One of the most telling moments in the new documentary film Blood on the Mountain draws from 2008 footage of former Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship calmly mumbling his replies to numerous questions on mine safety at a hearing. When asked if he knew how many coal miners had died in Massey mines in the eight years since Massey became a publicly traded company, the notorious "dark lord" of the coal industry shook his head and said no. Filmmakers Mari-Lynn Evans and Jordan Freeman allow for a gut-wrenching moment of silence, having methodically chronicled the industry's treadmill of violation-ridden disasters, and then provide the answer: 52 deaths under Blankenship as CEO of Massey Energy.
Unfolding with the plaintive air of an elegy, Blood on the Mountain captures this blatant disregard for the health and lives of coal miners -- and the mountains they call home -- as a timely reminder of the legacy of an essentially outlaw industry and its 150-year reign in West Virginia.
Yes, Virginia, there is a coal war in Appalachia, as defiant West Virginia-raised attorney Bruce Stanley tells the filmmakers, admonishing them to get the narrative right: "a war waged by coal on West Virginia."
The world premiere of this compelling film documentary at today's Workers Unite Film Festival in New York City couldn't be more timely, on the heels of West Virginia coal-chemical spills, a mounting health crisis from strip-mining and black lung disease, and dangerous coal-slurry impoundments readying for the next foretold Buffalo Creek-type disaster.
And as viewers watch the film this week, Big Coal-bankrolled members of Congress will continue to deny the deadly costs and health impacts of strip-mining, coal companies will abandon miners and mines in bankruptcy, and the rogue elements of the industry will take one last mountaintop-removal blast at the region before picking up and moving to the Illinois Basin or abroad.
As the film's best informants, local residents and former union coal miners like Terry Steele pull no punches. "They [couldn't] care less about this place," Steele says, noting that 80 to 90 percent of the mineral rights in his coal-rich county are owned by absentee corporations, adding that they "have no connection to land or people.... [W]hen they get everything they can get from it, they're like locusts."
While the coal industry did not begin in West Virginia -- and continues in 20-odd states -- Blood on the Mountain shows how the industry's stranglehold has always defined the state's corrupt politics and diminished economy, where regional lackeys do the bidding for absentee corporations, even at the expense of their own health, environment and livelihoods.
It's such an old and tragic history -- and it continues to flourish today, in the guise of political buffoons like U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, a coal peddler who goes from one media-packed disaster after another.
Filmmakers Evans and Freeman have collaborated on several other films based in the region, including Coal Country and the PBS series The Appalachians.
"We had no no idea what blood lay under the graves," Rev. Ron English says, discussing the film's historical sweep, which dates back to slavery. Such historical oversight, English notes, makes the state, and the nation, "dishonest with ourselves, but we bring dishonor on our heritage."
That heritage for 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.
A former Massey miner's recorded voice laments Blankenship's union-busting ways, which eventually shattered and reduced the once-heroic United Mine Workers to a tiny corner of influence: "We had to produce to keep our jobs." Told that 1,000 people were waiting for their jobs, he adds, "I felt like that lump of coal was more important than a human being's life."
Thanks to its historical perspective, Blood on the Mountains keeps hope alive in the coalfields -- and in the more defining mountains, the mountain state vs. the "extraction state" -- and reminds viewers of the inspiring continuum of the extraordinary Blair Mountain miners' uprising in 1921, the victory of Miners for Democracy leader Arnold Miller as the UMWA president in the 1970s, and today's fearless campaigns against mountaintop-removal mining.
And the kicker: Don Blankenship now stands on trial for charges of conspiracy to violate mandatory federal mine-safety and health standards.
"The land erased by man," a documentary clip from the 1970s warns, showing how the abuse of the land has always gone hand in hand with the abuse of the miners, "then the machines erased man."
Nearly a half-century later, Blood on the Mountain asks a similar question: What will it take for the nation to end the war on West Virginia, to be honest with ourselves about the toll of our coal-fire electricity on the lives of miners and mountaineers and not simply abandon the region to the whims of a volatile market but recognize our historical debt to coal mining...
The Washington University Students Against Peabody Energy ruined my Earth Day. They sent me footage of a recent fact-finding trip to Saline County, Illinois, where some of my family members, friends and farmers are being blasted by nearby Peabody Energy strip-mining operations.
Regret to inform you: Coal blasting rages on in southern Illinois, along with cancer-linked mountaintop removal operations in central Appalachia, and mining across the West.
