When oh when will it be over? When will I lay these burdens down? -- Dwight Yoakam, Miner's Prayer
As we huddle in our homes on this wintry day, appreciating the warmth generated by coal-fired electricity, we need to listen to Kentucky coal miners Carl Shoupe, Elmer Lloyd and Stanley Sturgill on the true cost of coal.
So should the Kentucky legislature, and now the Virginia legislature.
"It's destroying my water," says retired Kentucky coal miner Carl Shoupe. "And anything my grandchildren might hope to enjoy about the mountain culture."
Here are some clips of Carl, Elmer and Stanley, explaining their opposition to mountaintop removal mining, which has devastated their communities:
In a symbolic bond between the Appalachian states of Kentucky and Virginia, coal miners and coalfield residents will rally with statewide citizens groups in both state capitals on February 11th, as historic "stream saver" bills are introduced in special hearings to stop the illegal dumping of mountaintop removal mining waste in protected waterways, and bring an end to the most egregious human rights and environmental violation in the nation. An estimated 2,000 miles of streams and waterways have been jammed and sullied by mining waste in the Appalachian mountains.
Coal miners are uniting with citizens and environmental groups across the Appalachian coalfields with an unequivocal message to the world: End mountaintop removal now, and launch a just transition for clean energy jobs in the coalfields.
On Thursday, Feb. 11th, Kentuckians For The Commonwealth (KFTC), a statewide grassroots citizens social justice organization, will be holding their annual "I Love Mountains Day," a march and rally at the state capitol in Frankfort. The focus is to encourage the legislature to pass similar Stream Saver Bills (Senate Bill 139 and House Bill 396) to prohibit the dumping of toxic mining wastes in any stream. Country music star Kathy Mattea will join KFTC activists and coal miners at the rally.
Across the mountains, a Senate committee in the Virginia General Assembly has scheduled a special hearing on Senate Bill 564, a historic "Stream Saver" bill to end the practice of burying headwater streams with strip mining spoil for the first time ever. A statewide coalition that includes Southern Appalachian Mountain Stewards, Appalachian Voices, Chesapeake Climate Action Network, Sierra Club, and Southern Environmental Law Center, are holding a rally at the state capital in support of the bill.
As I noted last year:
Mountaintop removal has not only destroyed the natural heritage, it has ripped out the roots of the Appalachian culture and depopulated the historic mountain communities in the process. Part of that heritage is Black History Month founder Carter Woodson, who followed his brothers into the West Viriginia coal mines in the 1890s and served what he called his "six-year apprenticeship. The first mountaintop removal operation was launched in those same hollows of Fayette County, West Virginia, less than a century later.
As any judge in Richmond must know, our nation's coal industry was born in 1746, in the Richmond area, with black slave labor. This included some of the first strip mining operations. Lacking the engineering technologies from Britain, the sheer force of the slave labor to function as human bulldozers stunned a visiting Scottish coal engineer. "At the will of their master," he wrote in a letter, slaves at the coal mines in Virginia "could be seen removing as high as thirty feet of cover to obtain four feet of coal."
In the spring of 1838, over forty black slaves and their two foremen were buried alive 700 feet below the earth when an explosion devastated the Black Health Coal Pit in Virginia. Undaunted, the president of a nearby coal mine took out an ad in a newspaper for more laborers. He appealed directly to slave owners to hire out their slaves. "There is no better please in this country where slave labor commands as much, where their general health is better, and where the treatment and contentment of the slaves are surpassed. It is true that within the last few years several disastrous accidents have occurred, but from the scientific and practical skill attracted to the mines, these accidents will be of rare occurrence, it is to be hoped."
At the Dover Pits in Virginia in 1837, one visitor noted that slaves literally worked as mules to transport the coal to the main entry. He wrote: "Each man has a chain fastened by straps around his breast, which he hooks to the corve, and thus harnessed, and in a stooping posture, he drags his heavy load over the floor of rock."
Slavery in the coal mines finally came to an end in the spring of 1865. When Union forces advanced into Confederate territory in Virginia, slaves climbed out of the coal pits at Dover in total desertion and fled for Richmond, bringing this ignominious first chapter of the coal industry to an end.
It's time to bring the nightmare of mountaintop removal to an end.
Jeff Biggers is the author of the new book, Reckoning at Eagle Creek: The Secret Legacy of Coal in the Heartland (Nation/Basic Books).