Tennessee Ernie Ford — “I owe my soul to the company store,” —is still widely known. Historians are working out just how deeply and dangerously a miner could go into debt, thanks to the recovery of company store records in Whipple, W.Va.

But at the West Virginia museum, the store is easy to explain: “Like credit cards, scrip allowed some families to fall deeply into debt. Others, however, enjoyed the freedom to purchase expensive items, like washing machines…”

When he learned of the museum’s altered history, Harris was outraged, and he wrote the head of the state museum, Randall Reid-Smith, in 2010. “The treatment of scrip as some sort of favor to the miners is an insult to the people of our state,” Harris wrote.

When the state museum responded by saying his criticism was inaccurate, the head of the United Mine Workers of America, Cecil Roberts, joined Harris in demanding a reconsideration of the exhibit.

“Your presentation makes it seem as if the scrip system was little different from a credit card, where miners and their families could pay off expensive purchases over time,” Roberts wrote. “Nowhere [in the exhibit] is it stated that miners had absolutely no choice as to whether they used scrip or not. Nowhere is it mentioned that going somewhere else instead of the company store to purchase goods and equipment was an offense frequently punishable by a beating from the company’s Baldwin-Felts thugs followed by dismissal from employment and eviction from the company house.”

Roberts was also ignored until he wrote West Virginia Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, who — in the middle of an election campaign in 2011 — ordered the state museum to review the exhibit. They did, and a few words were changed: “Company-issued scrip forced some families deep in debt and gave many companies strict economic control over the lives of their workers. In some communities, however, families were able to purchase expensive items, like washing machines…”

The changes in the exhibits did not pacify the UMWA. “They made some minor modifications to some of the exhibits,” said spokesman Phil Smith in September 2013. “But we still have concerns.”

Other critics also still have concerns. “I remember specific conversations about the need for [the West Virginia] museum to include more bottom-up history, more labor history, and more about the 1960s and the war on poverty,” says Ron Eller of the University of Kentucky. “I remember specifically pointing out that the museum should not just reflect the usual pro-coal, pro-development history of the state but that it should also reflect the history of labor struggles, resistance to environmental destruction, and efforts to address economic challenges, especially poverty, in the state.”

History wars and mine wars

A two-sided timeline of Appalachian history reveals an interesting contrast between events that are well-known and events that are sometimes forgotten.

A two-sided timeline of Appalachian history reveals an interesting contrast between events that are well-known and events that are sometimes forgotten.

It’s easy to see why labor historians are unhappy with the West Virginia State Museum, with exhibits like “U.S. Army Stops Armed Insurrection in West Virginia” and “The Failure of Violence.”

The first is presented in silent movie newsreel fashion in a small mock-up theater. Most of the visuals include miners with guns on one side and U.S. Army troops on the other.

Titles in the silent movie read:

“Over the last year, a near-constant state of war has existed between miners and coal companies. Armed troops have been dispatched repeatedly to quell the bloodshed. The recent flare-up has been sparked by the cold-blooded murder of Matewan police chief Smiling Sid Hatfield — a popular friend of the miner. They are stopped at Blair Mountain by Logan County sheriff Don Chafin and a small army of deputies. The miners and Chafin’s army shoot it out for three days along a 10-mile front. Sixteen men are killed. President Harding dispatches U.S. Army infantry …. The miners, many of them veterans of the Great War, surrender rather than confront their former comrades in arms. Some union leaders are placed under arrest for treason and murder. Most miners are allowed to board trains and return to their families. Thus ends the Battle of Blair Mountain, the largest insurrection since the Civil War.”

According to Harris, the entire basis of the exhibit is inaccurate. The union actually tried to call off the march on Blair Mountain in 1921. The Army was called in to separate the miners from the mine guards. Nor does the exhibit present any context for the march, other than the cold-blooded murder by some unnamed individual. No one would know that the murderers were coal mine guards whose co-workers and bosses were on the other side at Blair Mountain. And if the museum is going to say that the union leaders were charged with treason, it ought to add that they were acquitted, Harris says.

There’s another panel about the Battle of Blair Mountain called: “The Failure of Violence.” The exhibit claimed — falsely — that in 1921, union organizers turned to violence so that they could get more union members.

“Ten thousand citizens take up arms (in 1921) to end the slave labor camps … and they call it a failure?” Harris says. “It was a serious challenge to the old system. It was no failure.”

