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Combating Mountaintop Removal

Combating Mountaintop Removal: New Directions in the Fight against Big Coal

Bryan T. McNeil
Copyright Date: 2011
Pages: 216
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  • Book Info
    Combating Mountaintop Removal
    Book Description:

    Critically examining the fierce conflicts over an intense and increasingly prevalent form of strip mining, Combating Mountaintop Removal: New Directions in the Fight against Big Coal documents the changing relationships among the coal industry, communities, environment, and economy from the perspective of local grassroots activist organizations and their broader networks._x000B__x000B_Drawing on powerful personal testimonies of the hazards of mountaintop removal in Boone County, West Virginia, Bryan T. McNeil shows how Appalachian community coalitions have fostered important connections in their opposition to coal mining practices. Focusing on the grassroots activist organization Coal River Mountain Watch (CRMW), composed of individuals who have personal ties to the coal industry in the region, the study reveals a turn away from once-strong traditional labor unions. With the decline in membership and political power of the United Mine Workers union in West Virginia, citizens have turned to alternative forms of activism to coordinate opposition to mountaintop removal mining, centering mainly on the industry's effect on community and the environment._x000B__x000B_The shift towards community organizing, particularly around environmental concerns, represents an effort to address social issues in a new space outside of organized labor. By framing social and moral arguments in terms of the environment, these innovative hybrid movements take advantage of environmentalism's higher profile in contemporary politics, compared to that of labor. In investigating the local effects of globalization and global economics, Combating Mountaintop Removal tracks the profound reimagining of social and personal ideas such as identity, history, and landscape and considers their roles in organizing an agenda for progressive community activism.

    eISBN: 978-0-252-09346-3
    Subjects: History, Environmental Science

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-18)

    From Chestnut Strip you can see forever. The mountaintops of southern West Virginia rise toward the horizon like waves on the ocean. Butch, my guide for the day, is a member of the United Mine Workers who has worked underground for more than twenty-five years. Butch worked the morning shift before our Saturday afternoon meeting, when he took me to the place where he used to hunt grouse. Standing on the flat, grassy plateau left after the mountain was strip mined, we watched the slow but ceaseless movement of a dragline nearly ten miles away. Moving 100 tons of rubble...

  5. Part I. The Worst Goddamn Thing I′ve Ever Seen

    • [PART I Introduction]
      (pp. 19-24)

      The Coal River Valley winds from its headwaters in Boone and Raleigh Counties north through some of West Virginia’s richest coal deposits to the Kanawha River near Charleston. The physical and social landscapes along the way are a study in contrasts: at times cold and hard, at others lush and vibrant; sometimes warm and communal, sometimes divided and confrontational; sometimes organic and renewable, sometimes mechanical and destructive. The coexistence of a distinctive way of life profoundly shaped by the mountain landscape and a nonrenewable fossil fuel resource has created these contrasts.

      Mountaintop removal coal mining (MTR) is strip mining on...

    • 1. Welcome to Coal River
      (pp. 25-43)

      Snow is pretty on the mountains, a white blanket that throws the jagged contours into relief. Sheets of ice pour down the cliffs along the road, like frozen cascades reaching toward the ground. Ice clogs the river where it bends and behind the rubble dams the coal companies use. Where it is unobstructed, sheets of ice swell at the edges, leaving a narrow sliver flowing down the middle.

      Just as the snow made the features of the mountains more apparent, so did it make the features of the town more apparent. My street was not scraped or treated for the...

    • 2. Fighting Back . . . Again
      (pp. 44-55)

      The outrage that greeted mountaintop removal coal mining in the late 1990s was by no means new to the Appalachian region. Time and again conditions of social relations and political and economic domination have given rise to reform movements. In comments about the lessons learned from the volumeFighting Back in Appalachia, Stephen Fisher argued that for an enduring social movement to achieve substantive change in Appalachia it must transcend single issues in ongoing, democratic, membership-driven organizations.¹ He cited groups like Save Our Cumberland Mountains in Tennessee, Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, and the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition as existing examples...

    • 3. What Are We Fighting For?
      (pp. 56-66)

      “We considered it public land,” is a common refrain used to describe community relationships with the surrounding forests and mountains. Documented by historians to preindustrial Appalachian farmsteads, this tradition of common use is the basis for a local understanding of mountains as having an intrinsic value of their own.¹ Just as it did when the formal national economy first made inroads into the mountains, trying to include this value in a formal financial accounting scheme has proven to be like fitting a square peg into a round hole. West Virginians value the mountains as a place tobe, where all...

  6. Part II. Banana Republic, Neoliberal Style

    • [PART II Introduction]
      (pp. 67-70)

      “I sure would like to see it,” said Roger, an elderly retired coal miner, of rumors that Massey Energy would build a new tipple in the Sycamore community.

      “Why?” I asked.

      “’Cause things might pick up ’round here,” he replied.

      Judy looked at him cockeyed, wondering why anyone would want to see a new coal processing plant near their home, much less one run by Massey. “Do you really want that up there?” she asked.

