By Al Markowitz
And daddy won’t you take me back to
Down by the Green River where
Well, I’m sorry my son, but you’re
too late in asking
Mister Peabody’s coal train
has hauled it away.
– John Prine
I’ve written on a number of occasions about the toxic coal dust that coats much of Norfolk and the strange contradiction of our being both the largest port for the export of coal and the city most vulnerable to the effects of its burning. Our soil is poisoned with decades of heavy metals from the dust wafting off the open cars of trains and the tons of black grit spewed by the coal pier. When I see those endless trains loaded, car after car with coal, I’m reminded of what I haven’t written about; where it comes from and what it really is.
Years ago, I toured the home of an older gentleman and activist from coal country who it was my great honor to know. George Meyers was raised in Lanaconing Maryland, a tiny mining town between two mountains. Like most in coal country, it had been a company town, run and policed by the coal company with one company store. The miners paid in scrip, or company pay chits, rather than money. The company was also the landlord. Meyers had a long family history of labor activism and was the grandson of activists known as the Molly McGuires, a secretive Irish-American group that actively resisted brutal coal company tyranny. At the time of my visit, the town, like many in coal country, was all but disappearing. The mountains on either side had been ground down by strip mining.
A new and important documentary on the history and reality of the coal industry called “Blood on the Mountain” directed by Mari-Lynn Evans and Jordan Freeman will be showing at the Naro on Wednesday, August 5th. Producer Deborah Wallace, who once live in Norfolk, will be speaking at this event as will Glen Besa of the Sierra Club.
Many who support the coal industry – primarily those who represent it – decry a “war on coal” and focus on jobs that could be lost if we stop mining it. As West Virginia-raised attorney Bruce Stanley says, “There is a war but it is a war waged by coal on West Virginia.” Land is progressively destroyed, water is repeatedly poisoned, towns destroyed and the health of working people with few options sacrificed to accidents, black lung and other ailments.
As director, Mari-Lynn Evans writes, “When I was 17, the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers declared eminent domain and flooded our ancestral homeland for the Burnsville Lake. Like so many other West Virginians, we were forced to leave. We joined family in Akron who had left during the great migration in the 1950’s and 1960’s when the coal industry went into decline.
I was proud of my heritage so it was shocking when everyone had a West Virginia joke to tell. No, we did not make moonshine. Nor did we have an outhouse. Instead, we waited each week until Friday came. Then we loaded up the car and drove back to West Virginia. I remember as we got closer to the state line, I could see the mist come off the mountains and I knew I was home again.
Years later I would understand that those media stereotypes had been perpetuated by the coal industry in an effort to marginalize us.
I did not know about Blair Mountain and the Coal Wars until I saw the film “Matewan.” We were not taught this story in our classroom. The coal companies purchased our books and censored our truth. Now they want to blow up this sacred site for their insatiable greed and erase that monument to human rights.
They still attempt to indoctrinate our children. They understand, as we do, that unless people are dehumanized and left desperate, no one would support the way these rogue companies operate. The response to this feudal system is for politicians to tell us to either accept the status quo or leave because people need jobs. Just exactly how many of us should die “premature” deaths and have our children suffer daily with asthma for those 3,500 jobs?”
She adds, “When I see coal trains, over a third of them bound for India, Russia, or China, chugging through communities blasted off the face of the earth by mountaintop removal mining, it hurts my soul. To realize that for the last 60 years the Southern coalfields have been a sacrifice zone and that our elected officials continue to support this mono-economy is beyond comprehension. That politicians continue to ignore the fact that people are dying early deaths because of mountaintop-removal mining is unforgivable. It is perhaps true, as Sen. Rockefeller and Sen. Manchin stated, that there is a War on Coal. If so, it was declared generations ago on the people of this state. It is seen in our communities where coal companies level our ancient mountains, fill our streams and hollers and poison our air and water forever. “
Ms. Evans mentions her late discovery of struggles like Blair Mountain and Matewan. There were many more, often bloody conflicts brought on by extreme abuse and oppression. Company towns were like labor camps with armed guards. Once there it was almost impossible to leave because being paid in company scrip means there was no money and, like sharecroppers, miners were always given credit and trapped in debt to the company. Injury and death in the mines was common. The blatant disregard for the health of miners and, for that matter, of the public and planet by the coal industry continues. Aside from major mine disasters like the recent Upper Big Branch mine disaster due to negligence of Massey Coal, we are still seeing between 20 and 50 deaths on the job per year. Long term injuries like black lung often go uncompensated. As reported on NPR, “A joint investigation by NPR and Mine Safety and Health News found that thousands of mine operators fail to pay safety penalties, even as they continue to manage dangerous, and sometimes deadly, mining operations. Most unpaid penalties are between two and 10 years overdue; some go back two decades. And federal regulators seem unable or unwilling to make mine owners pay.” This doesn’t even take into consideration the health problems caused by exposure to poisoned water from accidents like the Elk River chemical spill last year
As local residents and former union coal miners like Terry Steele says in “Blood on the Mountain,” “They couldn’t care less about this place,” noting that 80 to 90 percent of the mineral rights in his coal-rich county are owned by absentee corporations, adding that the coal companies “have no connection to land or people, they get everything they can get from it. They’re like locusts.” As Jeff Biggers notes in a Huffington Post review of the film, the “heritage of West Virginia has always ranged between repression and resistance — courageous coal miners fighting bloody battles for union representation and fair wages and work conditions, fighting battles between themselves and, ultimately, waging a war on the mountains themselves as strip miners. It’s a legacy of a century-long war of attrition by revolving coal companies to break down and divide the miners, their communities, and their land.”
Most of the coal we see rattling through our city is the product of mountain top removal. The tops of mountains are literally blown off to expose coal seams. Rubble and toxic waste are dumped into valleys destroying entire regions and threatening to destroy 1.4 million acres of mountaintops and forests by 2020. Over 2000 streams have already been poisoned. This destructive practice poisons drinking water, increases flooding, destroys ancient mountains, beautiful forests and wildlife habitat. It has destroyed many towns and continues to wipe out entire communities. Mountain Top removal also requires fewer workers. Like most industries, reducing employment costs increases profits, so again, the coal companies themselves are eliminating jobs even as they continue to destroy the environment.
Next time you’re stuck in traffic watching a seemingly endless chain of coal cars roll by, realize that what you are seeing is not only a global disaster in progress, with rising and increasingly acid seas and more extreme weather. Those cars are also loaded with the remains of destroyed mountains and a continuing legacy of death and ruined lives.