Front Porch Blog

Time for Environmentalists and Coal Miners to Gather at the River

FIVE more coal miners are dead. Now, turn off your lights while you read this. If every coal miner in the United States decided to walk out of the mines, crawl off their draglines and bulldozers, hop out of their overburdened dump trucks and refuse to work until the U.S. Congress and President George W. Bush sat down and came up with true mining safety legislation — and more importantly, the wherewithal to enforce that legislation — you would sit in this darkness. Now turn back on your lights. Over 50 percent of our electrical needs are met by coal miners.

And yet, they continue to die needlessly, and coal mining communities continue to carry the burden of unsafe roads, unsafe coal slurry ponds, unsafe water contaminated by discharged chemicals and waste, and in the last decades, reckless mountaintop removal strip-mining methods that threaten to wipe out their very homes and livelihoods.

This is a fact: Over 104,000 Americans have died in the coal mines in our country’s short history of energy use. At one point, it was safer to serve on the frontlines of war — such as the Spanish-American War or World War I — than take your pick to the end of a mining shaft in West Virginia. Untold thousands have suffered horrible injuries or black lung disease.

But miners, especially in Appalachia, have not been victims of this historical process; they have been in the vanguard of reminding our country that its energy needs, and the way it seeks to meet them, must rise to the highest American standards of workplace justice and safety. In 1921, West Virginia miners launched the largest armed insurrection in the country since the Civil War, marching on Blair Mountain in a symbolic act to “liberate” areas that had been prevented from free and fair union organizing.

The latest mining tragedies and their clearly documented trangressions and oversights make me wonder if the time has come to march again — not on Blair Mountain this time, but on Capitol Hill.

My grandfather was buried with pieces from a coal mine. After barely surviving a cave-in in southern Illinois, his face was embedded with coal bits. The doctor didn’t bother to remove them all; meanwhile, black lung ravaged his body. When I moved to the Southwest as a child, I assumed our family had left the mines behind; that it was part of the underworld of our southern enclave in the Midwest, or Appalachia, or the remote ends of Wyoming and Colorado; that as long as I didn’t see it, coal mining was no longer part of my future, or my past.

This is the illusion most Americans live every day. The danger of the mining industry, in whatever form, never enters our lives beyond news stories about catastrophes. We never take a moment to realize that every time we flick on a light switch or appreciate the goods and services of American shops and factories, we are relying on coal, and the outrageously precarious existence of coal miners, and coal mining communities, and the mountains that hold them. More than 8 million people vacation in Appalachia each year. Thousands hike the Appalachian Trail, and yet few look beyond the ridge at the destruction.

In truth, there are dueling mining crises taking place today in the coalfields: workplace safety and mountaintop removal. As hearings take place on the enforcement and upgrade of mining safety laws, including overloaded hauling trucks, coal slurry ponds, mining waste and discharged water, we also need to make the reality of mountaintop removal — an extreme form of strip mining — part of the discussion. The huge role of mountaintop removal in Appalachia — literally, toppling mountaintops into valleys and waterways to obtain the coal in a cheap but devastating process — has set in motion a potential of erosion, flooding and dam breaks. In the past decade, more than 1 million acres of forests have been erased, literally, from our American mountains. An area that rivals the size of some eastern states is on the verge of being wiped out.

Mining workplace advocates such as the United Mine Workers of America and environmentalists, community activists and lawmakers need to come together to discuss these two issues at the same time, not on opposing sides. Common ground must be found between the reality of our coal demands, and the sustainability of our land and communities. More so, we must make coal mining — including mountaintop removal — a national issue, not a regional affair on the back burner until disaster strikes. If we can put a man on the moon, why can’t we find a way to mine coal or develop some other form of renewable energy that doesn’t take the lives, livelihoods and lands of our American citizens?

Far from being a backwoods outpost, coal miners have always been in the forefront of national issues. For example, the United Mine Workers have always been an integrated union. Appalachian coal miner Carter Woodson became an eminent historian and founder of Black History Month. While Appalachian miners and mill workers have led some of our country’s dramatic campaigns for labor rights and safety, we tend to forget that Walter Reuther, Detroit’s legendary auto workers leader, came out of the West Virginia labor movement. After decades of labor rebellions, Appalachian labor organizers shifted to the issue of desegregation and trained the shock troops of the Civil Rights Movement — including Rosa Parks — at the Highlander Folk School in eastern Tennessee. And now coal miners and coal communities must make the link between the way we protect our miners and the way we protect our environment, that disrespect for one leads to abuse of the other.

A few years ago, my family’s 200-year-old homestead and hollow in southern Illinois was destroyed by strip mining. Two hundred years of history now lie in a black amphitheater of death. Every time I flick on the light switch, I think of the explosions ripping our heritage from its roots. I think of the lives that the explosions have taken with them. I think of my coal-mining grandfather, who loved the land he tended as a steward, sitting in the darkness after his cave-in. I wonder who is next, either from failed safety laws or flooding or governmental and company neglect, and indifference by citizens.

As our nation comes to grips with our energy needs and mining realities, it needs to come up to the mountain and become part of this mining process. If Washington, D.C., won’t come to the mountain, then the mountain needs to go to Washington, D.C.

Until then, coal miners and coal mining communities need to use the power in their hands to remind the rest of America what a day would be without coal.





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