CNN documentary sheds light on coal country conflict
Soledad O'Brien explores Appalachia's mountaintop removal mining battle.
Friday, August 5, 2011 - 15:05
MEDIA IN THE MOUNTAINS: Journalist Soledad O'Brien heads to West Virginia to see why communities are dividing over mountaintop removal mining. (Photo: Rob Howell/CNN)
What if you had to choose between saving your job and saving the environment around you? What if you had to choose between maintaining your livelihood or having clean water to drink? How is it possible that these things could be mutually exclusive? Many people living in the coal fields of southern West Virginia feel like these are choices they are being forced to make.
There's a battle going on in the Mountain State that is splitting communities in half, pitting neighbor against neighbor over the possibility of restricting mountaintop removal mining (MTR), a destructive form of coal mining in which mountaintops are removed with explosives and then dumped into surrounding valleys. The ancient forests of Appalachia will be irrevocably destroyed if MTR continues. Yet if MTR meets an end, the economy of an already poverty-stricken southern West Virginia will crash. Both sides of the issue feel their lives are at stake. Both sides are filled with anger and are desperate to have their voices heard. News anchor Soledad O'Brien explores this division in an upcoming CNN documentary called "Battle for Blair Mountain: Working in America."
The pro-coal argument
The documentary is set in Sharples, W. Va., where 90 percent of the mere 100 people who live in the town are active or retired coal miners. The citizens of Sharples are waiting anxiously to see if the EPA will veto the permits for nearby Spruce One, the largest proposed mountaintop removal site in the United States. Pro-coal advocates fear that if the permit is vetoed, most of the community will lose their jobs in the only industry around that pays a decent wage. Miners go to bed at night wondering whether they will still be employed in the morning.
Many of these people worry that if the EPA revokes Spruce Mine's permit for violating the Clean Water Act, their local mine will shut down and Sharples will become a ghost town like so many Appalachian communities before it. Whatever decision the EPA makes will have large implications for Sharple's economy and the fate of mountaintop mining as a whole.
The anti-coal argument
Meanwhile, across the valley from Sharples and Spruce One, environmentalists have staged a march on Blair Mountain, the site of a 1921 battle in which 15,000 coal miners fought against police and strikebreakers for their right to unionize. The miners hoped the fight would end the extreme exploitation they had previously faced from the coal corporations who controlled their communities. It was the largest armed insurrection after the Civil War and the only time in U.S. history that our nation dropped bombs on its own people.
Blair Mountain is currently owned by a coal corporation, and will face the possibility of a MTR operation if the Spruce One project is permitted. The project will bury at least seven miles of streams and alter over 2,000 acres of forest. Environmentalists and MTR-opponents fear that if Blair Mountain — with its rich national history — cannot be saved from explosives, then there will be no hope for the rest of the mountains of West Virginia. They fear the disastrous and irreversible effects that the Spruce One operation would have on their mountains, valleys and streams, and the high rates of illness and disease that have been increasing rapidly in Southern Appalachia since mountaintop removal moved into town.
Documentary: Both parties are at stake
By focusing on the town of Sharples, and both the EPA and Blair Mountain events, CNN is able to tell the larger tale of an issue that is dividing the people of Appalachia. It sheds light on MTR through a seemingly unbiased lens — focusing more on human emotion than environmental destruction. The documentary does not ask whether this practice is right or wrong. It asks what is at stake for everyone involved. It emphasizes the fact that mountaintop removal is not a black-and-white issue — it's filled with complications.
I was given the opportunity to speak with Soledad O'Brien about her experience in West Virginia. She told me that although both sides of the argument seem stubbornly opposed to the other, the root of their fight is the same — love for their communities and West Virginia. "For the miners, both underground and surface miners, they love their community, they love their families, they love what they do, they love West Virginia. And the people who are fighting to save the mountains, save the streams, and really try to protect people from disease that can be prevented. They love West Virginia, they love the people, they love the environment, they love the community," O'Brien recalled.
Will the people of Southern Appalachia ever be able to see eye-to-eye on the future of MTR mining? Will they ever be able to reach real compromise? O'Brien's documentary asks these very questions.
A lose-lose situation?
As an environmentalist and a West Virginian, I want people to understand that mountaintop removal is permanently destroying the oldest mountain chain in the world. The Appalachians are home to more species of plants and animals than any place other than rain forests and cannot be re-created once they are gone. In the process, MTR is dividing and degrading a rich culture and physically harming people.
Despite this, I think the strength in CNN's documentary is its lack of environmental emphasis. It turns the story of coal mining in Appalachia into something that the average American can relate to. The EPA event and the march on Blair Mountain create a tense climate — "the perfect storm to tell the tale of a real conflict," as Soledad told me. The players are intensely dramatic, exaggerated not by journalists, but by themselves and each other. The environmentalists paint the pro-coal supporters as the all-American working men, defined by capitalism and greed and ignorant to the concept of sustaining for the future. The environmentalists are painted as radical hippies — unemployed outsiders who would rather save plants and animals than families and people.
"Battle for Blair Mountain: Working in America" is a story of a community torn apart by coal — the resource that creates 50 percent of our country's electrical power. If you are reading this article, you are involved in this issue. Every time you turn on a light or fire up your microwave, you become involved in this issue. Without MTR, entire communities will be out of work and they will fall apart. With MTR, thousands of acres of Appalachia will be blasted and communities will also be destroyed.
During the 1921 battle of Blair Mountain, coal union members sang a song called, “Which side are you on?" during a time when neighbor fought against neighbor over the desire to unionize. Tune into CNN at 8 p.m. on Sunday, August 14, to watch "Battle for Blair Mountain: Working in America," and decide which side you are on in the fight over mountaintop removal.