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The Struggle Against Mountain Top Removal in Appalachia: An Interview.

I came across Mountain Justice Summer while browsing, and was interested in the parallels with Rossport Solidarity Camp. Both appear to be premised on the idea of attracting youth radicalised through anti-globalisation and anti-war activism into travelling to an area to support a struggle based around a local community’s opposition to environmental devastation. I was interested in learning from the difficulties faced by, and potentials of, this campaign. Mountain Justice Summer is based in Appalachia, historically a place that has seen intense class struggle, see for instance Battle of Matewan Battle of Blair Mountain Wildcats In The Appalachian Coal Fields, quite different from Mayo, and I was interested in how that influenced the current situation. I interviewed Joe, a member of the Industrial Workers of the World (I.W.W.), aka Wobblies, who is involved in Mountain Justice Summer, for the perspective of someone from the one of the more workplace orientated parts of the libertarian left, as those parts, in general, are often uninterested in matters environmental. This interview is to be published in Organise!, the magazine of the Anarchist Federation (A.F.). The True Cost of Coal is another I.W.W. view on this issue.
AF: What is Mountain Top Removal and what effect is it having on communities and ecologies in Appalachia?
Mountain Top Removal (MTR) is a form of strip mining that has existed since the 70's. Its use was increased about ten years ago in West Virginia, and in the past three years its use has been accelerated to an all time high. Instead of starting from the top and digging down to the coal seam, in MTR huge drills are used to bore holes into the sides of a mountain until they hit coal. Then the hole is packed with explosives and the top of the mountain is literally blown off. In most cases, the rubble, or “overburden,” is then pushed over into the surrounding valleys, burying the any headwaters that were there. So far over 1200 miles of headwater streams, in West Virginia alone, have been buried by this process, know as valley filling. Geologically speaking, the coal seams that exist in these mountains also play an important part in maintaining the water table by creating an impermeable layer that disperse water into the surrounding area instead of letting it sink. The combined effect of the loss of streams and the removal of the coal has led to a drop in the water levels, which has taken quite a toll on local communities, many of which rely on wells for their water. Water quality has also been declining because of the chemical runoff created by coal washing.
Another danger around MTR sites is slurry spills. The waste from these processes is stored in large slurry ponds, which are often simply surrounding valleys dammed up with over-burden. Last December there was a spill from one of these dams, operated by Massey Energy’s Marfork Coal Company, in which 10,000 gallons of heavy metal-laden sludge was dumped into a stream, affecting a five-mile area. In October of 2000, a spill occurred in Kentucky that the Environmental Protection Agency has called “the worst environmental disaster ever in the Southeast.” One site where Mountain Justice Summer (MJS) focused a number of its actions was at the Marsh Fork Elementary School which sits below an over 2 billion gallon slurry pond.
The end product of MTR, of course, is that Appalachia is disappearing. Even the most lauded reclamation efforts look more like a golf course than the incredibly diverse mountain forests that existed before the mining. The mountains are being topped off, and in the process the people and communities that existed there are being driven away. Degrading water supplies, constant blasting, huge clouds of dust, dwindling numbers of jobs, and over-loaded trucks barrelling down tight mountain roads are just a few of the factors that force many families to leave. And as more and more land becomes vacant, the coal companies just buy the land up cheap and expand their mine.
AF: In Britain the move to electricity generation through nuclear power, and later the development of strip-mining, was a means to break the power of mining communities which were a source of resistance to capital, is the story in Appalachia a similar one in regard to the technique of Mountain Top Removal?
Absolutely. The switch to Mountain Top Removal has allowed the companies to greatly reduce the number of employees that they require. In the 1960s coal employed 150,000 West Virginians. Today, despite much higher levels of coal production, it employs less than 15,000, many of which are still employed at deep mines, which continue to disappear as cheap MTR coal makes deep mining uncompetitive. There are even instances of workers being brought in from other states to fill jobs on MTR sites. This tactic is employed so that the workers won’t worry about the long term effects of what they’re doing and so that the company can provide as few jobs as possible, speeding the evacuation of the community and the expansion of their mine. The current excuse that the coal industry is using is that they need to start bringing in an immigrant labour force because there aren’t enough qualified West Virginians who want to work in the mines, which is simply untrue.
AF: What sort of actions took place during last year’s Mountain Justice Summer?
The spectrum of actions was pretty wide. There were lots of rallies and demonstrations outside the offices of coal supporters and government buildings. We have done lots of information gathering and distributing, like the listening projects, where volunteers went into the communities to ask people about their experiences with MTR and the coal companies, or flyering and distributing our publications while doing street theatre. We had a number of coal sludge lemonade stands, showing folks outside the coalfields what the by-product of coal washing looks like. During our actions in Lexington we served the President of the Kentucky Coal Association a bowl of coal sludge, which he actually dipped his finger in and ate. On two different occasions we had folks arrested for refusing to leave the offices of the Massey Energy Corporation until they were allowed to deliver demands. We had a two-day march across West Virginia, and there was a march and rally for the international day of action against climate change outside the Massey Headquarters in Richmond, Virginia. There was a hunger strike at the Governor’s office in West Virginia. And at the end of the summer we blockaded of one of the mine sites in Tennessee.
