Chuck Keeney, from Friends of Blair Mountain, gave a fabulous presentation at Bowdoin College last night on the history of coal mining and the unionization of miners in West Virginia. His great grandfather played a central role in the miners’ early resistance to coal company exploitation that eventually led to the Battle of Blair Mountain in 1921. This was one of the largest civil uprisings in United States history and the largest armed insurrection since the Civil War. For five days in Logan County, West Virginia, around 10,000 coal miners confronted an army of 30,000 police and strikebreakers backed by coal operators. The battle ended after the U.S. Army intervened by presidential order.
This longstanding resistance to the coal companies, according to Chuck, is not taught in school textbooks anywhere in Appalachia but is passed down through storytelling from generation to generation. The United Mine Workers were strong in West Virginia for about 50 years but as coal companies turned to mountain top removal and the greater use of machinery, the number of workers was halved, and the strength of the unions has been weakened. The coal company lobby remains stronger than ever, and the devastation left by continued mountaintop removal mining is horrific, now covering an area the size of Delaware in moonscapes across Appalachia. Chuck listed off a deeply disturbing list of human health problems in areas where mountaintop mining takes place: cancer rates double in towns around mountaintop removal mining; there’s an increased rate of brain tumors and birth defects. There’s also increased flooding; water resources in these areas becomes poisoned. Hear Chuck talk about some of these environmental impacts on this short YouTube video we put together from the event.
Brownie Carson, NRCM’s former executive director, and Henry Heyburn, current NRCM board member, both originally from the Appalachia region, participated in the 2011 March on Blair Mountain along the route of the 1921 march of the miners to battle. NRCM took the opportunity of this presentation to call upon the audience to support the recently released, first-ever carbon emissions standards for new power plants issued by the Environmental Protection Agency. These draft rules are a critical first step in addressing climate change, which is why they will be heavily lobbied against by the same coal companies that Chuck says still rule West Virginia today. Across the country, we are working to collect over one million supportive comments on the rules in the next few months. Please take a minute and write a comment here and we will deliver it to the EPA. Thank you!
Lisa Pohlmann, Executive Director