Sunday, April 6, 2014

Appalachians, Freedom, and Kindness

I've heard it said that Appalachian people started moving to the mountains to find solitude and freedom. I try to put myself into the place of those early pioneers, many of which were Scotch-Irish, brought to the new world as indentured servants. I try to think of what their choices were after being victims of classism, sentenced to lives of  deplorable living conditions and near starvation.
 Is it hard to believe that they enjoyed the freedom given to them in those rugged, untouched mountains, that they preferred living in a state of nature similar to that which was described by John Locke or Jean-Jeaques Rousseau? 

I do not pretend to romanticize this past. There were times in which terrible circumstances tore from those settlers every shred of happiness they could muster in the wilderness. Justice may have been wrongly and cruelly served where passion struck hearts overpowered logic. Yet, I do not believe they lived in utter destitution and misery, for if they did, they would have made different choices.

It is this choice that defines Appalachia and the people within it. Those early pioneers and the many subsequent generations were not imprisoned there. Nothing prevented them from moving back to the cities and farmlands back east, or from venturing further west with the expansion. The people of the Appalachian Mountains stayed, choosing to continue their simplistic lives together, forging the underlying familial values and a sense of generosity that largely defines the region even after war and industrialization brought greed and violence back into the hearts of many.

Shucking Corn Till Sundown - Walt Curlee
Scarcity of land and political motives divided people. Company script and paychecks began replacing gardens. Television replaced evenings spent on front porches or sitting around the kitchen table with neighbors.

Even then people still tried to stick together as society forced them apart. The labor movements were born in the mountains, born from those people still fighting for freedom.

Egoism is the means by which many search for false happiness these days, each relinquishing themselves to the will of the economy. The society our ancestors fled from three and four hundred years ago has infiltrated every hollow, every ridge line, every creek. The kindest of people have turned to hardness against their neighbors in search of paycheck after paycheck.

Life has become hard for those of us who still cling to the old ways. We were taught that someone's worth should be based on their generosity while it seems the rest of the world is taught to base their worth on money. We were taught to look for the goodness in others while the rest of the world is being taught to "do unto others before they do unto you." 

Our happiness is being robbed by the ill will of others, by selfishness, by the callousness taught to children in a world of "take what you can get." And still we cling to those old ways, we hold onto that glimmer of hope that people's hearts will soften, that people will think not in terms of what they can do for themselves, but what they can do for others. Though it is easy to take the hurt we so often feel and lash out with equal venom, we instead choose to transform it into a deeper sense of love--a means of cherishing who we are and where we come from.

Here's to forgiveness...and hope.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Upper Big Branch Remembered

Has the pain subsided? Have the families of the Upper Big Branch victims found peace? Have they  experienced a day in which they miss their loved ones any less?

The following is an emotional account from the family member of an Upper Big Branch victim.

For politicians, today is just another day to "honor" the victims. To speak words they hope will bring them more votes in the poles. A day to skirt upon the dangerous edge of consoling the public without crossing the line and losing campaign contributions from the coal industry.

The watered down safety legislation following the disaster, legislation that does everything but give coal miners the power to shut down a dangerous operation without fear of job loss, is evidence that nothing has truly changed.

The hearts of the coal company executives  are still as cold as the marble inscribed with the names of the fallen, a monument that it my eyes, does little to honor the men they sacrificed for profit, so much as it reminds me of the heartless greed of their "business." 

For me, this anniversary calls to question what has happened to our Appalachia.

What has caused us to support politicians who support one industry rather than work towards a future in which families will never again have to face such anguish at the hands of coal companies who only think in terms of profit?

What has happened that people are more willing to support campaigns like Friends of Coal rather than come together to build a better future for our children?

Let us continue to pray for those who are walking to the gravesides of their loved ones.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

"Coal is all we've got"

My father has bothered to tell my brother and I on more than one occasion, "I wish I had've got you
boys more when you were growing up. A lot of the guys at the mine were buying their kids new four wheelers and things. They'd buy bass boats, and campers and take their families to the lake every weekend, but I just couldn't bring myself to go into debt like that." Naturally our response has always been, "We didn't need that stuff anyway." And we didn't.

