Impunity, part 1

Posted in mine safety, union on May 19th, 2010 by Emily S. Channell-Justice

An Act

Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled. That this Act may be cited as the “Federal Mine Safety and Health Act of 1977”.


SEC. 2. Congress declares that–

(a) the first priority and concern of all in the coal or other mining industry must be the health and safety of its most precious resource–the miner;

I’d like to keep updated reports on my progress as I write this paper on safety regulations. Each time I sit down to work, I find something new that contributes to my ire as well as to my paper’s framework, and I think it would be helpful for me to share those thoughts as they come.

Today I’m working with a book called Coal River that’s written by Vanity Fair reporter Michael Shnayerson. It focuses largely on mountaintop removal in the Coal River Valley, but I was absolutely shocked to read his discussion of the Upper Big Branch mine in the second chapter. This section is meant to frame Don Blankenship’s role in forcing the union out of Massey mines, but it’s an ominous set of pages considering what’s happened at UBB since this book’s publication in 2008. According to Shnayerson, when Massey acquired the mines at Montcoal in 1993, UBB was a union mine. Massey’s policy is that the union is disbanded when the company gets control, but miners are allowed to put unionization to a vote – which many thought they’d win because a significant number of those formerly unionized miners were rehired after Massey bought the mine. After a series of anti-union propaganda efforts, however, miners at UBB voted not to unionize, and as far as I can see there hasn’t been another vote.

Now, I won’t say that the United Mine Workers of America is a perfect specimen of unionism, not by any means, and of course I can’t say that the explosion at UBB wouldn’t have happened if it had been a union mine. I am just truly appalled at the overall lack of knowledge about the mine’s union status in the recent events and of how Massey circumvents union accountability in both underground and mountaintop mines. Maybe the UMWA is like MSHA (Mine Safety & Health Administration) in that it really can’t do much to protect miners simply because the coal companies are so much more powerful – so maybe the union status of this mine is pretty insignificant. But I’m still troubled by Massey’s systematic destruction of union mines in West Virginia as it expands its control over the state’s mines – this is not unlike some of the techniques used the 1910s and 1920s in West Virginia when miners were fighting for their right to unionize. And now that they have it, the union has been rendered impotent. It’s all part of the culture of impunity within which the coal companies work – neither the government nor the national union can do anything about their practices. What’s the point of having either, ultimately, if they can’t counter King Coal?

Representing Courage

Posted in mine safety, representation on May 7th, 2010 by Emily S. Channell-Justice

I hoped for a while that writing this paper about the Upper Big Branch disaster would be a cathartic experience in which I could begin to stop being outraged and to end my period of mourning. But the more I learn, the angrier I get. The more I realize how important it is to really and truly learn what’s going on and what specific processes of law, of politics, of economics, and of history come into play to allow disasters like this to happen (and ignore consistent smaller incidents in which one or two miners die, as the events in which three more miners died in Kentucky and in West Virginia since the explosion at Upper Big Branch). For me, this is just the beginning: the next decade or so of my life will be dedicated to these mining communities, and if this keeps up, this will only be the first of many disasters and deaths I will have to deal with.

My mom made a comment to me the other night when I was telling her about my deep emotional involvement with this project that eventually I’d work through it to get to the objective perspective I need as an anthropologist. Now, I’ll never be objective in the truest sense of that word, and I don’t think anyone can really expect me to be. My bias will always be in favor of the people, the brave men and women who work underground, knowing that the slightest spark could end their lives; their families who support them endlessly and who make their lives in the coalfields; those willing to speak out against the wrongs of the coal companies; those who have already given their lives for coal and those who died for the rights of miners. Whether I support strip mining, underground mining, or no mining isn’t even relevant; it’s a privilege that I have as a West Virginian who is not tied to the coalfields to make that kind of judgment.

What’s important is that people continue to mine coal, above and below the ground. Sometimes it’s a choice: mining jobs are well-paid, compared to other options, and sometimes it’s an obligation where no other jobs exist. Either way, coal is people’s livelihood, and that’s undeniable. That’s the starting point. The question then becomes why this is the case: what factors have made coal mining people’s best or only option? And how is it that the mining companies get away with considering the miners an expendable resource? What keeps people so attached to this land that they stay and accept the daily dangers of living in mining country – and can that sentiment even be put into words? In terms of my own position as anthropologist, I am an outsider academic as well as being inherently connected to the people of West Virginia and knowing their attachment to that land because it’s my land, too.

