Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Field Trip: Coal wars, mountaintop removal

The mountains are going away, not too far from where I live. Driving down Interstate 77 through West Virginia appears largely idyllic as you pass through rolling, green mountains. But just a mile or so away the hills and valleys are merging into a flat, lifeless, poisoned wasteland.

This wanton destruction of Appalachia is called mountaintop removal (MTR). If there's any evidence that Mordor lurks outside of the fictional realm of Middle Earth, surely it resembles the scars and devastation wreaked by MTR. Sauronesque analogies to the people who run Massey Energy and other coal companies may seem a stretch, but not much of one.

Last month I joined a few dozen colleagues in a fact-finding trip to the West Virginia coal fields as part of the Surface Mining Study at Radford University. Before visiting an MTR site, we first explored the history of the West Virginia Mine Wars, where coal company owners and hired detectives fought pitched battles with miners who were trying to organize unions. One of the most gripping sites was this concrete pillbox, situated on an outcropping overlooking Cabin Creek, where the coal companies and their hired thugs could train machine guns and rifles on the miners in the valley:

The West Virginia Division of Culture and History provides a succinct summary of events:
In 1902, the UMWA finally achieved some recognition in the Kanawha-New River Coalfield, its first success in West Virginia. Following the union successes, coal operators had formed the Kanawha County Coal Operators Association in 1903, the first such organization in the state. It hired private detectives from the Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency in Bluefield as mine guards to harass union organizers. Due to these threats, the UMWA discouraged organizers from working in southern West Virginia.

By 1912, the union had lost control of much of the Kanawha- New River Coalfield. That year, UMWA miners on Paint Creek in Kanawha County demanded wages equal to those of other area mines. The operators rejected the wage increase and miners walked off the job on April 18, beginning one of the most violent strikes in the nation's history. Miners along nearby Cabin Creek, having previously lost their union, joined the Paint Creek strikers and demanded:

  • the right to organize
  • recognition of their constitutional rights to free speech and assembly
  • an end to blacklisting union organizers
  • alternatives to company stores
  • an end to the practice of using mine guards
  • prohibition of cribbing
  • installation of scales at all mines for accurately weighing coal
  • unions be allowed to hire their own checkweighmen to make sure the companies' checkweighmen were not cheating the miners.

When the strike began, operators brought in mine guards from the Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency to evict miners and their families from company houses. The evicted miners set up tent colonies and lived in other makeshift housing. The mine guards' primary responsibility was to break the strike by making the lives of the miners as uncomfortable as possible.

As the intimidation by mine guards increased, national labor leaders, including Mary Harris "Mother" Jones, began arriving on the scene. Jones, a native of Ireland, was already a major force in the American labor movement before first coming to West Virginia during the 1897 strikes. Although she reported the year of her birth as 1830, recent research indicates she was probably born in 1845. As a leader of the UMWA's efforts to organize the state, Jones became known for her fiery (and often obscene) verbal attacks on coal operators and politicians.

Not only did the UMWA send speechmakers, it also contributed large amounts of weapons and ammunition. On September 2, Governor William E. Glasscock imposed martial law, dispatching 1,200 state militia to disarm both the miners and mine guards. Over the course of the strike, Glasscock sent in troops on three different occasions.

After this historical background, our next stop was Kayford Mountain, where Larry Gibson is defending his family's land against the destruction of Kayford Mountain, which is literally being blown away around his land. Gibson's courageous stand garnered him praise from CNN, who named him a "hero" for his efforts to educate and raise awareness about the devistation of MTR, particularly through the Keeper of the Mountain Foundation. Below are some photos from the trip, first of Larry talking with us, then of what's left of Kayford Mountain. Take note of the ridgeline behind Kayford - the mountains as far as you can see are slated for MTR.

Larry Gibson talking with us on his land, with the MTR of
Kayford Mountain actively going on behind him.

There's plenty of great information available about MTR. Here are a few good sources:

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Late summer walks in Blacksburg

Here's a set of photos from various morning and evening walks in my Blacksburg neighborhood, mostly strolls up the hill to the public golf course with Asta. Yeah, I document this a lot, but I walk it every day. Captions are below each photo.

A foggy morning in Blacksburg town in late August.
Trees on the golf course.

The sun coming up through the fog.

Sunrise, a few days later.

The ol' Asta and the Thin Man shot, this time with the sun setting behind us.

A spiky implement of golf course maintenance.

Late afternoon, looking east on the road beside the golf course.
Turn left and you'll see cows and crows.

See! There be crows ! (OK, just one posed for me. There were plenty more, but they were camera-shy. They showed up en masse a few weeks ago. )
The field across the road pictured above. Pastoral. eh? This is in Blacksburg, and this small slice of pasture (about 30 acres) has been established as a conservancy to ward off development.