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Acting Against Their Own Interests: Appalachian Coal Miners

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In Monday's New York Times, an excellent opinion piece lays out the "civil war" in Appalachia over coal and specifically mountaintop removal.

The guts of the issue is here:

Appalachia is engaged in a civil war of sorts over coal, with miners and their families pitted against environmental activists. The central issue is mountaintop removal, a radical form of strip mining that has left over 2,000 miles of streams buried and over 500 mountains destroyed. According to several recent studies, people living near surface mining sites have a 50 percent greater risk of fatal cancer and a 42 percent greater risk of birth defects than the general population.

Despite the evidence, the coal industry and its allies in Washington have persuaded the majority of their constituents to ignore such environmental consequences, recasting mountaintop removal as an economic boon for the region, a powerful job creator in a time of national employment distress.

Of course, since mountaintop removal is heavily mechanized, the coal industry is the real job killer -- and, until recently, miners would have been suspicious of any claim to the contrary. For decades the companies had fought the miners' efforts to unionize, resulting in violent strikes.

What we have is a bunch of economically vulnerable people who are buying into the company line because they have been convinced that they have no choice. The article goes on to detail how those who dissent against that company line have faced death threats and actual violence: arson, vandalism, and worse.

One activist, Maria Gunnoe, saw "Wanted" posters with her picture put up all over her hometown. Last month, when she testified before Congress and presented a photograph of a five year old girl bathing in dirty, brown water, she found herself facing child pornography accusations from Republicans. That's how the corporations and their allies deal with dissent.

The coal industry essentially has its employees between a rock and a hard place. They tell their employees that they are operating on behalf of the employees' interests, that they want to protect their jobs. In reality, they want to protect their bottom line, and they will do whatever they can, even if it means breaking the law and endangering the miners, to make their money.

For example, although it didn't specifically involve mountaintop removal, we all should remember the explosion that killed 29 of the 31 miners working at the Upper Big Branch mining site where it occurred on April 5, 2010.

Here's a reminder about how much that company, Massey Energy, cared about the safety of its workers, from the Washington Post:

The West Virginia mine where at least 25 workers died Monday in an explosion was written up more than 50 times last month for safety violations. Twelve of the citations involved problems with ventilating the mine and preventing a buildup of deadly methane.

I wish I had some easy answers about how to convince miners that the coal companies aren't their best friends. Increasing union membership would certainly help, for starters. For anyone reading this, the first step is to get informed.

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