Let's get the narrative right: Coal is not dying, it's declining and shifting, and though mountaintop removal is on the ropes, the knockout still awaits federal action. US coal mining production in 2015 is still set for 926 million tons, down from 996 millions tons, and estimated to rebound to 941 millions tons in 2016, according to the US Energy Information Administration. Thanks to the Appalachian decline, the Illinois Basin mined 104.9 million tons in 2014, up 4.6%.
Whether it's 996, 941 or 926 million tons of coal, that's still a lot of unprotected coal mine blasting now linked to cancer, and higher rates of birth defects and disease.
While I love to write about clean energy solutions, Appalachian transition and coalfield regeneration, and the inspiring regenerative city movement, to ignore the deadly impacts of mountaintop removal and coal mining is a betrayal to the residents living on the front lines of coal mining mayhem today.
Thankfully, impacted residents and groups continue the fight, despite the odds: Over 80,000 people have recently signed CREDO's petition for a moratorium on cancer-linked mountaintop removal mining through the Appalachian Community Health Emergency Act.
Does a moratorium sound impossible? In Wales last week, the Assembly Members voted 30-0 after an informative debate to place a moratorium on open cast (strip) mining, similar to the ACHE Act, to study the impact of mining on residents.
It would be great to see such leadership in the US Congress, and among health and environmental groups based on Capitol Hill.
Earth Day has come and gone, but not the struggle to end mountaintop removal, which was launched in the same year: In 1970, an arsenal of explosives and draglines breached the ramparts of Bullpush Mountain in the Cannelton area of West Virginia, and blasted the first mountaintop removal mining operation.
Despite years of litigation, protests, education campaigns, public hearings and regulatory promises, the cancer-linked strip mine operations continue today in central Appalachia as the flip side of Earth Day's promise of restorative justice.
To celebrate Earth Day and not acknowledge the devastation of mountaintop removal, which provides only a small percentage of our national coal production, is to betray the origins of Earth Day itself.
Few people may recall that one of inspirations of Earth Day emerged out of earlier Human Ecology Symposiums organized by public health professor Morton Hilbert, to address the impact of our footprint on the land and its inhabitants.
Our nation's collective inaction over the fallout from strip mining and mountaintop removal does not simply mock the goals of Earth Day co-founder and former Sen. Gaylord Nelson, for "an environment of decency, quality and mutual respect for all other human being and all living creatures."
The federal sanctioning of such deadly mountaintop removal operations obliterates the very essence of Earth Day's purpose--and makes us all complicit to a crime against our earth and its Appalachian residents, as well as those dealing with strip mining in southern Illinois and the West.
So, let's be honest: The day after Earth Day is just another day of strip mine blasting in America--until we decide to take a stand like Wales, CREDO and the Washington University students, and end...
In an effort to encourage low-impact touring and community engagement, the internationally acclaimed folk roots group Rising Appalachia has taken to the rails this spring to promote their border-crossing sixth album, Wider Circles. Set to be released on April 21, the album's blend of ethereal sister...
Calling for a "national, coordinated response to the humanitarian disaster of mountaintop removal mining," CREDO Action launched an extraordinary petition drive this past weekend for Congress to pass the Appalachian Community Health Emergency Act (ACHE Act) and place an immediate moratorium on "the deadliest and most...
On the heels of a new study on the emergence of local food hubs as an economic force in Iowa, Ecopolis Iowa City will feature leading food experts and advocates at its next forum, "Grow Here: Ramping Up the Local Food Movement" on Saturday, March 28,...
An escalating series of lawsuits, government rulings, banking decisions and breakthrough health studies has brought the fate of devastating mountaintop removal mining in central Appalachia to the doorstep of state and federal decision makers this week....
With mountaintop removal mining on the ropes, as the last bank financiers ditch lending support amid new scientific research that demonstrates "solid evidence that dust collected from residential areas near mountaintop removal sites causes cancerous changes...
A reinvigorated "People's Foot" movement to end mountaintop removal is ramping up its efforts next week, as the last vestiges of outside support begin to abandon the nation's most egregious strip mining operations in central Appalachia.
"Mountaintop removal is...
Fourteen months after the world watched in astonishment as poorly regulated coal-washing chemicals contaminated the Elk River in West Virginia, coal country residents and supporters are gearing up for an epic showdown on March 16 with the state's Department of Environmental Protection -- and the U.S. Congress --...
When the UN Climate Summit kicked off last fall with the short film, "What's Possible," actor Morgan Freeman's challenge to "our leaders to be brave, and their choices to be bold" resonated with...
With the state of Iowa leading the nation in wind energy production, a packed crowd filled the Iowa City Public Library last night to discuss game-changing new power purchase agreements that could light up the famed "City of Literature" as a bright shining "City of Solar."