A lot of my parent's thriftiness came from common sense and being raised in hard times. Even during the best years of coal mining it wasn't uncommon for the mine to shut down for a few months. They knew it was better to put a little money back in case times got tough rather than spread themselves to thin.

It also gave them the advantage of standing up to the company when miner safety became a problem or the company was trying to cut benefits without reason. Without a massive amount of debt, my dad could go on strike and stand up for what's right--not just for himself, but everyone that worked at the mine. Imagine if the men at Upper Big Branch had that right.

Today it's a bit different. I've seen way to many diesel pickup trucks with Friends of Coal tags that tell me all I need to know about the newest generation of coal miners. You could always tell many of the older coal miners from the younger just by looking at the parking lot of the coal mine I worked at. The older coal miners drove beat-to-hell pickup trucks and cars, while many of the younger miners rolled up with $30,000+ pickups. And the spending didn't end there. I'd hear about their houses, sports cars, vacations, motorcycles, expensive toys for their kids. I'd just shake my head.

I'd sometime ask if it wouldn't be smarter to buy cheaper vehicles, smaller homes, and put a lot of the $50,000+ a year back into savings? I'd often hear excuses such as, "You only live once." Further argument was futile.

I can never understand why today's coal miners fail to look beyond the immediate future--why they don't realize that being dependent upon one skill set, and one industry, is setting yourself up for failure--is putting your family at risk?

I hate it when I hear coal miners say, "Coal is all we've got!"  Whose fault is it?

There's an old saying, "Don't put all your eggs in one basket." Somehow, that saying has been lost among many people. Every coal miner would have been serving themselves and their families well if they, in the time they were making good money from the coal companies, put more effort into putting themselves through training in a different skill set, not to mention voting for politicians who would have worked to bring job alternatives to the mountains. Of course, the training part is difficult because coal companies often work miners on rotating shifts, 1st shift for a week or so, 2nd for a week or so. I wondered if they didn't do it on purpose just to keep coal miners from taking advantage of going to college or being trained in different skills.

From day one in the mine, I began paying double payments on the only debt I had, a 10 year old used pickup truck I purchased for half the price of a new one. It was my only debt. We inherited the old home place and spent the last six years using tax returns to put a new roof on, install new plumbing, new doors and windows, remodel the kitchen and bathroom. Our car was a 10 year old Subaru and when we decided to get a new car (a mistake I know), we at least got a small Corolla and kept the payments low. Not only that, we already had the money in the bank saved up to buy it outright. We didn't because it made more sense to take advantage of the 0.0% financing, rather than deplete our savings in one purchase.

I did these things because I had remembered the times mad dad was laid off. I wanted first and foremost to be prepared for the inevitable.

When the big "surprise" comes that the coal market is taking a hit and mines are being shut down everywhere, who should really be blamed for the financial woes of coal miners across Appalachia?

Well, it's happened and continues to happen. What's worse is that no one seems to be the wiser. You can tell by how many Friends of Coal tags are out there on the roads and how many coal miners are quick to point fingers to a "War on Coal."

It's hard to get folks to realize what is going on. I've tried. It's even harder to get people to change their way of thinking. Something major has to happen for someone to change and often times its more of an adaption than a change.

How long will it take to turn things around? I have no idea, but in the mean time I have to wonder how much more damage will be done to Appalachia and how many more generations will have to leave before everyone realizes the need to bring in different jobs--to stop propping up the coal industry as being the almighty saviors of Appalachia.

There are a lot of people with some amazing ideas out there. I think it's time everyone starts listening to them.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

For Our Children

For thousands of coal miners whose sacrifices have spanned multiple decades, the point of going to work in the mine everyday was to provide their children a chance at a life they could not have. They did not work to spoil their children, but to see to it that cold and hunger did not take from their happiness. They worked to give their children better opportunities in life, opportunities they hoped would not leave them broken down and gasping for breath.

