Category Archives: Appalachian mining

AFL-CIO, the mountains, Barack and hope

I wasn’t sure how to title this ramble.  It’s a little about mountaintop removal mining and a little about humanity.  So, come along, and see if you can find something worth considering.

I was in New Orleans for several days this week.  Up and out of my room by 5:30 or 6:00 a.m., cruising for coffee a cut above the stuff extruded from the delightful little gizmo in my room.  Starbucks are ubiquitous, thank the Lord, although not so much in New Orleans, I found.  But within a couple of blocks, I found my nectar, and wished I had a laptop so I could write in real-time.  But here is one incident that was memorable about my trip.

As I walked through the hotel lobby each morning, there was a great gathering of members of

UMWA button

UMWA button

AFL-CIO.  On the first morning, I spoke with a woman who was a member of the United Mine Workers of America.   I asked what the group was there for, and she explained that the AFL-CIO had been doing this volunteer day for the past 10 years or so in conjunction with the Martin Luther King, Jr., Day of Service.  They go to a different city every year, and work on a variety of community service projects, from home or business repair to meal delivery.  So, at a time when so many workers are being disproportionately impacted by the economic disaster that was perpetrated by Wall Street et al., they are on the street doing community service.  I managed to not get choked up while talking with the young woman, but I am so heartened by their volunteerism, and their continued commitment to others when I know that times are difficult at home, that I get choked up as I recall them.

I applaud the AFL-CIO, the UMWA and the other individual member unions and their members for who they are in the face of our country’s significant economic downturn.  I am wondering whether benefits from union dues helped to pay for their expenses.  Two options:  yes, they did, or no, they didn’t.  If they did, I am saying hallelujah for union dues and union benefits, which are now benefitting folks who didn’t pay those dues out of their wages, assuming they had some in the first place.  If the dues didn’t pay for the expenses, then we have just a slightly different thank you to give to the members and the unions, but one that some folks might find easier to give.

So, there I was, feeling all warm and grateful to this woman and her union.  But then realized that I really had to ask her what she thought about Mountaintop Removal Mining.  I had spoken only once personally to a miner about the practice, and I figured that it was about time to go there again.

Kayford Mountain, TN

Kayford Mountain, TN

Although she was a West Virginia deep miner and not involved personally in MRM, she said that it provided jobs, that the harms to the environment were exaggerated, and that the practice even improved the mountains by smoothing out the terrain.  I’ve heard those same arguments, pretty much unaltered, in every piece I’ve read in support of MRM.  So, I wasn’t surprised.  I expressed my view that I thought that this was just the latest in a long history of benefits to folks not from the region being weighed heavier than the damages to the people and resources of the region; that the smoothed-out terrain would not sustain crops or native understory plant life for an exceedingly long period of time; and that the damage to the water resource of the area would be reaped by the region, and not just the locals, within a reasonably short period of time.  She was no less unsurprised by my view.

We didn’t talk long.  I think we both knew that this was a conversation between two people who weren’t in a decision-making role, and was just so much flapping of jaws, as my eighth grade teacher used to say.  So, we parted, feeling a little helpless, I think.  But then there was the good news:  she was off to do community service for New Orleans, and I to do something, as part of my job, about cleaning up federal facilities.

As I walked away, I was left with the knowledge that not only was she not the enemy, that maybe there isn’t one.  Now, you have to get, this is huge for me.  I have an us-them mentality about issues that I feel emotionally.   Maybe most of us do.  And I feel the injustice of mountaintop removal mining deep in the heart of my heart.

Shepherd Fairey Hope Poster

Shepherd Fairey Hope Poster

But here’s what else I think.  I think that maybe our new President doesn’t have that same “us versus them” mentality.  He has demonstrated that difficult issues can be discussed without being grounded there.  I am thinking that maybe his Presidency has something to do with the moment that I had with the miner in New Orleans, where I realized that she wasn’t the enemy.  And most importantly for me, I realized that I may not have an enemy at all.  That Massey, God help me, may not be the enemy.  I don’t know where this is going.  I am still as unrelenting an opponent to this practice which takes all the horrors of mining and logging perpetrated against the people of Appalachia since the 1800’s and blows the scale off Google Earth.  But now I’m left with a basic question:  How does one behave in opposing a horror without an enemy to face off?  I think Martin Luther King, Jr., knew about that.  I think our new President knows about that.  Can I sustain this enemyless approach?  I hope for all of us that all of us can.

Mountaintop removal mining and losing Appalachian diversity

This news story may be old news to many of you, but I thought it might be worthwhile to share a couple of links just in case you are not a voracious reader of blogs and newsfeeds.  I am just beginning to learn what that even means.

Photo by Vivian Stockman, October 19, 2003

Photo by Vivian Stockman, October 19, 2003, found at

Robert Kennedy, Jr., testimony before Congressional Committee.  On December 12, 2008, Robert Kennedy, Jr., testified before the House Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming on the destructive and illegal practice of mountaintop removal mining and valley fill.  A video and transcript of his testimony is located at and also at

One interesting factoid from Kennedy’s testimony that I don’t recall learning as a geologist is that after North America’s last major ice age, North America was reseeded from the seed stock in the Southern Appalachians.  You see, North America, with the exception of our fine Appalachian mountains was either under ice or had largely become a tundric wasteland (I hope I didn’t offend any tundra fans).  After the ice receded, there was nothing but grassland and lowland forests, and the Appalachians basically created the flora, and thus the fauna, that persists today.  Because our mountains are some of the oldest and survived this recent ice age, they are among the most biologically diverse.


Photo by Peacock at

This makes the irresponsible onslaught of the mining companies and the complicity of the outgoing administration and the Army Corps of Engineers all the more egregious.

See also Forests in Peril: Tracking Deciduous Trees from Ice-Age Refuges into the Greenhouse World by University of Tennessee professor, Hazel R. Delacourt, Department of Ecology and  Evolutionary Biology for a scholastic summary of biodiversity of the Appalachian and the impacts that we all will face when this ecological gem is lost.