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Dear Soledad: Appalachian Leaders Respond to CNN's Blair Mountain Special on Mountaintop Removal

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With a mounting death toll and a 40-year rap sheet that marks it as our nation's most urgent health and humanitarian crisis, mountaintop removal mining is hardly a new issue.

Enter Soledad O'Brien, whose CNN special last night, "Battle for Blair Mountain," arguably reached more Americans during prime time than any other film documentary in the past decade.

O'Brien is no stranger to tragedy. The acclaimed journalist brilliantly handled reports on Hurricane Katrina and the tsunami in Asia; her special, "The Black Woman & Family," exposed the devastating and unfair burden of HIV and AIDS.

In a move that has bewildered many affected residents in central Appalachia, O'Brien and her producers decided to tell the story of Blair Mountain and mountaintop removal, an admittedly criminal mining practice that provides less than 5 percent of our national coal production, stripped jobs and gutted the miners' unions, and left the central Appalachian communities in entrenched poverty and illness, through the eyes and experiences of seemingly embattled strip miners who are afraid of losing their jobs.

Many Appalachian viewers have asked: What about the already displaced coal mining communities afraid of losing their lives?

There is much to admire in O'Brien's program: She outs the Army Corps of Engineers's faulty stream mitigation practices on film; EPA administrator Lisa Jackson goes on record of her mandate to uphold the Clean Water Act; the disgraced Sen. Joe Manchin, who has made millions off his coal mining investments, is taken to task, and the venerable Jimmy Weekley reminds national viewers of the dignity and importance of standing up to ruthless and absentee coal companies.

In truth, if O'Brien and CNN wish to tell the real battle of Blair Mountain, they owe it to their viewers -- and the affected residents living under the fallout of mountaintop removal operations in central Appalachia -- to come back and tell the other side.

In the meantime, here are some responses from central Appalachians who live near mountaintop removal operations:

Dear Soledad: Come Back to West Virginia

My name is Bo Webb. I live in the Coal River Valley in West Virginia directly beneath a 2000 acre mountaintop removal nightmare. Last night as I watched The Battle for Blair Mountain I realized that a dream I had 7 years ago had finally been realized; seeing CNN do a special on mountaintop removal. Having said that, I must tell you that I was left a little numb and disappointed. Although the coal industry may be appreciative of your approach, worker versus environmentalists is not the real story.

As the movement to abolish mountaintop removal continues to grow many Americans are struggling to understand all sides of the issue. They feel a sensitivity for those that work on mountaintop removal strip sites, those that drive the supply trucks and other spin off jobs, while also apprehensive about the people in mountain communities beneath and near these sites. I've fought this battle for ten years now and I used to ask myself, is mountaintop removal justifiable? Over the past two years the answer to that question has become quite clear to me as I have watched an acceleration of sickness and cancer in my community.

When we hear the words mountaintop removal, we think; "coal". But coal is not the issue. Coal is the trap that engages us in debate. The REASON the mountain is being blown up is not the issue. The FACT that the mountain is being blown up is the real issue. For more than ten years now, day after day, six days a week, year after year, nearly six million pounds of ammonium nitrate and diesel fuel mix explosives have been detonated (daily to be clear) above Central Appalachian Mountain Communities in eastern Kentucky and southern West Virginia. The air we breathe, (the only air we have to breathe) is continually contaminated with this fuel mix residue, silica from pulverized sandstone, and quite possibly heavy metal particulates. The long term health effects of exposure to mountaintop removal have become evident. Cancer rates are accelerating at an alarming rate in the Coal River Valley. It seems just about every week we hear of a neighbor or relative that has contracted cancer. I don't believe it takes a rocket scientist to connect this tremendous amount of explosive fallout to increased cancer rates in mountain communities near and beneath mountaintop removal.

Mountaintop removal is not about jobs and it's not about an economy. There is no justification for an endeavor that causes death to innocent people.

Informed People, Corporate CEO's, Politicians, and Clergy that accept ethic and moral responsibility as part of their guidance should not support mountaintop removal another day. Turning a blind eye, complacent to remain silent does not render them or anyone else innocent. It actually makes them an accomplice. Politicians like Sen. Joe Manchin talk about "balance", but balance does not justify allowing people to die so Mr. Dahl may have a job. Mountaintop removal must stop, and it must stop now. Those that have allowed this are in need of a gut check. They have supported, either by trick or innocence, the justification for an industry to reap enormous profit by plundering our mountains in disregard to our people and our health. These profits have allowed the coal industry to finance a public relations machine that has trapped us into an unrealistic debate about "coal." The reality and the issue are sickness and death.