But how can I maneuver representing a group of people who have been so negatively stereotyped in this country? How can I write about people who make a decision I would never (and would never be forced to) make for myself without making them seem like foolish pawns of the industry? How can I show that people are making a choice both because of obligation and because of tradition while at the same time explain how the industry works in ways that leaves people with no choice at all? Furthermore, how can I simplify this complexity in a way that my interlocutors can gain something from that insight?

In the end, what I want to avoid in my quest for some kind of more objective perspective is losing sight of the people I’ve learned to admire and respect (albeit from afar, for now) for their courage and their commitment in the face of so much adversity: poverty, corporate exploitation, physical danger…it’s these people I am writing for, and it’s their troubles I am writing to confront. It’s for them that I’m angry, and it’s to them I dedicate this work.

Repost: Blankenship vs. Kennedy vs. Tree Sitters vs. Science

Posted in activism, environmentalism, representation on May 7th, 2010 by Emily S. Channell-Justice

(originally posted January 23, 2010)

A lot of interesting things happened in West Virginia at the end of January. The CEO of Massey Energy, Don Blankenship, and Robert Kennedy, Jr. held a public debate on MTR and climate change at the University of Charleston while a tree-sit protest against Massey’s intended blasting of Coal River Mountain lasted for nine days, including the day of the debate, before the protesters descended and were immediately arrested. Earlier in the month, the journal Science published an eleven-author peer reviewed article condemning MTR, which, while significant, really only confirms the effects of MTR most people already knew. Hopefully this article does mean that a different realm of academics will take notice of MTR, but honestly I’m not sure there will be much more of an impact than that.

What I think is more interesting is the concurrence of this hugely important debate and the tree-sit protest. The debate is a long conversation but definitely worth listening to.

Now, I’m clearly not Don Blankenship’s biggest fan (if you read my last post, you can start to see why), but frankly I am not much impressed by Kennedy, either. Ever since I saw his film “Crimes Against Nature,” based on his book of the same title, in a large part I think I’ve had the same reaction to him that a lot of West Virginians have to outsiders who come into the state and think they have to speak for us because we can’t do it for ourselves. It doesn’t help that he loves to reinforce how much of a free-market capitalist he is; rather than considering alternatives to capitalism as much as he considers alternative energy sources, he’s convinced that pure capitalism would hold producers accountable for all the costs of production, and I just don’t think that’s feasible.

This debate began with Kennedy’s attempt to legitimize his presence in West Virginia in the first place, which doesn’t really extend much further than JFK’s War on Poverty beginning in the state and his own love for the mountains, and I certainly do appreciate his passionate plea to save the state I love, too. But of course, Blankenship knows the industry better than Kennedy, and he’s not a stupid guy: he’s able to talk about coal and its role in the growth of the US and that, if coal made us prosperous, we’ve got to keep mining to continue to prosper, which is something a single-industry state like West Virginia does like to hear. For much of this debate, these men are really just talking about completely different things – a lot of people have responded that Kennedy won the debate outright, but really there is absolutely no common ground and Kennedy is simply the more loquacious of the two.

This debate is just one element of a new discovery I’m having about Don Blankenship. People who are on his side like him because he’s from West Virginia, he’s worked in mining for six decades, and he’s only at the top of the coal chain because he got there himself. But he is also a liar; he also supported the apartheid state in South Africa; he also blames all the problems of the coal industry on the “enviros” like the out-of-state tree sitters. Not only did he state during the debate that strip mining causes no meaningful pollution (which was solidly disproven by the Science report on MTR), he also claimed that coal provides more to West Virginian communities than it takes away – even if that means paying people more than their homes are worth to get them to leave so Massey can blast more mountains. I’m pretty sure that mostly profits the absentee landowners who Massey leases the land from in order to be allowed to blast and mine it – there’s just about nothing in it for the West Virginia communities.

