Steve Klingaman

Steve Klingaman
Minneapolis, Minnesota,
January 01
Steve Klingaman is a nonprofit development consultant and nonfiction writer specializing in personal finance and public policy. His music reviews can be found at

Editor’s Pick
JUNE 8, 2011 8:30AM

What’s a National Sacrifice Zone?

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 Blair WV Gazette

 Appalachia Rising marchers on their way to Blair Mountain.

Photo:  WV Gazette 

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.





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The National Sacrifice Zone is today's middle class.
Thanks for writing this great and needed piece. Robert F. Kennedy would be so proud of the work his son is doing in this area. Can't wait until the movie hits Minneapolis on July 8.
thamks for this...I had post on the mountains and movie last week,
An outstanding report on a vitally important subject.
Steve...Good piece. I'd definitely add the Koch Brothers to the list of most reviled men in America.
You don't want or like "big coal", but I'll bet there is not one of you who will have their power turned off since most coal is used in the production of electricity.

Is there a better way to produce the electricity we need? I'm sure that someday they will find it. So why don't you turn your electricity off until they find it?

The fact is people here bitch and complain about things while enjoying the benefits that they gain from them, but not one of you are so committed that you will make the personal decision to do without.
Thank you so much for this excellent post, and thanks to the activists who keep working on this issue.

Catnlion, you bring up a good point...I was surprised to learn my own state's sources of energy. Here is a map showing energy sources by state:
Steve, this was a terrific read! Thank you. When will we learn?
Catnlion, you seem to be saying that we can't have electricity without raping the land and taking advantage of the people of the Appalachians. That is nonsense.
nanatehay, thank you! I was wondering how to respond to Catnlion, and you said it perfectly.

In the late 70's the pay for a red hat miner was $100 a shift. I don't think that's abuse. It was several times what I made delivering blocks to the mines.

As for the land, where is your better idea? You don't have one. If you do let's have it. Until then turn off your power. Somehow I don't see you sitting in the dark. You are just going to complain and take advantage of coal.

Coal mining isn't perfect. I don't know of anything that is. Since it is what we have you will have to learn to live with it until you come up with, develop, and put in place what every you plan is. That is if you can do it in the dark.
Catnlion, when I said "taking advantage of the people of the Appalachians" I wasn't referring to coal miners' pay but rather to the massive environmental damage generated from mountaintop removal coal mining, damage which has a direct impact on local people. Regarding alternatives, the first and most obvious one is to increase national energy efficiency standards to make up for any shortfall in production which might result from eliminating the practice. Mountaintop removal mining accounts for only 4 -5% of the coal used each year in this country but it is destroying Appalachian ecosystems and communities on a scale out of all proportion to its actual importance to our energy needs. The only benefits from the practice are to generate short term profits to a few while inflicting devastation on vast swathes of our country and its population. Why does that seem like a good or necessary thing to you?
Another alternative: simply get the coal out with more traditional underground mining techniques, which has the advantage not only of eliminating the environmental damage caused by mountaintop removal but also of creating more jobs. Doing so wouldn't be as profitable for the mining companies involved, but again, why should profits for a few trump environmental concerns and the well-being of our fellow citizens in Appalachia? The answer is: they shouldn't, though I do understand that your world view is limited by the typical conservative's deference to the wishes of the corporate sector. Us dang libruls and anyone else who questions the value of short-term profits over everything else is, in your book, wildly naive and impractical, but in the long run we'll find that destroying the planet we live on for a fast buck was the true height of impracticality.
Massey Energy was recently acquired by another coal corporation, Alpha Resources. Many of Massey's top executives who were blamed for Massey's most recent mining accident, have been retained by Alpha. Blankenship received a huge bonus. The ordinary people who live and work in West Virginia are of no consequence. They are expendable and regarded as one small step above a rat or any other vermin.
Admirable understatement from a fine writer whose task I in no way envy: to document the matricide of our planet:
" Ah, the old days, when a national sacrifice zone was merely the size of a national park"

You make it hard to write fiction, fella!