As Americans and environmentalists we want to save the Appalachian Mountains, but much more important, as a caring people, we must not stand silent as the coal industry operates in a manner that indiscriminately kills our citizens. It is my hope that you will come back to West Virginia as soon as possible and cover the real story; our lives are depending on it.

Respectfully, Bo Webb


Dear Soledad: The reality of the dispute: Health vs wealth, lives vs livelihoods, people vs profit.

Soledad O'Brien's piece on mountaintop removal is little more than an ad for the coal industry in its relentless pursuit of profit at the expense of Appalachian citizens' health and communities. She paints the dispute as one between hardworking miners, who have families, shed tears, and face an uncertain future, and an army of bureaucrats, attorneys, and scientists. She portrays mountaintop removers as the underdogs, whose communities have been wiped out by the EPA and judges. She does not challenge this assertion, when the reality is that mining employment has increased since the EPA's actions of April 1, 2010, and that MTR removes jobs. She barely touches the health impacts of mountaintop removal, and completely ignores the fact that the real underdogs are the people whose lives (not livelihoods) are lost to mountaintop removal. She says that Mrs. Dials "inspires" her community, and that they will fight for their community and for coal. She ignores the many on our side who have inspired the resistance to MTR: people like Goldman Prize winners Judy Bonds (who died of cancer just 11 days before the Spruce veto) and Maria Gunnoe (who appears briefly in the film, but without the context that her home and family's lives are threatened by MTR). She completely ignored those of us who attended the pro-coal rally at the WV Capitol to protest MTR. CNN cameras followed us, but to watch the O'Brien piece, you'd think that we didn't show up. She points out that Mr. Dials now has to drive an hour to work, misleading the public into thinking that most MTR workers do so in their own back yards. The reality is that most people conducting MTR drive a long distance anyway, often an hour or more to blow up someone else's back yard. She gives the Dials the first and last word, not only of the piece, but of most segments as well.

Rather than the misguided and worn out "jobs vs environment" frame, Ms. O'Brien would have done a much more accurate piece to show the reality of the dispute: Health vs wealth, lives vs livelihoods, people vs profit. In this case, wealth wins. CNN would surely never wish to offend their advertisers. We remember the dishonest "Americans for Clean Coal Electricity" ads aired during the last presidential debates. Shame.

Vernon Haltom, Coal River Mountain Watch, West Virginia


Dear Soledad: The only appropriate follow-up would be to genuinely examine the intense, personal horrors from mountaintop removal.

As a former CNN journalist, myself, I have to say that this piece completely buried the lead and saddens me for a network of which I was once most proud. As a ninth-generation Appalachian and the progeny of generations of coal miners, I am dismayed by CNN's false representation of coal workers' somehow having a greater claim to my state than those of us who oppose mountaintop removal and whose families were here before coal was even discovered.


Using the Blair Mountain march as metaphor, CNN has done a grave disservice to the actual crisis, the real and ongoing human rights disaster that exists in Appalachia. The choice in Appalachia is NOT, as CNN suggests, between "jobs" and "environmentalists," but between Life, itself and the grim death that is the handmaiden of the eternal profit-seekers who destroy our homes, our communities, our heritage and our very lives. I'm no "environmentalist." I'm a human rights advocate who opposes the mountaintop removal industry's callous disregard for the value of my family's, friends, neighbors' and colleagues' very lives. I'm a student of history who understands that the people of this state have a constitutional right to the quiet enjoyment of their property that is actually greater than a mountaintop removal company's right to make a profit.

CNN managed to mischaracterize the nature of the dispute on a number of levels beyond the critical, existential Life vs. death. Among other things, the report blithely asserted that mountaintop removal has something to do with America's energy needs. It does not. Energy from mountaintop removal coal is less than 2.5% of all electricity produced in America. We could end it and not even see a dimming of the lights.

Calling a sea of toxic waste a "lake" was only one of the more pathetic errors in a piece rife with them. The piece failed to examine the violent nature of the mountaintop removers as compared with the non-violent approach espoused by we who oppose them.