What has occurred in the past 10 years to cause coal miners and their families to want anything different? Why have so many people changed from wishing their children never stepped foot in the mines to putting "Coal Mining Our Future" stickers on their vehicles?

It seems to me that if we wanted a better future for our children, we'd be fighting for change in the mountains. The health of my children is important to me, and I'm sure it's the same for any loving parent out there. Why is it then, that people back home have such a hard time accepting the health problems being caused by mining? Why are they fighting so hard for jobs that will take their children's health instead of fighting for jobs that could provide a cleaner, healthier future for them?

I went into the coal mines to give my children a better future, and I left the coal mines for the same reason.

Now I'm speaking out about it. Does that make me a bad person? Does that make me a hypocrite?

Monday, March 3, 2014


                Growing up on Georges Fork, coal trucks were a part of life. They rumbled up and down the road every five to ten minutes starting from 6:00 in the morning and continuing until 6:00 in the evening. From our doublewide perched on the hillside, we could hear them coming, jake breaking into each curve all the way down as far as Jimmy’s truck shop. Paid by the load and not by the hour, drivers hurtled their tractor-trailers loaded with 50 tons of coal up and down our narrow road. When we were old enough to take our bikes to the road, Mom made us wait until well after 6:00 when the sun had fallen below the western ridge and the threat of us being caught beneath the 22 wheels of a coal truck were gone. Still we kept our ear to the wind, listening for a truck that got held up, or a day the tipple was kept open late. 

We had to have CB radios in our vehicles to avoid being crushed by coal trucks as they sped up and down our narrow road, including our bus driver. The truck drivers named the dangerous curves where passing another truck was impossible: “Volkswagen,” “Horse Shoe,” “Meat House,” and “Trailer,” to name a few. They were named according to small landmarks, like the Volkswagen beetle parked at my grandparent’s house, or the small meat shop owned by my cousin and great uncle.
                We contended with the dust they’d bring up and down the roads, chunks of grey mud caking the undercarriage, falling down and being pulverized to fine dust beneath their wheels and drifting as clouds onto the homes of my family. My grandmother took to draping old towels over her porch chairs rather than having to wipe them down every time someone came for a visit and my uncle purchased a pressure washer to keep his porch floor and vinyl siding clean. Those living nearest the road with little ones petitioned the county to enact a 25 mile an hour speed limit down the road. Truck drivers didn’t like the idea that three miles of their thirty mile journey would be slowed down. They began issuing threats to those who’d been most vocal about it, blowing their horns every time they passed by their houses. The county eventually installed a speed limit sign and the first night it was up, someone cut it down and threw it into Glenda's yard, one of the mothers who'd fought hard to get it. It was a shallow victory though, coal politics saw to it that the speed limit was never enforced.

                                How many tons of coal left our hollow in those trucks? How much money? Load after load, for over fifty years. Now the minable coal is gone. There hasn’t been a mine down Georges Fork for 15 years, and there won’t be another.

                The ridges that surrounded Georges Fork have been torn to shreds, the large holes punched into the sides drain out acidic water and whatever chemicals were left behind. The forests are dissected , grass and brush still the only things covering hillsides nearly forty years after reclamation. Many of my generation have left the hollow, finding few reasons to stay without good jobs. The once well-kept home places have been rented out, falling into disrepair, their renters and owners having little time and energy to accomplish much after working long hours to scrape out a living.
  Many of those whose fortunes were made bigger down Georges Fork do not live nearby. Gilliam is a billionaire and continues to fly in his private jet, living five hours away in Charlottesville, enjoying the beauty of the Shenandoah Valley. The owners of Paramont eventually created Alpha Natural Resources, 3rd largest coal company in the United States following their merger with Massey Energy. They live in Bristol, miles away from the mountains they laid to waste. The Lamberts still live somewhere closer by, their humble beginnings and ties to family still holding them to the towns they love, their money able to shield them from the problems caused by coal mining and natural gas production.

