Tuesday, October 6, 2009

The Eighth Circle of Hell

This post is vastly different than my usual posts, but I feel compelled to tell about my experiences this past weekend. This post isn't fun, homespun or quaint, this post is about a great tragedy that is currently happening in our mountains.
Photo by Matthew Burns

I have been to the Eighth Circle of Hell and have returned to tell the tale. Just as Dante’s “Inferno” detailed the conscious fraud and treachery in the Eighth Circle of Hell, those same vices could be used to describe the Eighth Circle of Hell that I visited this past weekend. In case any of you are wondering, the Eighth Circle of Hell is not a place of mythology; rather, it is located just outside of the modern-day community of Sarah Ann, West Virginia.

But one can clearly recognize the community of Sarah Ann was not always this way. It is readily apparent that it was once a nice little community full of people who cared about each other and the land. It is also a historical location, as it was home of the Hatfield Family of Hatfield-McCoy Feud fame. The patriarch of the Hatfield family, Devil Anse Hatfield, is buried in the family cemetery nearby. But decades of fraud and treachery by a roughshod coal industry has laid Sarah Ann low. Sarah Ann is a prime example of the lost potential of a people and community that must forever remain a black eye upon the coal industry as a reminder of its inherent deceptiveness!

Photo by Denny Tyler.

As my wife and I were driving down Route 44 through Logan County on our way to Iaeger in McDowell County, I witnessed poverty like I had never before seen. Everywhere there were remnants of a once thriving economy that had long since vanished. Crumbing homes with broken windows, horrible roads crisscrossed by abandoned rail lines, and countless boarded up stores and businesses. I couldn’t help but notice the irony. Around every bend in the road there was another coal facility, just bulging with the wealth of the mountains. How could this be? How could there be so much obvious wealth in one place with so very little of that wealth benefitting the very location from which it was being exploited? Then, I looked up on the ridgelines and mountaintops that surrounded the roadway, and I saw the problem…mountaintop removal.

Photo by Denny Tyler

While the mines that pervade the area are producing as much coal as ever, these mines no longer require manpower to extract the coal. Though the current stock prices of coal companies indicate that the industry is booming (despite what we hear on the news), it is in fact, a jobless coal boom. Only the coal companies are making any money off of the coal these days, and the people of the coalfields are once again left out in the cold. The people of the southern coalfields are not the types to just sit around and wait for a hand-out, and on our trip you could tell that the people we encountered were hardworking people who have simply fell on hard times. But with only ONE option for employment, where do these people go when that option is no longer available?

Photo by Denny Tyler

The “lucky” few who do manage to find a job on these large equipment intensive mine sites are still faced with the no-win situation of destroying their communities in order to work there. Just as was the case 100 years ago, when the UMW was trying to organize coalfield workers, coal was not then, nor is it now, a friend to southern WV! Whenever I see a bumper sticker that reads, “Friends of Coal,” I want to ask the person driving the vehicle, “Do you by any chance remember Cabin Creek? Paint Creek? Matewan? Blair Mountain?” Now, I don’t know about you, but I tend to reserve my friendship for people who deserve it, and I typically don’t befriend inanimate minerals. I can’t help but wonder if the whole Friends of Coal campaign is merely a means of mass communication among the ignorant? Obviously the people who carry this message are ignorant of their history, their heritage and their future!

Photo by Denny Tyler

However, like many who are opposed to MTR, I am not diametrically opposed to coal mining. In fact, I realize that it is a fact of life in the monoeconomies of the central Appalachian coalfields and that, in fact, it would be immoral to stop all coal mining in central Appalachia. Still, I will say it just makes good sense to obtain the coal from underground and not by mountaintop removal methods. There is a readily available workforce just waiting to again be employed by the coal industry. If Coal really is good for West Virginia, as the industry and the bought-politicans readily tout, then the mining of coal should be conducted in such a way as to maximize the employment of West Virginians. Only in this manner will coal revenue truly increase the tax base and improve the standard of living for the average West Virginian.

Photo by Denny Tyler

You might ask, “But what can be done?” “Is it fair to judge the situation at face value?” Is it fair to say, “If you don’t like it, then leave” as so many coal industry advocates spout? I ask you this, why should someone have to leave their ancestral home simply so that someone else can draw a paycheck from its destruction? Only in central Appalachia can the victim be made out to be the villain! Why should corporate interests be given superiority over the value of human life and individual property rights? I recently heard someone say, “We don’t live where you mine coal, you mine coal where we live. We were here first.” That statement is so very true. A real mountaineer will recognize the problem and fight to make it better instead of cutting and running, like the perpetrators of MTR do.

Photo by Denny Tyler

The majority of problems currently associated with mountaintop removal are clearly human rights issues, as it is chock full of violations on that front. So why do so many see mountaintop removal only as an environmental problem? Is it because it is hard to paint human rights violations when they primarily involve poor, white families, or is it simply because it is easier to villainize “environmental extremists”? If it is the former, that white people are not poor, or cannot be discriminated against, then I invite you to visit the southern West Virginia communities that I visited this weekend. You see, the social justice issues in the coalfields are not racially motivated, but rather, they are based on simple economics. We’re poor, so we don’t matter. Yes, class warfare is alive and well in the central Appalachian coalfields.