"Iowa has been a national leader in wind energy for years, but Iowa also has the potential to be a leader in solar energy as well," said Mike Carberry, a long-time clean energy advocate and a member of the Johnson County Board of Supervisors. "Sun power that grows all of our corn can also be used to grow electricity. We have the solar resource, now we just need the will to make it happen."
Less than 15 miles from Iowa City, in fact, the extraordinary work of general manager Warren McKenna and the Farmers Electric Cooperative (FEC) has won international acclaim for its role as a national model for solar financing and development. Recognized last year by the Solar Electric Power Association as the "Utility CEO of the Year," McKenna spoke about his pioneering solar work since 2008, including the establishment of one of the nation's first feed-in tariff systems. FEC has installed solar systems at area schools, launched a groundbreaking solar community garden, and now oversees the largest solar farm in Iowa.
Speaking on behalf of Ecopolis Iowa City, a community forum on regenerative city initiatives that hosted the event, Miriam Alarcón Avil cited the state's high solar potential ranking in a recent Iowa Environmental Council study, which concluded that 20 percent of Iowa's electricity could be provided by rooftop solar installations.
The Ecopolis Forum members touted the breakthrough Eagle Point decision in the Iowa Supreme Court last year, which allows for third party power agreements, and effectively opened the flood gates for cost-effective solar energy initiatives in the state, and called on the city of Iowa City and the Iowa City Community School District to commit to a goal of 20-25% on-site solar energy on city buildings and new development projects with city funding within the next two years, along with energy efficiency requirements:
Petition for Renewable Energy & Energy Efficiency in Iowa City
We, the undersigned, ask the city of Iowa City to adopt a requirement for 25% of the projected building energy use be provided by on-site renewable energy (solar, geothermal or wind). This shall apply to new construction and major renovations of city buildings and projects seeking city funding which have a construction budget of greater than $500,000 and city support greater than $75,000.
We, the undersigned, ask the city to adopt a 2030 Challenge requirement for all municipal buildings - new construction and major renovation - and for all new construction and major renovation projects seeking city funding which have a construction budget of greater than $500,000 and city support greater than $75,000. The 2030 Challenge seeks to achieve Net Zero Carbon Emissions for all new construction and major renovation by the year 2030. All new buildings and existing building major renovation projects shall be designed and built to meet an energy consumption performance standard of 70% below the regional average EUI (Energy Use Intensity, defined as kBtu/SF/year) for that building type. This standard for all new buildings and major renovations will be increased to: 80% in 2020, 90% in 2025, and carbon-neutral in 2030 (using no fossil fuel GHG emitting energy to operate).
We, the undersigned, ask the Iowa City Community School District to adopt a requirement for 25% of the projected building energy use be provided by on-site renewable energy (solar, geothermal or wind). We also ask the Iowa City Community School District to adopt a 2030 Challenge requirement for all new construction and major renovation, with all projects designed and built to meet an energy consumption performance standard of 70% below the regional average EUI (Energy Use Intensity, defined as kBtu/SF/year) for that building type.
In fact, as several presenters noted, southeast Iowa has already established the groundwork for a solar energy boom. State Sen. Joe Bolkcom, who represents Iowa City, has been a leading sponsor of solar legislation. Last fall, Johnson County signed on to a new solar agreement for a road facility, according to Moxie Solar representatives, that will save $250,000 over the course of the 25-year agreement. The University of Iowa recently released a request for proposal for rooftop solar photovoltaic electric generating system under a power purchase agreement.
In the southeastern Iowa town of Wayland, the Waco School District recently announced plans to save $100,000 annually, thanks to a newly installed solar system.
"The potential for solar in Iowa is largely raw and and untapped," said Troy Miller, who made a presentation with Jason Hall of locally-based Moxie Solar. "The winners will be forward thinking communities, such as Iowa City and Johnson County, who are aware that the federal tax credits may disappear after 2016."
Three important new books in 2014 -- and an extraordinary poem -- stand out as essential reading for our climate change century -- far from being requiems for our planet. Informative, original, unblinking and provocative, dealing head-on with the challenges of resource use in an urbanizing world, Herbert Girardet's
While so many environmental justice projects abound that deserve donations, including the besieged community groups fending off an outrageous coal mining boom and incoming fracking operations in my own native southern Illinois, the grassroots movement to create the Judy Bonds Center for the Coal River Mountain Watch provides a rare opportunity to support an important legacy project on the front lines of the mountaintop removal crisis.
The Judy Bonds Center: Just the sound of such a memorial building dedicated to the modern day abolitionist in the heart of coal country, as Coal River Mountain organizer Junior Walk recently noted, will send a powerful message to the reckless coal industry and "inspires an end to the destruction of her community." It will also serve as an enduring memorial for so many lost residents, miners and communities.