                Our wells are contaminated, our springs turned into mine drainage. No thought was ever given to the people who would be left with the mess. Georges Fork is only one place, one familiar lifelong home amongst thousands of others left to ruin in the wake of “business”, of American Progress.

                And so is the story of Appalachia, the story of billions—trillions—of dollars of natural resources leaving our mountains, heaved from the Earth by the broken backs and choked lungs of our families. For our love of home and our love of family, we have been made dependent upon outside interests—made slaves to others comfort and luxury.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Buffalo Creek Disaster - 42 years Later & Still Remembering

42 years ago people were suffering from the terrible loss of their loved ones and all they knew. The reason, a cheaply built slurry impoundment. Coal companies put profit before people and as much as things change, they stay the same...but today it's worse.

"This was the most tragic thing I've ever seen in my life, I'm sorry God made me live to see it."

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Going Against the Grain

Many people may consider me to be going "against the grain" when it comes to coal politics. I am, after all, very active in social and environmental justice these days and have been known to sit in front of buildings, participate in documentaries, testify at public hearings, and even have Op-Eds published in "The Hill." In various Facebook conversations and comments made on this blog, I have been more or less called a traitor by fellow coal miners. I have been accused of being a disgruntled employee, dismissed as having been fired, as a man who is now acting out his petty revenge against those who wronged him in some way.

Let me set the record straight.

My time working in the mine taught me many lessons, some of which I did not realize until well after I quit. I was not fired. I was not laid off. In August of 2010, following a tremendous loss to my family, I took a giant leap of faith and I left the coal mines to start a new life for my family. I went to the main office, told the folks in human resources I was quitting, and filled out my termination paperwork. It was one of only two jobs I left without giving a two week notice. As to the question of being disgruntled—your damn right I was, but this isn't a revenge story. The mistreatment I endured at the hands of both mine management and a few fellow co-workers was simply the most recent miniscule account of the struggle Appalachian people have faced for over a hundred years.

After quitting the mine I realized the Appalachian Dream of raising my kids close to home and having enough money to give them a good childhood was false. If there is anything I regret most, it is that I lost sight of what is truly important in life and I forgot the history of what the coal industry has done to the people of Appalachia.

For those who dismiss me as being disgruntled, or those who downright hate my guts for speaking out against coal, I have one simple request...think about where we came from and who the Appalachian people were before the timber and coal industries came, buying up and even outright stealing our land. Remember the labor struggles, the company hired mercenaries who pushed around and murdered hard working miners because those poor souls simply wanted something better for their families than a life lived in debt to the coal company. Think about the many senseless mine disasters caused when company owners put profits over the safety of their employees, even as recently as Upper Big Branch. Find out what the coal companies have been doing to keep from paying black lung benefits to the men and women who spent their lives mining their coal (ABC News).

Now, think about the current goals of the coal industry. Have they changed? Do they care about Appalachian people, or, are they still out there to make money the cheapest way possible? Think of all the things they are willing to do to continue making the highest profit at the lowest cost. Have they ever paid their employees what they are truly worth without coal miners banding together to fight for it? Have they promised employees the healthcare and retirement pension they will need to enjoy what years they have left after giving their best years to the mine? Do you think they make every effort to ensure our water sources remain clean? Think of all the wells that have been sunk due to underground mining, all the prep plants that inject slurry into old mines that have contaminated people’s wells. Think about how each mountain has layers of rock that allow water to seep down through, filtering it before it comes out of springs or ends up as aquifers for wells. Now think about what happens to that filtration when that mountain is strip mined. Think about the orange water that now comes from those mountains. Is it worth it?

I spent so many years of my life working hard to obtain the Appalachian Dream, to give my kids a better future through decent paychecks. Sadly, I bought into a society that now judges us more by what we own and how hard we worked for it, rather than how much we are willing to give.  

