Monday, June 13, 2011

March on Blair Mountain

All photos by Madeline Collins.
This past Saturday was the final day of the March on Blair Mountain. The march, organized by Appalachia Rising with support from groups like the Sierra Club and the National Resources Defense Council, spanned five days and over fifty miles. Activists began on June 6 in Marmet, West Virginia, and marched to Blair, West Virginia, on June 11, to commemorate the 90th anniversary of the Battle of Blair Mountain and to protest the destruction of Blair Mountain by mountaintop removal (MTR) mining. I joined four other people from Greenpeace for the last day of the march and for the rally on the top of Blair Mountain.

Some background on the Battle of Blair Mountain: in the summer of 1921, 10,000 to 15,000 coal miners marched that same fifty-mile route from Marmet to Blair to fight for the right to unionize in southwestern West Virginia coal mines. The miners met with machine guns, bombs, and poison gas wielded by state police, the National Guard, and, eventually, the U.S. army. Hundreds were wounded and at least sixteen miners were killed. The battle was the biggest armed conflict in U.S. history since the Civil War and is considered to have been a major catalyst for the twentieth century labor movement in the United States.

If the coal companies have their way, though, this historic site will be obliterated by mountaintop removal (MTR) mining. As I described in an earlier blog post about the Congressional hearings regarding EPA’s ability to regulate MTR, this unbelievably destructive form of surface mining involves the blasting away of a portion of a mountain to expose the coal seams underneath. Before the explosives are used, the land is deforested, and afterward, the extra soil, known as overburden, is often simply dumped into nearby valleys, creating valley fills.

Lots more after the jump...

Orange river water behind our campsite in
Chief Logan State Park. The color results the
sulfide minerals in acid mine drainage.
The environmental effects of MTR are devastating. The deforestation endangers animal life, threatens ecosystems, and leads to biodiversity loss. The valley fills often bury the streams, resulting in similarly disastrous impacts on ecosystems. Nearby bodies of water that are not buried can be polluted by the metals and dissolved solids that wash downstream from the mining site.

In addition, the toxins and dust that are released into the air when the explosions occur wreak havoc on human health. Pulmonary disorders, asthma, lung cancer, heart and kidney disease, and hypertension have all been shown to increase among populations near MTR sites. MTR also pollutes the drinking water of nearby populations, and wreaks havoc on their communities: increased flooding, leaking from sludge dams, and the destruction of houses from the impact of the explosions have become a constant threat for people who live near MTR sites. Read's helpful FAQ for more information. 

In March 2009, Blair Mountain was listed on the National Register of Historic Places, but after pressure from coal operators who want to mine on the land, it was delisted in December 2009. The West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection is currently reviewing petitions to protect the site, and the Sierra Club has a lawsuit pending against the National Park Service that calls for the restoration of the National Register of Historic Places listing. Arch Coal and Alpha Natural Resources, the latter of which bought the notorious Massey Energy this past January, have mining permits near Blair Mountain and will likely pursue MTR on the site if it is not protected by state or federal government. 

Campsite at 7:00 AM on Saturday, June 11.
Hence, the March on Blair Mountain. When we arrived on Saturday morning, after a seven-hour drive from Washington, we found the base camp in high spirits. Many of the marchers had been walking since Monday, and the temperature was already approaching ninety degrees, but almost everyone seemed excited and ready for action. The group was incredibly diverse. Many had traveled, like us, from other parts of the country, but many were also natives Appalachia. There were marchers whose ancestors had fought at the Battle of Blair Mountain, and union coal miners themselves. Organizers and activists from groups like Greenpeace, the Sierra Club, and Appalachian Voices were there. There were even a few people from France and Australia. All age groups were represented, from college students and twenty-somethings to the middle-aged and elderly, and from elementary-school kids to a few toddlers and babies.

Before the march began in the afternoon, there was logistical work to be done. Campers packed their tents and sleeping bags, organizers served breakfast and lunch, and volunteers helped to bring massive containers of water to the site and to haul the Porta-Potties to pumping locations. Folk musicians played from a makeshift stage in the center of the campsite. Activists like Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., who had brought his family to West Virginia to participate in the march, gave rousing speeches (he also wrote about the march in the Huffington Post). 

At around one o’clock, we were ready to march. Carrying signs, singing union songs, and chanting “Save Blair Mountain!” we marched past counter-protestors and expressionless police officers toward the summit of the mountain. Numbers vary, but one estimate on Saturday put the number of marchers who marched the full fifty miles at almost 500 and the number of marchers who marched on Saturday at almost 700.

About 150 marched to the site of the battlefield, near the summit. Through the trees, we could see a clear, powerful example of MTR right across the valley (picture below). Near the summit, on private property, the police and state troopers intervened and declared that if we did not leave the mountain immediately, we would be arrested. They denied our request for a moment of silence for the 1921 coal miners, as well as our request to leave some signs on the site as a memorial.
Mountaintop removal (MTR) mining as seen from
Blair Mountain, West Virginia.
So we walked back down the mountain, frustrated, but not defeated. The march was a huge success—hundreds of marchers covered the fifty-mile path of the 1921 coal miners to commemorate their actions, hundreds gathered to show their opposition to mountaintop removal mining, and hundreds—perhaps thousands—more showed their support by signing petitions online, donating money, and providing logistical and organizational support. Major news outlets like the Associated Press, CNN, the Wall Street Journal, and the Huffington Post covered the march, as well as environmental news outlets like Grist (here, Matt Wasson here, and Tim DeChristopher here). CNN is planning a special report on coal mining in Appalachia that will feature a segment about the March on Blair Mountain.

The march may be over, but the fight is not. We must do as much as possible to put pressure on government and on the coal companies to protect Blair Mountain from MTR. Luckily, there is a huge range of actions that you can take to show your support—and many of them take just a few minutes or a few dollars, if that’s all you have to spare:

Go to the website of Friends of Blair Mountain and become a member, make a donation, or sign their petition. It’s not too late to take some of the actions that they recommended to virtual marchers, like sending a letter to the editor of your hometown paper or calling the White House to put pressure on President Obama. Go to the website of Appalachian Voices to become a member, make a donation, and find opportunities to take action and volunteer. Follow their Front Porch Blog for great posts about mining in Appalachia. Visit, too, to find easy links that you can use to write to your representatives in Congress. Check out a screening of “The Last Mountain,” which is playing at the E Street Cinema in DC and in theaters across the country. Above all, stay informed, and share the story of Blair Mountain and the facts about MTR with everyone you know. 

1 comment:

  1. i have joined similar activities here in our city and i think everyone should be heard!