Last week I also got the chance to watch a great documentary called Mine War on Blackberry Creek (it’s only 30 minutes and really insightful) about a strike against Massey in 1984 in which Blankenship tries to justify Massey’s investment in multinationals who send jobs to South African mines to “help the people,” despite the fact that they must be paid less than American workers (otherwise why would they export the jobs at all?) and despite the fact that they are working in conditions of slave labor. Considering how he treats mine workers in West Virginia today, his statements through this documentary enlighten viewers to Blankenship’s longstanding obsession with productivity and profit.

It’s hard to tell with Blankenship: has he really kidded himself into thinking that these lies he’s telling himself are true, or does he know better and is really only speaking in the name of the coal industry and money? Somehow I think the latter is a bit more likely, especially considering that his conclusion in the debate was that the EPA’s regulations are unreasonable and that sustainable environmental policy and productivity are irreconcilable. But of course, that’s all because MTR doesn’t create any significant pollution…

But Kennedy is probably kidding himself when he says sustainability and productivity go hand in hand, at least if his definition of “productivity” is the same as Blankenship’s – which, considering how this debate went, it’s probably not. Kennedy’s correct in his facts about the coal industry’s decline as well as about alternative energy opportunities. He really does speak passionately about the destruction caused by MTR, and he certainly doesn’t ignore the human impact it has. Kennedy is more eloquent than Blankenship and probably is the best counterpart to Blankenship in this dominant-male style argument. But I think when Blankenship brings up the activists who aren’t from Appalachia who participate in direct action protests (like the tree sitters and their supporting cast, who came from as far away as New Orleans and Chicago), he’s including Kennedy in that realm of non-native folks who don’t actually get it. And this just brings me back to my first point: why does it have to be someone else speaking for West Virginia?

This choice seems to me to be a gender and class issue in large part. Why not have Blankenship debate with one of the people who has lived through the effects of his company’s practices and who knows Kennedy’s statistics equally well, if not more, and who work with organizations who aren’t just spouting rhetoric about alternative energy sources but actually organizing campaigns for them (like Coal River Mountain Watch – check out their great video)? Is it because many of them are women? Is it because many of them are poor? Is it because many of them are less educated? Is it because of his status as a wealthy white male that Kennedy is seen as of an equal to Blankenship and more fit to meet him in a direct debate (and let’s not forget the mediator, Dr. Ed Welch, president of the University of Charleston and a white man in a stable economic situation…)?

Kennedy may be smart, passionate, and a man with the means to speak out about MTR, but he’ll always be an outsider. And until Don Blankenship has the balls to get up on a stage in front of an enormous audience and on West Virginia public television and tell the people of Appalachia that Massey hasn’t polluted their communities, hasn’t forced them out of their homes, hasn’t stolen their jobs, and hasn’t destroyed their livelihoods – all without lying – then nothing has changed. And until it’s West Virginians sitting in the trees on Coal River Mountain at least alongside the “enviros” from out of state, then those actions remain ineffective. It’s time to stop putting on shows to prove how radically we all are convinced of our positions, Blankenship and Kennedy included, and actually do something to effect sustainable change in West Virginia. I also wouldn’t mind seeing Blankenship’s and Kennedy’s net worth combined and redistributed to the people of Appalachian coal towns, for starters…but I guess that wouldn’t be “purely capitalist” enough for either of them. At least there’s one thing they can agree on.

Repost: Judicial Elections, Corporate Power, and the Supreme Court

Posted in judicial politics on May 7th, 2010 by Emily S. Channell-Justice

(originally posted January 22, 2010)

Right now I think it’s really important to look at this landmark decision the Supreme Court just made to end restrictions on corporate funding for political campaigns. I’m glad to see a lot of people outraged. This decision is a pretty blatant acceptance (and even approval) of how entrenched politics and corporations are in the US political system. Nowhere do I think this is more evident in West Virginia, where the two largest corporations (Arch Coal and Massey Energy) are sickeningly powerful and have more influence in political campaigns than the candidates and their platforms. The CEO of Massey in particular, Don Blankenship, uses his West Virginia charm, if we can call it that, to mask his ruthless attacks on anti-coal politicians (check back in a few days for a post on his recent debate with Robert Kennedy, Jr., and the local response). Because Massey has so much money, more than political campaigns can normally raise in WV, they are able to sway elections one way or another in favor of the coal industry’s interests, and this has become extremely apparent in the judicial realm. In West Virginia, judges are elected just like any other official, which is problematic in part because we don’t truly realize the weight of this type of decision. Furthermore, companies like Massey are constantly influencing judicial campaigns in their favor, meaning that WV voters tend to vote in favor of Massey without meaning to do so.