AF: Two particular parts of Mountain Justice Summer interested me, the emphasis on training for participants, and the “listen-in” where residents told participants of their experiences, can you tell us more about these.
We had the beginning-of-summer trainings so that we could get all of our volunteers on the same page in terms of our commitment to non-violence, to educate them on what was going on, and to ensure that they respected the communities in which we worked.
The listening projects, as we called them, were probably one of the best things we did all summer. The idea was to go into the communities and get the locals to start talking because they knew more about the effects of MTR than we did. All the volunteers that I’ve spoken with have really positive stories about the listening projects. It helped give many of our volunteers perspective on the history and experience of the communities in which they were working, and it definitely helped ease many of the community members to the presence of a crew of out-of-towners in what are normally pretty isolated communities.
AF: Mountain Justice Summer seems to have been forged through an alliance between Earth First (EF!) and some community groups, other community groups seemed more wary of Earth First!, why was that, and how did that change over the course of last summer? There was some hesitation with a few of the community groups. With some groups, such as Coal River Mountain Watch, there wasn’t any tension. They did state initially that they didn’t want any violence or property destruction and the EF!ers said that they didn’t see property destruction as appropriate in this campaign, so it went really smoothly. Other groups, Save Our Cumberland Mountains (SOCM) being the extreme, didn’t want to have anything to do with EF! and therefore MJS. There was also a spectrum of groups in between the two extremes. It is interesting, though, that after last summer we gained a lot of credibility through the effectiveness of our campaign and now groups like SOCM are much more willing to work with us. It should be interesting to see how that plays out this coming summer.
AF: Is there a direct link between the resistance to mountain top removal and the long proud history of labour struggle in Appalachia?
I think many of us MJS volunteers view ourselves as decedents of that struggle. The United Mine Workers of America (UMWA), once one of the hotbeds of radical labour in this country, hasn’t exerted much power to try and save Appalachia. To my knowledge they don’t have a firm position on MTR, but they do have a general “pro-coal” stance despite the obvious effects that MTR has on jobs and especially union jobs. I feel like their resistance to change has really led to their failure. The face of the struggle has to change when the company changes its tactics. After 100 years of big coal exploiting the people of Appalachia and robbing us of our rich resources, they’ve decided that they don’t need the people. Its not just about extracting greater value from our labour now, it’s about literally driving out the communities that have existed here for hundreds of years. If the UMWA can’t recognize what’s happening then its up to another movement to pickup the struggle to preserve the strength and dignity of Appalachian communities. I like to think that that’s us.
Actually Blair Mountain, the site of a battle in 1921 between 10,000 union miners and company thugs supported by local law enforcement, is an MTR site. Our allies in West Virginia are trying to stop the mining by getting the mountain registered as a historic landmark.
AF: Why was there such a strong emphasis on non-violence and on not committing acts of sabotage on the part of Mountain Justice Summer? It seems at odds with what little I know of the traditions of popular struggle in Appalachia, see for instance the massive amount of sabotage during the wildcat strikes of the 60s and 70s.
We decided that the decision to use sabotage and other forms of property destruction should be made by the communities. From our position, as a regional coalition, it wasn’t our right to escalate the conflict when the violence would certainly fall on the shoulders of the community residents. Since most of the volunteers that came into our campaign were from out of state, we decided that it wouldn’t have been right to start a fight that we wouldn’t have been around to accept the consequences of.
AF: What specific class based approach did the I.W.W. bring to this campaign, or did you need to bring such an approach, is it more widespread than your group?
The IWW wasn’t officially involved in the campaign. Appalachia isn’t a place where we’re very strong, unfortunately. The involvement of the union was in some publicity, a front-page article about the environmental and working class implications of MTR in our paper, and the personal involvement of between half a dozen and a dozen Wobblies in the campaign. There definitely wasn’t the kind of organizing that was being done during Redwood Summer, but the reason that I think this struggle drew Wobblies into it was that it already had strong community and working-class roots. Many of the folks in the community groups we are working with are ex-coal miners. The strength of the community support for the campaign is one of the most important things about it, and it isn’t uncommon for our allies to talk about the history of their family’s struggle against the coal companies. There is definitely more that needs to be done, though, to reach out to labour because the need for jobs is still the main argument that pro-MTR locals tell us, despite the long-term affect that MTR is having on jobs.
One good example of future work that’s in the planning stages is a conference that’s going to be happening in Kentucky. It will focus on creating a post-coal economy in Appalachia. Hopefully, as organizing for sustainable non-coal jobs continues, it will move in the direction of worker control.