CNN gave the coal industry all it could have wanted and more. The only appropriate follow-up would be to genuinely examine the intense, personal horrors the mountaintop removal industry is perpetrating on the people of Appalachia. Given the knowledge that CNN has taken truly vast amounts of advertising money from the coal industry over the years in the name of the same profit the mountaintop removal industry, itself, pursues, it's the only appropriate response.

We, the People of Appalachia who have the courage to speak out against deeply entrenched power, deserve nothing less. Journalistic integrity deserves nothing less.

Bob Kincaid, West Virginia


Dear Soledad: The Battle of Blair Mountain was led by Bill Blizzard.

Little good can be said about the CNN special on Blair Mountain. The show got beyond the third commercial break before even mentioning any historical significance to Blair Mountain. Blair Mountain could seemingly have been just any mountain where the (imagined) battle between jobs and trees is played out. This is no surprise given the none too secret biases of CNN.

Blair Mountain is oft cited as the scene of the largest armed insurrection since the Civil War and certainly deserves to be preserved as the site of an incredible event in U.S. Labor History. That said, Blair Mountain is not the history. The history is what happened on the mountain. The events that led to our Union being what it is today--however imperfect, still "the greatest Union in the world". (Bill Blizzard's 1955 letter requesting permission to retire from his role as President of UMWA District 17)

Chuck Keeney said it well on the CNN show. It is to "make a mockery of history by allowing it to be destroyed."

Beyond the expected bias, the CNN attempted to destroy the facts of our history. Referring to the Armed March, they said it was "led by Keeney's great grandfather in 1921." This is blatantly false and dangerously so. While Keeney held the presidency of District 17 during the March and he initially supported it, during the actual Battle he and Fred Mooney were in Ohio. They "kept in touch with developments through the press reports and by messenger until September 16."(Mooney's book, p. 99) The Battle was led by Bill Blizzard.

Some may say this distinction is of little import but not so! Keeney was a radical who would go on to form a rival union to the UMWA and later support another. Both failed. He was a strong advocate for working people but went on to end his professional life running a Charleston nightclub and later as a parking lot attendant. Despite being an honorable chap, he was not a person likely to inspire today's youth. He is today harmless.

Bill Blizzard led the miners on Blair Mountain, was lead defendant at the Charles Town trials, led the incredibly successful effort to organize West Virginia in the early 1930s, and as President of District 17 was arguably the most powerful man in the state for at least ten years. He is a powerful role model for today's aspiring organizers. Bill Blizzard, like Joe Hill, is still organizing!

Somehow, CNN got the idea that Frank Keeney led the March on Blair Mountain. By putting that information on national TV they "make a mockery of history by allowing it to be destroyed." The Friends of Blair Mountain need to look closely to find the source of the false and misleading information. Do we have a modern day Baldwin-Felts in our midst? Best get our house in order before the next national TV event.

Wess Harris, editor, WHEN MINERS MARCH

Dear Soledad: The true victims lay in their homes suffering from a myriad of diseases unable to afford health care

With Respect: I viewed the CNN Blair Mountain Special aired Sunday August 14, 2011 EST. Regrettably I found it missing the point regarding the cost in human agony and death resulting from Mountain Top Removal demolition. Clearly, the story presented the persons responsible for the death and destruction in Appalachia as victims when, in fact, they are the perpetrators of this systematic form of genocide. True, snippets of environmentalists views were offered, but the CNN Special did not accurately portray the ongoing tragedy of those afflicted by disease and conditions wrought by Mountain Top Destruction nor the sacrifices made by those fighting in the trenches. I will say one final scene was accurate. It presented the perpetrators of this death & destruction gliding away on a $20,000 motorcycle, light-hearted and carefree whilst the true victims lay in their homes suffering from a myriad of diseases unable to afford health care. I appeal to you to immediately begin a follow up segment which portrays an accurate view of Mountain Top Removal Bombing and it's ultimate effects and costs in human suffering. In Conclusion, Ms. O'Brian I have followed your career for many years and know you to be a woman of conscience and integrity. I trust you will examine your conscience and correct your erroneous portrayal of Mountain Top Removal.. Be assured, you shall remain in our prayers.

Matt Sherman, American Indian Movement, Native American Advisor Coal River Mountain Watch.

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