Appalachia Rising marchers on their way to Blair Mountain.
The short answer is: Appalachian coalfields. There’s a quaint little piece in the October 31, 1988 issue of the New York Times; the topic was decommissioned nuclear laboratories and plants that that had been left to rot in Superfund sites. The article stated, “Engineers at the Energy Department have privately begun calling such contaminated sites ''national sacrifice zones.'' They grimly joke that some zones could turn out to be larger than many of the 39 national parks.”
Ah, the old days, when a national sacrifice zone was merely the size of a national park. Today, the ever-growing national sacrifice zone found in the Appalachian coalfields is the size of Delaware and growing by the day. According to Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., featured in the documentary, “The Last Mountain,” 500 mountains are gone and 2,500 miles of streambed have been filled in with the toxic rock and residue that smoothes the landscape to a deathly, lunar, finality.
West Virginia has long borne the brunt of the sacrifice. Its history comprises a ghastly repository of the rape of the land and a people. This week, the March on Blair Mountain proceeds to a Saturday conclusion at the site of the 1921 massacre, where 10,000 to 15,000 coal miners confronted the officials of Logan County, private cops, the West Virginia State Police and the U.S. Army in the largest pitched battle since the Civil War. One hundred dead, a thousand documented wounded, and countless others who disappeared into the brush bore testament to the federal government’s deep fear of a unified worker’s movement in coal country.
History writ small.
What they wanted in southwestern West Virginia was union representation to match that they had attained in other fields across the state. But in Mingo and Logan counties unionization was anathema. Organizers of this week’s march hope to avoid violence or violent harassment, but old enmities die hard. And Big Coal can always find someone willing to work for a price in such a cash-strapped environment. A Monday morning tweet from @marchonblairmt reported, “Road has scattered clusters of opposition as honking coal trucks hug the shoulder – marchers squeeze to fit on.“
The rally will culminate this week in Blair, West Virginia, where Emmylou Harris, Kathy Mattea, Ashley Judd, and other artists will perform. Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., will give a keynote speech calling for closer scrutiny of the permit applications related to Blair Mountain, Coal River Mountain and other vestigial remnants of what was once some of the nation’s most marvelous and ancient geological formations and ecosystems.
It’s mostly gone now, as is the coal it produced, burned without the slightest awareness of the cost to these people and their land. But massive reminders remain. A June 4 flyover of the Brushy Fork Impoundment featured in this video shows what could be regarded at the third largest damn in the Northern Hemisphere, according to Kennedy in recent Bob Edwards Show interview. It holds back 8.2 billion gallons of toxic sludge from inundating everything “downstream” though there is no stream to speak of. Not any more.
This is a land where every week explosions that equal the energy in the Hiroshima nuclear bomb are discharged to get at massive coal seams that can stand six feet tall and be spotted from an airplane at a distance of two miles.
These and other details make “The Last Mountain” a powerful, unique look at what would better be taken as a national zone of shame than sacrifice. According to the filmmakers, Clara Bingham and Bill Haney, and their spokesman, attorney Kennedy, Massey Energy is essentially a “criminal enterprise,” author of some 67,000 Clean Water Act violations—violations former chairman and CEO Don Blankenship wore like a badge of honor. If Blankenship isn’t the most reviled man in America, something is seriously wrong with the state of journalism; which, of course, means there is something terribly wrong here, with mainstream environmental reportage now more a ramshackle shack than the watchdog one would wish for.
People ask, “when will we learn?’ Of course the answer is, when the coal is gone, and the mountains. Do you think anyone seriously took the side of the miners after the “incident” at Blair Mountain? No, it took 80 years to come to terms with the massacre and virtually no one on the political scene pays any heed to the legacy of the unspeakable working conditions visited upon the nation’s hardest workers in that day and age. Even today, there is no balance: after Blair Mountain was added to National Register of Historic Places in 2009—in the Obama era—it took just nine months for Big Coal to get it delisted.
Though the coalfields of southwest West Virginia comprise a national sacrifice zone that should be remembered with an environmental equivalent of a Viet Nam Memorial, all we have are a hardy group of activists engaged in a 50-mile march to history. It should be history with a big “H” but it isn’t yet. Someday, maybe 80 years from now, the nation will devise a new registry for places lost to all time in the interests of the energy that powered a century—the 20th—before it sputtered and died itself, beset by an environmental catastrophe even now in the making. Maybe it will be Brushy Fork that goes. Maybe the toll will be counted in a cancer cluster the likes of which have yet to enumerate in the U.S. Maybe it will just be endless tornado clusters. But coal will have its day in infamy; you can count on that. In the meantime, I see feisty, well informed, committed activists with history on their side. Welcome to Blair Mountain, America.
“The Last Mountain” made its theatrical debut the weekend of June 3, which, likely, means you won’t be able to find it too easily. But if you can, do go see it, and, on Saturday, think of those men on the side of Blair Mountain, fighting for their rights 90 years ago as Logan County Sheriff Don Chafin's army dropped poison gas bombs on them. Yes, the same cyanide gas you thought was outlawed after World War I. There’s a lot of history buried in those hollows, and in the accounts of survivors. It’s there if we want it, buried among the coal seams, but I’m not sure we do.