Brandon Nida, a 32-year-old West Virginian, has a ready answer for anyone wondering if anything was accomplished by the five-day “March on Blair Mountain” in early June.
“It definitely raised national awareness of the threat to Blair Mountain … and that’s probably the biggest thing we can do right now.,” he said in a telephone interview a little more than two weeks after the June 6-11 march. “The only way the coal companies can get away with this catastrophic coal extraction process known as ‘mountaintop removal’ is if people don’t know what’s going on.”
Nida was joined in the 50-mile march by union coal miners, environmentalists, scholars, artists, musicians and citizens from West Virginia and beyond — upwards of 350 people all told.
The end-point of the march, Blair Mountain, was the site of the 1921 armed clash between 10,000 West Virginia coal miners rebelling against oppressive living conditions and a well-armed private army backed by the coal companies. Though the rebellion was put down with the intervention of federal troops, it became a rallying event for the labor movement, a milestone in the long struggle of coal miners to earn decent wages in safe working conditions.
“The way I think of Blair Mountain,” Nida says, “it’s not ‘past’ history. It’s ‘living’ history. A lot of the things those miners were rebelling against remain — the system of oppression and control of the resources, the exploitation of the region, it’s all very much with us in West Virginia today.”
True to that understanding, the 2011 “March on Blair Mountain” called attention to the historic site of the 1921 battlefield in the context of its threatened destruction by the modern surface coal-mining technique known as “mountaintop removal.” Placed on the National Register of Historic Places in April 2009, 1,950-foot Blair Mountain was delisted soon after because the designation would have permanently blocked mining there.
To Nida, a doctoral student in archaeology at the University of California in Berkeley, destroying Blair Mountain is unthinkable, given its historic significance as a place of resistance and a crucible of the American labor movement. As good a place as any, then, to take a stand against the wholesale leveling of Appalachian mountains for the coal below.
The devastation isn’t simply to the environment — although that’s mind-boggling enough, with more than 1.2 million acres leveled (a land area the size of the state of Delaware) and roughly 2,200 miles of downhill streams and rivers filled with the “overburden” waste left behind in the mining process. It’s been devastating to the communities and mountain culture of West Virginia and the other Appalachian states as well.
Take the town of Blair, in the shadow of the mountain carrying its name. Nida says its population used to be 2,000 to 3,000 people; now it’s down to 75. The depopulation began in the mid-1990s, when surface mining involving explosives and massive earth-moving machinery began to level a mountain ridge near Blair Mountain. Home foundations cracked. Wells dried up as groundwater streams became disrupted. Property values dropped. Families accepted the coal company’s offers to buy their distressed properties, agreeing not to locate within 25 miles of their former home.
“For the rest of the United States, Appalachia has been a ‘sacrifice zone’ for generations and generations, and now the Appalachian people are being told to make one more huge sacrifice,” he says. “When you turn on your air conditioner, or flip a light switch, a mountain is being blown up for the coal burned to make that electricity.”
While that might be less true in Maine than in other parts of the country — only 10.5 percent of our electricity comes from coal-generating plants — now that we know what’s happening in West Virginia, we should not ignore it and hope the “problem” goes away.
When coal companies have leveled every mountain and the coal is all gone, what then? Shouldn’t we care about the people left behind? Shouldn’t we stand with them for their rights to clean water, clean air and vibrant local economies? Let us join together, then, with the people of Appalachia to put a stop to the mountaintop removal of coal.