      “No,” Roger backpedaled, “I don’t want to see none of it, when it comes right down to it.”¹

      Roger was new to the activist community....

    • 4. Strained Solidarities
      (pp. 71-89)

      Over its lifetime, the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) has moved through three distinct eras that I label confrontational organizing, labor brokerage, and crisis management. John L. Lewis’s legacy as iconic union president transformed the union from a fractured organizing body to a streamlined labor broker, negotiating contracts and winning the best possible wages and benefits—one that brokered the best deals possible with industry. However, the wildcat tradition of the 1970s directly confronted union leadership in its labor-broker role. In Coal River, I argue, the community and environmental activism of the late 1990s emerged as a challenge, only...

    • 5. The Chase
      (pp. 90-112)

      In the nineteenth century, railroaders and other industrial scouts developed plans and infrastructure for harvesting Appalachia’s rich natural resources.¹ Created alongside the company towns and steel rails was an economic system whose distinctive relationships shape the region still. Land company agents took control of land and mineral rights using a variety of techniques that included paying delinquent property taxes for or paying paltry sums to subsistence farmers who had no idea how these actions would reshape their lives, their communities, and the land itself.² Initially, these efforts were affiliated with railroads that came to own enormous tracts of surface land...

    • 6. Whose Development Is It?
      (pp. 113-120)

      Perhaps the most striking characteristic of West Virginia’s economic development is that there seems to be no focus on the quality of jobs created. There has been no long-term plan to develop any particular kind of workforce, other than the poorly paid service sector. Nor has there been a focus on reducing poverty and inequality as part of economic development efforts.¹ Among the projects supported by the state in 2003 and 2004 in the name of economic development were a Victorian-themed outlet mall in Wheeling, a Cabela’s outdoor outfitters warehouse and retail store near Wheeling, a new minor league baseball...

  7. Part III. Symbolic Capital, the Commons, and Community Activism

    • [PART III Introduction]
      (pp. 121-122)

      In this section, I present two broad sets of features that distinguish the community activism of Coal River Mountain Watch and the Friends of the Mountains from other forms of social activism. Chapter 7 explores the significance of prominent women’s leadership in the movement to stop mountaintop removal. The role of women is related to the decline of the union and the shifting cites of organizing within the community. Though women have always been active in social issues in the coalfields, the union’s historically dominant role in organizing activism limited women’s ability to rise to leadership positions. Organizing outside of...

    • 7. Gender, Solidarity, and Symbolic Capital
      (pp. 123-137)

      The prominence of women in leadership positions is a signature characteristic of Appalachian community activism, including in the Coal River Mountain Watch (CRMW) and the larger Friends of the Mountains (FOM) networks. Women’s leadership in Appalachian activism is nothing new. Mother Jones was not a native Appalachian, though she is certainly a standard bearer for strong women in the region. Elizabeth Engelhardt (2003) traces the “tangled roots” of feminism and environmentalism in the region’s literature. From Widow Combs (who lay down in front of a bulldozer in 1977) to Florence Reece to Coal River Mountain Watch, women have long played...

    • 8. Commons Environmentalism and Community Activism
      (pp. 138-156)

      During the 2004 session of the West Virginia legislature, a prominent Senate committee chairman sought advice on how he could legally bar “environmentalists” from committee meetings. In response to the idea, Patty Sebok of Coal River Mountain Watch said, “That’s okay. I’m not an environmentalist; I’m an activist.”¹

      The distinction is not superficial. Challenging conventional and stereotypical ideas about environmentalism found in the public imaginary, in common political discourse, and to some extent, in the literature on the environmental movement, is a defining characteristic of CRMW and the Friends of the Mountains network of activists. In this chapter, comments from...

  8. Conclusion: John Henry, Efficiency, and Community
    (pp. 157-170)

    John Henry was a steel-driving man, but why did John Henry drive steel? Like most children, I assume, I learned the words to the song without knowing or even thinking about what he was doing in the first place. I knew it was about a man competing with a machine. I knew that John Henry won; I knew he died, and I knew that was supposed to mean something.

    The origin of the John Henry legend has traditionally been attributed to West Virginia around the time railroads expanded into the new frontier seeking the region’s rich raw materials. John Henry...

  9. Epilogue
    (pp. 171-176)

    My formal field research period ended in late 2003 and early 2004. Since then I have made many visits to the Coal River region, though never for as long as I would have liked. I have attended several events related to MTR, coal, and energy policy issues. I have incorporated the issues into my various teaching roles, and I have included coalfield activists in my classrooms and communities at every opportunity. Strong continuities endure between the movement against mountaintop removal as it existed in 2003 and the various forms that have emerged through 2010. Coal issues in 2010 and the...

  10. Appendix: Cumulative Local Impact of Surface Mining
    (pp. 177-178)
  11. Notes
    (pp. 179-190)
  12. Bibliography
    (pp. 191-200)
  13. Index
    (pp. 201-204)
  14. Back Matter
    (pp. 205-206)