terrible news out of Montcoal, WV, this week about the mine explosion there has me thinking--again--about my relationship with the coal industry. Not that I have one, in the sense of an economic or even a philosophical investment, but you can't live in West Virginia without establishing some kind of relationship with Big Coal.
I discovered this very quickly after moving here in 2007. To be honest, I imagined coal mining was a part of West Virginia's past; I didn't know until I got here how huge a part of its present it is, and how deeply everyone in the state is implicated in it, and how reliant we all are on the industry's success or failure.
While the rest of the country has been in deep recession, West Virginia--at least at the governmental level--has been in the black; fittingly, the "black" is due to the coal industry, which is thriving even as other jobs dry up. My own employer, West Virginia University, is in pretty good financial shape (relative to other state universities) because the state is in decent economic shape because the coal industry is still making big profits. So, my hands are black from coal, too.
Just last week, Tom and I went to the Heinz History Center in Pittsburgh, where we saw an exhibit about the Monongah Mine Disaster of 1907. I wrote about that event a bit in an earlier blog, but suffice to say that having seen the terrible images from that event--now over a hundred years old--and the images from the current disaster are a reminder that the more things change here in coal country, the more they stay the same.
"Friend of Coal" or a "Friend of the Mountains." There's a car in my neighborhood that has bumper stickers from both of the linked organizations on it, which always baffles me--I don't see how it's possible to have a foot in both camps.
Needless to say, there's a class divide that accompanies the split, too. For many West Virginia families (including my own, as I'll write about in a later blog), coal mining is the one "sure thing" in a place where there are few economic certainties. And even though many of those families have suffered at the hands of the coal industry, either directly or indirectly, through job loss, injury, or environmental destruction, many of them are still fiercely loyal to Big Coal. And who could blame them? As the coal industry goes, so goes the state. To work actively against it is, at least in the eyes of some, working for your neighbors' demise.
And yet, many of those same folks will lament the ways in which mountaintop removal mining is destroying the state's other vital natural resource: its landscape. I can't imagine that even the most ardent supporter would have failed to find something deeply troubling about a comment made by a guy my dad knew, who worked as an engineer for Massey Energy. In defense of mountaintop removal mining, he said something to the effect of "All that new, level ground is gonna be a great asset to the state of West Virginia after mining operations have ceased." You can build shopping malls on it! Farm it! Pave paradise and put up a parking lot!
Everyone in the state is dirty, from Governor Manchin, who--when confronted with the number of safety violations against the very mine that exploded this morning--replied in coy lawyer-speak, "That's what I've been told," to Don Blankenship, the crazy-assed CEO of Massey Energy, who has called carbon-emissions limits "a hoax and a Ponzi scheme," right down to me. I've got an "I Heart Mountains" bumper sticker on my car, but I still profit in some way from the success of the industry.
And of course, it's not just West Virginians who are dirty. Want to know what you relationship with Big Coal is? You might be surprised at what you learn when you click here.