But all is not hopeless, I did see a few glimmers of hope on my trip through the coalfields. For example, in Gilbert, West Virginia, I saw a few brave citizens trying their best to break the stranglehold of the monoeconomy perpetrated by the coal industry by taking up the banner of tourism. These people were trying their best to cater to the influx of visitors to the Hatfield/McCoy Trail. In spite of all the efforts there, I see one big catch-22, a community cannot have a tourism industry when mountaintop removal is destroying the very thing these people are coming to visit…the mountains. Now I know the claims, that the Hatfield/McCoy trail is partially built on old strip mines and without the coal industry leaving this abandoned mine land to the state, the trail system would not be possible. That is a faulty argument and is the equivalent of saying that Coca-Cola wouldn’t exist without obese people to drink it! There is already more than enough abandoned strip mines in southern West Virginia to have 100 Hatfield/McCoy trails.

After my visit to the coalfields, the bottom line of the matter is the residents of these communities desperately need roads, and they need them yesterday. I know we’ve all heard the line from, “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” where George Clooney comments that the little town he was in was a geographical oddity because it was 2 weeks from anywhere. Well, many of these little communities share that geographical oddity because they are 2 hours from anywhere. A successful community has a solid infrastructure. Good roads are the cornerstone of this infrastructure. For businesses to excel, there must be a good tranpsortation system. While these tourism entrepreneurs in Gilbert are laying the foundations and hedging their bets that a new day is dawning in the coalfields, it is up to the rest of us to demand that funds be allocated to advancing the economic conditions of the coalfields. Without good roads and the economic diversification that comes with them, these citizens of the southern West Virginia coalfields will remain virtual slaves and a captive workforce for the coal industry that continues to use fewer and fewer workers.

Photo by Denny Tyler

But don’t be mistaken. These are not a broken people, and to realize this one but has to look into the eyes of the children. For too long, these areas have remained forgotten and the people written off as lost causes. The children tell a different story. These kids truly are the hope of the future, but they must be encouraged when they are young. The inquisitiveness and intelligence of these children rival any in the nation, but without nurturing these hopes will die. There is a stark difference between the hopes and dreams of children in the coalfields and the twenty-somethings that remain in this area. I have seen this firsthand, and it made me wonder what went on in that space of time to completely eradicate that optimism? Could it be the 130+ years of oppression wrought by the coal industry? Continually being told (and shown) that you and your land are good for nothing except coal mining, and then being told that you need to keep your mouth shut if your opinions differ from those of the coal industry, has to take its toll on any human psyche. For far too long, the people of the central Appalachian coalfields have been America’s forgotten people. It is shameful that the very people who have sacrificed the most (and continue to sacrifice) for the prosperity of the United States, have received so very little.

Still, the seeds of oppression have sprouted into the flower of discontent, and the southern West Virginia coalfields now finds itself at a crossroads. No longer will it depend on a one resource economy. No longer will it rely on corporate politicians. No longer will its citizens sit idly by and watch their heritage be destroyed for the benefit of some faraway place. No longer will we accept being second-class citizens. Standing with us at this crossroads are the spirits of mountaineers long since passed; from Simon Kenton and Daniel Boone; to Michael Stoner and Mitchell Clay; from Devil Anse and Smilin’ Sid Hatfield; to Mother Jones and Governor William C. Marland. Their presence strengthens and unites us, and they root us in the knowledge that we are as much a part of this rugged land as the coal that is being ripped from the mountaintops.

Photo by Denny Tyler

Let’s stand together on this issue of economic diversification in the coalfields and demand better of our elected officials. No matter where you are from, contact your elected officials by email or letter, better yet call them and tell them your mind! If they continue to refuse to address this grave injustice, then I ask you to join me in actively campaigning against them (regardless of political party) in the next election. The coalfields are at a critical point in its history, and a changing of the guard may be just what is needed to save the coalfields from the coal industry.

Photo by Vivian Stockman


Tipper said...

Matthew-a wonderfully written post. Hard to believe the total destruction to the country side shown in the photos. And the effect it has on the peoples lives is horrible.

Susan at Stony River said...

Those photos are as beautiful as they are heartbreaking.

I can't believe that mountaintop removal is still going on; it's awful. Thanks for a difficult but marvellous and necessary post.

Janet, said...

A very informative post, Matthew. Our hills and the people who live among them need to be protected

warren said...

A great post Matthew...and one that every west Virginian and every American should read. It is a tragedy what happens here in the coal fields...

Thanks for your post!

Granny Sue said...

Matthew, this is an excellent post, worthy of publication. You should submit it to the newspapers as an editorial.

Like you, I am not opposed to coal mining. It is a vital part of our economy, and we all know West Virginia's blood still runs black. But there are ways to get the coal that will leave our land useful and beautiful and those ways are what should be employed, not the dig-and-get-rich methods being used now. It is heart-breaking to see the mountains destroyed for money.

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