In the nearly four years since her passing, Bonds' beloved Appalachian mountain communities have continued to be ravaged by violation-ridden mountaintop removal operations, now linked to lung cancer, while black lung disease soars among coal miners.
Former Massey CEO Don Blankenship may now be facing charges in federal court, but the damages from his violation-ridden operations continue.
Never has Bonds' uncompromising call for the abolition of mountaintop removal operations--not the maintenance of failed regulatory approaches, which have resulted in a rap sheet of environmental crimes and a mounting health care crisis--been more timely, and more important to a transition for a viable future in central Appalachia.
The New York Times editorial board called on the federal government to "outlaw" the "old and evil practice of strip mining" in 1970. Since then, reckless coal mining in central Appalachia, as well as booming operations in the Illinois and western basins, have poisoned and depopulated historic mountain and farm communities, and effectively erased the physical record of important chapters of indigenous and Appalachian history from our national experience. Lindyville and Twilight, West Virginia, have joined the ranks of once vibrant American communities turned into bombed-out ghost towns. In a region rocked daily by millions of pounds of explosive detonations, residents deal with deadly fly rock, silica and coal dust showers, contaminated streams and wells, and coal accidents.
In its 1970 editorial, "The Great Soil Swindle," the Times declared: "This ravaging of farmland, pasture and woods in the single-minded pursuit of cheap coal is a desecration."
That desecration continues today.
Judy Bonds gave untold thousands of residents and activists a reason to believe in environmental justice.
A gift towards the creation of the Judy Bonds Center for her Coal River Mountain Watch will make sure such a legacy continues her call to "don't let up, fight harder and finish off" the outlaw ranks of Big Coal and end the egregious crime of mountaintop...
A broad range of community members in Iowa City, Iowa kicked off the "Ecopolis Forum" today, a groundbreaking series of monthly winter conversations on creating the first regenerative city of the arts, food, renewable energy, and commerce...
On the heels of the nation's fastest growing coal mining rush, a state legislative committee chaired by Sierra Club champion Sen. Don Harmon officially unleashed fracking in Illinois today, approving the final regulatory rules in secret, as legislators essentially dumped the concerns...
On the heels of a breakthrough study that demonstrates the indisputable link between lung cancer and mountaintop removal mining in central Appalachia, besieged residents are wondering if the federal government will issue protective respirators to "every man, woman, and child living near mountaintop removal mining."
As the onslaught of the nation's fast-growing coal-mining boom tears across the heartland, citizens in southern Illinois have filed a Writ of Mandamus in Federal District Court against the US Secretary of Interior, in an attempt to revoke the state's control over its notoriously...
Four years after the publication of my memoir/history, Reckoning at Eagle Creek: The Secret Legacy of Coal in the Heartland, I found myself sitting in the front row of an Illinois Environmental Protection Agency hearing in southern Illinois. It was a historic evening in Harrisburg, only a few miles from where Peabody Energy sank its first coal mine in 1895, and a few blocks from where I had sat on the front porch as a kid and listened to the stories of my grandfather and other coal miners about union battles for justice. For the first time in decades, residents in coal country were shining the spotlight on issues of civil rights, environmental ruin and a spiraling health crisis from a poorly regulated coal mining rush.
The total destruction of my family's nearby Eagle Creek community from strip-mining was held up as their cautionary tale. The takeaway: Strip-mining more than stripped the land; it stripped the traces of any human contact.
"We have lost population, we have lost homes and we have lost roads," testified Judy Kellen, a resident facing an expanded strip mine in Rocky Branch. "We have lost history. We have to endure dust, noise levels to the pitch you wanted to scream because you couldn't get any rest or sleep, earth tremors, home damages, complete isolation of any type of view to the north, health issues, a sadness in your heart that puts a dread on your face every day, and an unrest in the spirit that we knew nothing of."
A lot has changed in these four years--much of it troubling, and much of it inspiring.
After traveling to coal mining communities around the U.S. and the world, I have learned that my own private reckoning with coal in the great Shawnee forests surrounding Eagle Creek was only a prologue to our greater climate reckoning for my children. But first, the inspiring part: Faced with losing their homes, farms, health--and sheer sanity--from the blasting and non-stop war-zone traffic of coal operators within 300 feet of their living rooms--southern Illinois residents with deep coal mining roots in Harrisburg were taking a courageous stand for climate and coalfield justice. Meanwhile, former coal mining areas from central Appalachia to Germany to Scotland have begun the process of transitioning to clean energy economies.