But at the very least, the exhibit notes that the Battle of Blair Mountain was the “largest insurrection since the U.S. Civil War.” Given that, it’s hard to understand the role of the West Virginia Division of Culture and History in challenging historical protection for the Blair Mountain battlefield.

The Battle Over the Battle of Blair Mountain

Blair Mountain is the labor movement’s equivalent of the Gettysburg battlefield. The idea of preserving Blair Mountain has been around for decades, but an on-the-ground history of the battlefield in the 1990s and 2000s helped make the case.
Battle of Blair sign

Over the last 15 years, Harvard Ayers (one of the founders of Appalachian Voices), along with historian Barbara Rasmussen and Blair, W.Va., resident Kenny King, performed formal archaeological surveys of the battlefield and found tens of thousands of bullets and other artifacts. Through the pattern of discoveries, they were able to trace shifting battle lines and show where both mine guards and miners were located.

This evidence helped make the case for a National Historic Landmark designation that, they hoped, would preserve the mountain from mountaintop removal coal mining. Their evidence was impressive enough that the U.S. National Park Service granted the site historic register status in March 2009, a move supported by the UMWA and a variety of environmental and historical preservation groups.

But the listing immediately led to an unprecedented controversy. According to law, a state has to want the designation, and a few months after it was granted, the West Virginia Division of Culture and History wrote to the Park Service asking that the battlefield be de-listed. The state office said it found minor problems with the listing, such as a handful of landowners who had not voted for or against the listing.

Park Service officials then agreed to de-list the site in January of 2010, taking a step that is usually reserved for situations when historic buildings have burned down. No other de-listing has ever taken place for such political reasons, and no explanation was ever forthcoming from the Park Service, which has maintained a stony silence about the incident.

A lawsuit challenging the de-listing was filed by a coalition of environmental and preservation groups in 2010. A court ruled against the coalition in 2012 on a technicality having to do with questions of standing. In the summer of 2013, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers announced it would review mining permit applications.

This could mean that the coal industry will be allowed to destroy Blair Mountain. Or, since the Corps of Engineers is supposed to consider the historic value of land to be mined, it could mean more time for Blair Mountain and preservationists who are seeking a reprieve.

Finding closure at the company store

Joy Lynn pictured with a display case of "scrip," a form of money paid to miners which could only be used in the store. Photo by Linda Burton

Joy Lynn pictured with a display case of “scrip,” a form of money paid to miners which could only be used in the store. Photo by Linda Burton

One of West Virginia’s innovative new historians is Joy Lynn, who grew up near the town of Whipple, W.Va. As a child, she was fascinated by an enormous, rambling old wood frame building that seemed to glow with history. “I’m going to own that someday,” she told her father back in the 1950s.

The dream came true in 2006, when she and husband Chuck bought the Whipple Company Store and prepared to open an antique shop. As neighbors dropped by and the word got out, people began touring the old company store, and they started telling stories. Lynn was hooked.

One of the most interesting people to show up at the company store was the former bookkeeper who explained, in detail, how the system of company money — called scrip — and indebtedness actually worked.

Over the years, dozens of others showed up with very human and often harrowing stories to tell. It was not possible to leave town, or to retrieve items from the mail, if you owed the coal company any money, Lynn learned from her visitors. On the other hand, if a husband died, it was not possible for the family to stay unless the mother remarried. She had four weeks, and then the mine guards would evict her and the children.

At the Whipple County Store and Appalachian Heritage Museum, Joy Lynn gathers stories from families with personal connections to the region's coal history.

At the Whipple County Store and Appalachian Heritage Museum, Joy Lynn gathers stories from families with personal connections to the region’s coal history.

The people who experienced this, or sometimes their children, show up almost every day. “Sometimes they just unglue,” Lynn says. One told her: “I realize what you’re doing. You’re letting people find closure in their life.”

Lynn will insist that she’s just a tour guide. But her visitors say something else. “When I came up on this porch you were just a tour guide,” said one. “Now I just want to know if I can hug you.”

Online Feature: Appalachian History Podcasts

DaveTabler

Mountain history is alive and well, thanks to historians like Dave Tabler. His blog — AppalachianHistory.net — hosts more than 1,300 entries and hundreds of podcasts on topics ranging from mountain music to labor history to personal experiences. “I want to share with my readers and listeners the idea that history is a living thing, a deep reservoir from which to nourish today’s culture, a tool to shape our current notions of what our heritage is and therefore what to do next to preserve and extend it,” Tabler says. Read the full story at appvoices.org/thevoice/podcasts

Workers Exposed to Toxins at Kingston Ash Spill Cleanup

Wednesday, October 9th, 2013 - posted by meredith

By Kimber Ray

A federal lawsuit alleges that Jacobs Engineering Group knowingly exposed workers to toxic substances during cleanup of the 2008 coal fly ash spill at the Tennessee Valley Authority’s Kingston Fossil Plant in Harriman, Tenn.

