Dispatches from the American Left (part 1)
I really had no business attending this, but I did anyway. The posts that follow contain my report and analysis.
Mountain Justice Summer’s (MJS) loose, unofficial organization is based on a single issue: ‘mountaintop removal,’ or the strip-mining of mountains to more cheaply extract coal. Figures vary, but around 50% of U.S. electricity comes from coal-fired power plants, while more than a third of that coal comes from the Appalachian mountain range, at once among the most beautiful and the poorest regions in North America. The history of Appalachia is also the history of labor’s militant resistance to exploitation, the most famous instance being the ‘Redneck War,’ fought by the United Mine Workers and supporters and culminating in the Battle of Blair Mountain in 1921. The one time in history the U.S. government bombed its own people in its own territory, that event triggered the eventual nationwide establishment of the eight-hour working day, medical benefits, paid leave, worker’s comp, etc. All of which we are now steadily losing.
But though terrain and tactics have changed, the war has never really ended. Surface mining has been a major site of resistance since the ’50s, and right on through its escalation in the early ’70s as (ostensibly) a response to the petrol crisis. The process of destroying the mountain devastates the local ecosystem, causing flash floods, rockslides, poisoned headwaters, destruction of farmland, and eradication of a dizzying array of plant and animal species; it also devastates the local economy through massive job loss (being easier to automate than underground mining), the weakening of unions, and widespread health problems. The upshot of ruining hundreds of thousands of acres of (populated!) land is increased profits for coal companies and the supply of somewhere around 5% of U.S. electricity demand.
Of course, this image is prior to legally mandated “reclamation.” The options for the land’s future use tend toward more civilized pursuits.
The U.S. Geologic Survey considers the Appalachian reserves (the highest quality coal in the country) good for one to two decades at current production levels. When taken together with the recent spate of “clean coal” propaganda, Bush’s elimination of “buffer zone” laws intended to protect mountain streams (a major national source of drinking water) from mining pollution, and the co-optation of both Democratic presidential candidates, it seems pretty clear that Big Coal is on a intensive disinformation campaign to wring the last bit of profit from a dying industry regardless of ‘external’ cost. The idea would presumably be to speedily accumulate the rights to all remaining reserves, then maintain national dependence on coal as long as possible through its inevitable decrease in supply. Maximize profit, drag out the pain.
More to come…