Appalachian people moved to the mountains to get away from that society, to live in simple peace. Sure life was hard, but it was a life they wanted, a life similar to what the Amish enjoy today. The many generations that came before coal stayed in the mountains rather than going off to find some big city or some big gold strike. They loved their mountain home, but when society and industrialization invaded, they did what they could to resist being slaves to it again—and so they formed unions—trying desperately to hold onto that sense of mountain family, sacrificing weeks, months, and sometimes years of paychecks to help their fellow neighbors.

After working in today’s non-union mines, I see the coal industry for what it is and always will be. I see it for the destruction of our mountain homes, the orange acidic water running off of old mine sites, slurry impoundments full of chemicals and heavy metals leaching out into our streams, and the continuous poverty created by buying off our political system in order to keep things the same, especially the desperate poverty that creates an enthusiastic workforce, one in which more and more people are willing to forgo their principles in pursuit of “decent” paycheck.

I took a job in the mine to give my kids a better life, to make money and buy them what I thought would make them happy. I had high hopes they would do well in school and go to college, that my sacrifices would become worthwhile in their future. I was only fooling myself. Buying more things does not make our children happier, if anything it sets them up for a life of materialistic wants that will drive them into the same dark holes in search of happiness it drove me and so many other mountain people into. 

Dante's Inferno (Salt Lake City)
The problem goes well beyond the Appalachian Mountains though. The lives we are living, being wasteful of cheap energy from fossil fuels and using manufactured chemicals that end up in our water, food, and air, is nothing to be proud of. All throughout the world, other people—other children—are losing their chance at a clean, healthy, happy future because of careless uncompassionate lifestyles. This isn't the legacy I want to leave future generations, and I would hope it is not one you would want to leave yours.  

People are suffering throughout the world and I am no longer going to live my life ignoring it. While the majority of people in the wealthier nations of the world are running around focusing on shortsighted happiness that makes only a select few people very, very rich—I am going to work hard and make sacrifices to help groups pursuing a future in which we can all live happy non-destructive lives.

I’m sure someone will try to make me the hypocrite, stating that I am using fossil fuels and tools such as this computer which require resources. It does pain me to know that I must use fossil fuels to be more effective in my resolve, and that, because of a society built upon greed and wasteful energy use, I am bound and connected to the same system, in pursuit of a better life for us all. My family is dedicated to limiting our negative impact, only using a minimal amount of resources to accomplish a greater conservation of our remaining natural capital.

For me, it doesn’t matter the injustice, be it the environmental damage from the large scale extraction and use of natural resources to the manufacturing of chemicals, or if it is the social injustices created by the defense industry or the prison industrial complex, I’m going to fight it. It all goes hand in hand. Environmental injustice begets social injustice, and social injustice begets environmental injustice. I’ve spent time with and heard the stories of people affected by hydraulic fracturing, tar sands development, chemical spills, and dozens of others who’ve suffered varying infractions upon basic human rights. I’ve even spent time on the Navajo Nation with elders who must endure living without easy access to water, who must withstand constant harassment from their own people bought off by coal company politics, all because the people of Phoenix and Tucson want cheap energy for air conditioning and so Peabody can enjoy enormous profits from the Kayenta Mine.

And so, it is in this way I consider myself the thoughtful coal miner: thoughtful of other people, thoughtful of coming generations, and thoughtful of God's creation—in its entirety.

Think of me what you will, consider me a traitor, a disgruntled employee, even a pretentious self-absorbed asshole (the latter of which, on occasion, I may not disagree with you about), but one thing I am not is utterly selfish. The lesson of “giving is better than receiving” has been handed down from generation to generation in my family, and I’m not going to forget it.

 I hope that you will stop for just a few moments, put all emotions aside, all the hatred you may feel towards me, and simply think; think of your neighbors, think of your children, think of your grandchildren. Who knows, maybe you'll realize like I did that there are much more important things to be working towards than that next paycheck from a coal company, a factory, or the thousands of other jobs that take advantage of good people. It’s like what my grandfather always told me, “It’s not your needs that get you in trouble—it’s your wants,” but today, more than ever, it’s our children that are in trouble.