The lawsuit, filed Aug. 22, claims Jacobs Engineering deliberately misrepresented the health hazards of fly ash, failed to provide adequate protection to workers, and engaged in improper air quality monitoring. According to the Knox News, the cleanup crew was told that “you could drink fly ash daily and suffer no adverse health effects.”

Workers contend that not only were requests for protective equipment such as dust masks and respirators denied, but also that some workers prescribed such equipment by their doctors were ordered not to wear it.

Jacobs Engineering is also implicated in manipulating air monitoring systems to cover up the extent of hazardous site conditions. To prevent dust movement near the air monitors, the company kept the area near the monitors wet and placed the systems in locations with favorable wind conditions.

While a number of research studies warned of the health hazards posed by coal ash, Dr. Gregory Button, of the University of Tennessee, told the Times Free Press that the TVA assisted government officials in authoring a report that found no harm to the community’s health was expected from the spill.

Mining Waste Polluting the New River

Despite mounting evidence that dangerously high levels of zinc are flowing into Appalachia’s New River from the Indian Branch tributary in Wythe County, Va., Virginia’s Department of Environmental Quality has done little to address the issue.

Local citizens began expressing concerns to the department earlier this year when dissolved minerals in the water caused a milky discoloration. At that time, the level of zinc in Indian Branch was over 30 times the EPA established safe limit. By July that level had soared to 130 times the allowable limit.

A former zinc mine site, now owned by Dixon Lumber Company, was identified as the source of the pollution. A pipe that channeled Indian Branch beneath a field of mine tailings had a leak that was complicated by this year’s unusually heavy rains, contaminating the waterway.

Zinc poisoning can result in headaches, nausea and diarrhea; long-term exposure compromises immunity and cardiovascular health.

Following a Washington Times article by Lisa King regarding the zinc contamination, the department has met with associates from Dixon Lumber to establish a plan for addressing water quality issues.

Summer Rains Dampen Fall Colors

Among the vibrant display of autumn leaves, red may be missing from this season’s palette. According to Kathy Mathews, an associate professor of biology at Western Carolina University, there are three main factors that bestow red coloration: ample sunshine, dry air, and cool temperatures. With this year’s uncommonly wet summer, yellow and orange could be the dominant fall colors. However, the cool nights of September might yet redeem the brilliant reds of fall.

A Legislative Lesson in Taking the Easy Way Out

Wednesday, June 5th, 2013 - posted by brian
A North Carolina bill includes proposes allowing groundwater contamination up to a landowners property line, a plan supported by Duke Energy, which is being sued for coal ash pollution at its Riverbend Plant. Photo by the Catawba Riverkeeper.

A North Carolina bill includes proposes allowing groundwater contamination up to a landowner’s property line, a plan supported by Duke Energy, which is being sued for coal ash pollution at its Riverbend Plant. Photo by the Catawba Riverkeeper.

In the midst of allegations against Duke Energy for coal ash pollution at multiple coal-fired plants, a bill in the North Carolina House of Representatives could give polluters a free pass and build a buffer against lawsuits.

Already passed by the N.C. Senate, the Regulatory Reform Act of 2013 (S 612) proposes a “boundary loophole” that would allow groundwater to be contaminated by toxic chemicals such as arsenic, selenium and mercury, as long as it remains inside the owner’s property line. That terrifying prospect is hardly assuaged by the sponsors’ claim that their beyond-polluter-friendly bill seeks to “provide regulatory relief to the citizens of North Carolina.”

If you’ve been paying attention to the recent exploits of the N.C. General Assembly, you’d assume that the bill goes beyond creating a boundary loophole. You’d be right. The entirely anti-environmental bill includes provisions to fast-track the permitting process for certain environmental permits and to prevent local environmental rules from being stricter than state or federal statutes or regulations.

The legislature already passed a reform bill forbidding new state rules from being more stringent than federal standards last year. Of course, like most of the ill-conceived crusades being waged in Raleigh, that’s easier said than done.
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