AF: The I.W.W. is often thought of as just a workplace orientated group, yet some Wobblies are involved in this campaign, and were involved in Redwood Summer, why is this?
I personally can’t see how it’s so easy for so many environmentalists to disconnect labour and community struggles from environmental struggles. In the end it’s always the working class that bears the brunt of environmental devastation. The coal companies have lots of money for ad campaigns and rallies that are supposed to convince us that working class folks in the coal fields like MTR, but we’ve seen polls have shown that most folks in West Virginia, for example, don’t want MTR to be happening in their state. Middle-class environmental groups, with their inability to speak the language of community members, and their often-arrogant attitude towards working class locals, have created a rift that shouldn’t exist.
MJS is really about community self-determination and challenging the history of feudal control that the coal companies have had in the region. Despite its resources, the state of West Virginia is one of the poorest in the US, and the poorest counties in the state are the ones with the most coal. This is a matter of robbery by the capitalist class any way that you look at it, and it makes sense for Wobblies to stand in solidarity with these communities.
Wobblies involved in Redwood summer went a step further to actually organizing timber workers. The environmentalists and working locals have the same enemy, and the less we allow ourselves to get pitted against one another the better we will all fare. The working class locals want sustainable, good paying jobs so that they can support their families, and the IWW (and other labour groups) need to be involved to help workers realize that they have the power to protect their communities AND provide jobs that will exist for future generations.
AF: Did the effort to interest radicals in the struggle in Appalachia catch much criticism of the ‘this is just a N-I-M-B-Y (not in my back yard)’ sort? Were there other problems along those lines? For instance I get the impression of some emphasis on visitors needing to respect the norms of the host groups.
I haven’t heard anyone use that criticism. In terms of our organization I don’t think that we have a NIMBY mentality at all. Mountain Justice Summer was created to connect the struggles against MTR that existed across Appalachia both because of the strength that a regional campaign grants local struggles and because groups in each state want to put an end to MTR for good and not just push the destruction over to another community.
In terms of respecting local norms, last summer there was a great emphasis placed on dispelling many of the myths about Appalachian people and culture. Many, if not most, Americans, think of Appalachians as backwards, violent hillbillies. The hillbilly stereotype was created by coal companies as an explanation for the violence and destitution that their rapid industrialization had created. The image was picked-up and run with by national media and missionaries, who returned to their middle-class congregation to get funding for their efforts by telling stories about violent, wild people desperately needing to be saved. Talking about these myths, there origin and their effects allowed us to try and prevent folks coming in from another region and looking down on the locals we were trying to work with. Its also easier for folks who live outside the coalfields to accept the devastation when they can dehumanise the people it is directly effecting. I actually had someone in a city where I was distributing information say to me, “As long as I get cheap power, I don’t mind pissing off a bunch of hillbillies.”
AF: Unlike in Ireland at the moment, people in this sort of campaign in the United States seem to be subject to quite a bit of non-state harassment, violence, and counter-protests, can you tell us a bit about that.
The coal companies have a long history of violent intimidation tactics and its no different now. Larry Gibson, a very active anti-MTR community member, has been subject to over 100 instances of violent harassment, including the shooting and hanging of his dogs, vandalism of his solar panels, and arson of buildings on his land, and he has personally been shot at and driven off of the road. This is all because the coal company wants his land on Kayford Mountain, West Virginia, which is a 50 acre oasis in the middle of a 10,000 acre Mountain Top Mine.
The other egregious instance of violence was against activists involved in a blockade on Zeb Mountain in Tennessee. The local law enforcement turned their backs while company employees tried to run over folks involved in the blockade. We have tape of the confrontation with their truck, but at this point the police forced everyone not in the blockade to leave, and a company employee stole the only remaining video camera. Several company employees also pushed over a tripod that was suspending an activist 35 feet above the road, and kicked one of the activists there supporting the blockaders to the ground. The police then gave these company employees, who clearly had no problem with injuring activists, the cutting equipment to get people out of the car that was part of the blockade, rather than removing the activists from the car themselves. The company employees then dragged the car out of the road with one person still attached to it, clearing just enough room for their trucks to pass within inches of her body.
AF: What are the plans for Mountain Justice Summer 2, to take place in the summer of 2006?
We’re making a few changes in the structure of the campaign. Last year there was a main body of MJSers that moved from state to state, but this year we’re going to focus more on placing people in each state for their whole commitment. Instead of a big group travelling around, folks will be more involved in a specific locality and will come together for a few big actions during the course of the summer. We’re also going to try to do more solidarity work with other communities struggling against the coal companies. We’ve already been reaching out to the indigenous community in Black Mesa that is also fighting coal extraction on their land.

Posted Date: 
12 March 2006 - 11:03pm