Let’s take a campaign from 2004, which was when I was a senior in high school about to vote in my first elections and fairly dedicated to local politics. I went to a meeting in Martinsburg about letting voters registered as Independents vote in primary elections for the Democratic ticket. There, I met Warren McGraw, a candidate for the Supreme Court that year and someone who I thought seemed respectable, attentive, and very worthy of my vote. But when I spoke of how much I enjoyed meeting him to others, I couldn’t understand why no one else echoed this sentiment until someone explained to me that he let child molesters walk free. While I continued my support of McGraw throughout the election, it wasn’t until later that I was able to delve more deeply into his campaign to see what had really happened.

McGraw had voted numerous times against Massey Energy, and Blankenship didn’t want to take a chance on the WV Supreme Court having the power to shut him and his company down any longer. Rather than leave the election to the candidates, Massey put almost $2 million into a campaign called “And For the Sake of the Kids,” which, in its advertisements, declared that McGraw allowed our children to be victimized and criminals to walk free, all based on a single case in which McGraw allowed a man convicted of sexually assaulting his younger brother to get probation. The details left out of these claims against McGraw included the paroled man’s youth as part of a drug trafficking ploy by his mother and sexual abuse by a teacher; while I won’t claim his troubled past excuses his behavior, I want to show that Massey’s biased support of Brent Benjamin, McGraw’s opponent – which was monetarily more substantial than any amount McGraw could have raised – was based around assumptions and misrepresentations of an issue that clearly placed McGraw in the role of the child-hating demon. I don’t blame West Virginia voters for not rooting through the details of this case to find the truth, but it is sick and sad that Massey was able to swing the election their way based on an issue that had absolutely nothing to do with coal (for more information on this issue, see Burns 2007).

If this was in 2004, and coal mining in WV has become a larger issue in the six years since then, and if corporations are now allowed to give political candidates as much money as they want…I think we can see where this is going. While Obama may be making strides in his executive position at least to consider revoking mountaintop removal permits, I still don’t think national policy is what’s going to make the difference. When the political situation in West Virginia stops being so intrinsically linked with the coal industry and with coal corporations’ money, that’s when we can consider seeing change in West Virginia. Despite the fact that the state is working on laws requiring more transparency in campaign funds, the US Supreme Court has opened up the opportunity for companies like Massey to even more blatantly buy out political candidates, knowing full well that no candidate who isn’t supported by the coal industry can possibly make enough money to counter the smear campaigns that the industry inevitably runs. If there is no industry as strong as coal in West Virginia and if the companies that consolidate that strength throughout Appalachia are allowed to choose who is in office, then I think we can agree that democracy cannot even exist as a fantasy in the coalfields.

Repost: Making Mountains out of Coal Hills

Posted in history, union on May 6th, 2010 by Emily S. Channell-Justice

(originally posted December 7, 2009)

This blog is the birth of an effort in a public, engaged, activist anthropology. It was conceived in the process of writing papers for graduate classes that will only be read by professors and myself; if I intend to be an anthropologist who reaches out past academia to make my work apply to real situations, then sharing the process that will hopefully develop into long-term work in Appalachia with as wide an audience as possible is the first step I can make in that direction. I hope to be part of an academic trend to dispel stereotypes of West Virginians as gun-toting rednecks and snake-charming evangelists (two common comments I hear when I introduce myself as West Virginian), and there is no reason to wait until I have a Ph.D. in order to begin. My passion for this project is longstanding, and no matter how many papers I write about this region, I will always have more to say and more to learn. I hope this space can be a forum for discussion of issues affecting Appalachia today as well as the negative image of its people that has been exacerbated by academia for so many years.