Here's the troubling part: Four years after the publication of Reckoning at Eagle Creek, Illinois is in the throes of a coal-mining rush not seen in nearly a century, recognized as the fastest-growing coal region in the nation. Since 2009, the state's mining production has increased by more than 60 percent.
Coal miners remain the canaries in the coal mine: Black lung disease among coal miners, an issue dear to my heart and to anyone who has watched their loved ones and friends suffer needlessly, is at record levels in 2014.
And communities not far from my beloved Eagle Creek, including members of my own displaced family, have once again found themselves on the front lines of mining destruction. As part of an "all-of-the'above" energy policy touted by President Barack Obama and Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn--a Sierra Club-supported Democrat who once led anti-strip-mining campaigns and swept into office on promises of regulatory reform--the heartland has undergone a series of mind-boggling machinations in favor of coal mining and hydraulic fracking.
Even as states start the long process of responding to the proposed U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulations to cut CO2 emissions from coal-fired power plants by 30 percent, coal industry lobbyists and their political sycophants continue to roll out the wildly inaccurate "war on the coal" slogans with fervor, and double down on their denial of climate change.
It begins with our kids: Despite a campaign by former coal miner Sam Stearns to halt the state's cringe-worthy "coal education" program, Illinois continues to push coal industry propaganda and climate denial into our schools.
It extends into our farm communities, like Hillsboro in central Illinois, where elderly farmers are fighting to protect their fertile land and watersheds from longwall mining and coal slurry pollution.
In these last four years, we have witnessed the cycles of hype and indifference over our coal mining disasters, coal slurry, coal ash and coal-related chemical spills, most notably in West Virginia last spring, which contaminated the drinking water for 300,000 residents near Charleston.And we have seen a stunning disregard for law enforcement by government agencies. An Associated Press investigation made a startling discovery this year of a coal industry run amok:
"...[A] review of federal environmental enforcement records shows that nearly three-quarters of the 1,727 coal mines listed haven't been inspected in the past five years to see if they are obeying water pollution laws. Also, 13 percent of the fossil-fuel fired power plants are not complying with the Clean Water Act."
Nowhere has such recklessness been so evident than in my own southern Illinois.
I have learned two things from the loss of Eagle Creek and the treatment of coal miners like my grandfather and residents in today's coal mining communities; in a nation that prioritizes coal industry profits over workplace and residential safety, people are as disposable as our natural resources in openly accepted national sacrifice zones. And secondly, all coal mining safety laws have been written in miners' blood; the same is true for innocent citizens afflicted by clean water violations by coal and chemical companies.
This disregard for basic health and civil rights doesn't end here, though. The fallout over increasing climate disturbances brings a harrowing message: We all live in the coalfields now. Extreme energy extraction and fossil fuel burning, as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) recently warned, is leading us to "severe, pervasive and irreversible impacts for people and ecosystems."With the exigency of action on climate change, and the mounting death toll and costs from coal mining, the heartland--like our nation--has reached a crossroads in our energy policy: It's time to fashion a just transition toward a more sustainable and diversified economy, including clean energy development, especially for those in historical coal mining communities-not just urban centers like Chicago that are connected to political power and pay-offs.
We need a plan for regeneration, not simply more unenforced EPA regulations.
How can we keep the carbon in the ground? By ensuring that our people and our ingenuity are considered our greatest natural resources.After shouldering the massive health and environmental costs of powering our nation's industrial rise to fortune over the past century, impoverished communities on the front lines of extraction should be in the forefront of clean energy investment and jobs. We need a regeneration fund for retraining and initiatives to jump-start reforestation and abandoned mine projects, along with start-up funds for solar and wind energy manufacturing and energy-efficiency campaigns.
Reckoning at Eagle Creek is my attempt to not only restore and "re-story" Eagle Creek and its place in history, but also plant the seeds to regenerate its unique contributions to our future American story.
To ask Abraham Lincoln's question in our own times: "It is not 'can any of us imagine better?' but, 'can we all do better?' The dogmas of the quiet past, are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise--with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew, and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves, and then we shall save our country."
This essay was adapted from the new Foreword to the paperback edition of Reckoning at Eagle Creek: The Secret Legacy of Coal in the Heartland, released this week by Southern Illinois University...
Facing one of the most under-reported climate disasters in the nation, including an unprecedented coal mining rush under Gov. Pat Quinn, deforestation, and an impending fracking boom, residents...
They began arriving hours in advance. Over 400 volunteers--farmers, cooks, drivers, mobile art kitchens, dance choreographers, spoken word poets, food servers, food runners, zero waste managers, and table hosts. And when the bell rang, nearly 2,000 guests followed the signs in Somali, Spanish, Hmong, and English and took their seats...