Of all the information I’ve come across in the past few years about West Virginia, what I discovered tonight actually moved me to take the action of starting a presentation of material that either inspires or enrages me. I’m writing a paper about labor history in West Virginia, because I think that the unique, radical history of labor activism in the state helps shape the efforts of activists fighting the processes of mountaintop removal and that it is absolutely necessary to have a deep knowledge of that history in order to truly comprehend mining today. History and historical process should influence anthropology and ethnography, because it is historical, economic, and political factors as much as the people who live there that make this region what it is. Appalachian anthropology often lacks this stress on history, which tends to lead to misinformed conclusions. But that’s a different discussion, and for now I want to look more deeply into history.

Anyone who grew up in West Virginia probably remembers 8th grade West Virginia history and the Golden Horseshoe exam. Part of the reason I think it is so important to highlight labor history in the state is because the state educational system downplays it so much. Personally, I can’t remember studying miners at all, and certainly not union resistance. I started doing some research about the Golden Horseshoe test and found that, in all the mini-quizzes I took, only one question was about the union: “What does UMWA stand for?” (United Mine Workers of America). While I don’t want to ignore the fact that many test questions are about Native Americans in WV and uprisings that they led, I wonder why the laborers are neglected. I imagine – though I have no proof – that it has something to do with the fact that the coal companies are so deeply entwined in the political system of the state and can use K-12 education as a forum to push their agenda. To me, radical labor history is a seriously important part of West Virginia’s identity, and it gets easily lost on a generation who will probably not end up working in the mines and whose parents are probably no longer union members.

I don’t want to pretend that union organizing is the only significant kind of resistance the state has ever seen – indeed, activism now is rarely union organized, as the UMWA has stated its support of mountaintop removal in the name of providing jobs. But I think the fact that young people in West Virginia don’t learn about labor history is hugely problematic. This means that we also never learned why some miners might want to fight against coal companies, so we could never really understand the exploitative conditions workers and their families lived under in the state’s single-industry economy. We didn’t learn about coal companies concentrating power in the hands of absentee mine owners and how the legal system established in at the end of the 19th century allowed coal barons to obtain native West Virginians’ lands for coal production. Is this because we would all then get angry and begin to question the hegemony of the concentrated power of the two coal companies left in the state? Would we all reclaim Sid Hatfield and Mother Jones as our favorite historical figures and give up Chuck Yeager, Belle Boyd, and James Rumsey?

There is no reason anthropologists and other academics cannot take up these questions. I see the role of anthropology as one that is obliged to question the structures that uphold inequalities and to do something to change them, and in West Virginia those structures are built around coal companies and their histories. Twentieth-century mining history shaped the course of coal in the state as a whole, and the better we understand that basic fact, the richer our ideas of Appalachia and Appalachians have the potential to be.

some sources from this discussion:
Batteau, Allen. 1990 The Invention of Appalachia. Tuscon: University of Arizona Press.
Burns, Shirley Stewart. 2007 Bringing Down the Mountains: The Impact of Mountaintop Removal on Southern West Virginian Communities. Morgantown: West Virginia University Press.
Corbin, David Alan. 1981 Life, Work, and Rebellion in the Coal Fields: The Southern West Virginia Miners 1880-1922. Chicago: University of Illinois Press.


Posted in mine safety on May 1st, 2010 by Emily S. Channell-Justice

I realized a while ago that I inadvertently purloined my blog’s name from the best source of information on coal that I know, Ken Ward, Jr.’s Coal Tattoo blog through the Charleston Gazette. From the two recent disasters to keeping up with EPA regulations on strip mining, this blog is my best recommendation if you’re interested in some more background information.

Furthermore, in an attempt to contribute to CUNY’s public efforts, I decided to move my blog to the CUNY commons. I’m hoping that it’ll open some eyes about what public anthropology can really be about.

I’ll be reposting all my previous entries on here, and I’m currently working on a project about mine safety regulations. In light of the April 5 explosion at the Upper Big Branch Mine in WV and the roof fall at Dotiki in Kentucky that killed two more miners last week,  it’s obvious that it’s time for more people to speak up about how unacceptable the situation is. I’m sure others can understand that I’ve been unable to put into words my sorrow and outrage about these recent tragedies, and I’m hoping that through this new research I can find a way to say what needs to be said.

Ken Ward recently cited this line from a statement by Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis: “Miners should never have to sacrifice their lives for their livelihood.”  It’s with this in mind that I write this next paper, hoping that there is some way it might possibly make a difference.

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