I guess a type of deadpan realism is needed for awhile, in imaginative literature. Those with parody or satire in their
writerly bones need but
Mama in her hospital bed.

Does she have alzheimer's i hope often.
So she recognizes not her Son.
News to me Steve so thanks for posting it. And as for the silly suggestion that if you don't like the massive environmental wreckage then stop using electricity, pshaw. An uncorrupted capitalist system would price the coal extraction to include the costs of cleaning up after it. That would certainly raise the price of coal but would thereby level the playing field against which alternate forms of energy could compete. Same goes for petroleum.
These mountains if left alone can produce enough electricity through harnessing the winds that blow if we used their power more wisely. Climb up the tree first and look before swinging the Ax.
Wake up and smell the poison...what an important piece, well-written and well-researched) and how much farther than OS it needs to go!
Hello? Salon?
well done. too much fluff and fiction - and not enough of this stuff. thanks. the truth is out there!
An excellent piece.

Even with Sen. Byrd West Virginia remains one of the poorest states in the country. All of WV is dependent on coal through support businesses. The family business made blocks for use in the mine. My father was a mining engineer. His neighbor did work to reclaim, as required by law, strip mines. Have you ever seen the size of the trains that pull coal? The are hundreds of cars long. What about all the very high paying union jobs that will be lost there? So it's not just the miners you would hurt.

As for underground mining, not all coal can be removed that way. If there is not enough mountain over the coal it would not support the roof of the mine. Even using roof bolts, roof falls are not a rare thing. So no, you can't mine everything underground.

And for the wind fans, to put wind turbines on those mountains you would have to strip off the trees, level the land, figure out how to get the equipment up there -read that as massive road building- and then there is the damage they cause with dead birds and other wildlife that the blades kill each year. Then after you make the power how about he destruction from building all the transmission lines to get the power to the people? Don't you think that would create some damage? You don't like the coal people, but the wildlife people will jump in and hate you for wanting to do wind generation.

Since you are still logged on, I assume you are not going to quit using coal generated power are you.
the usa is in the grip of money, always has been. this is what results. with endless other examples, in the usa, and even worse outside where no voters can see.

and all i ever hear is, "ain't it a shame!" i don't suppose americans are ever going to get off their collective ass and take action, they would have done long ago if the 'action' function weren't removed in childhood.

but if you wait for the pain to come to your street, there will be no one to help you resist.

Coal is not extracted from the tops of mountains, and streams are not plugged with the soil overburden, because the mining companies have the wholesale destruction of the environment as their first priority. No, coal-mining companies do this because it is an inexpensive way to produce coal; and because they can get away with it.

Again, for clarity, there is no explicit agenda among coal mining companies to destroy the environment nor is there an explicit agenda among coal mining companies to disrupt or destroy the lives of the people who live near such disasters. The primary and explicit coal-mining motivational forces are profit and competitive survival.

While there seems to be no disagreement that the mining companies mentioned in your post do ravage the environment, I suspect there is some disagreement between your perspective that seems to presume that this is an explicit objective of their operations and their perspective that would claim it isn’t.

Different viewpoints or not, the profit and competitive survival motives are imposed upon coal mining companies because purchasers of coal desire to buy at the lowest price possible. All other things being equal, sellers of coal at a lower price sell more coal than do sellers of coal at higher prices.

Proscribing the type of operations that might justifiably protect the environment more would thereby place upward pressure on the price of coal, especially if, in foreclosing these types of operations, fees or taxes are imposed upon the mining companies to clean up their messes. Increasing the price of coal would thereby increase the costs of products or services derived from its consumption. Hence, the price to the consumer of certain utilities and materials would necessarily increase.

This might be particularly true in the event the use of coal were prohibited in the generation of electricity, for example. If the motivation were to replace coal fired generation with solar or wind generation, then the (huge) cost of such conversions would be largely borne by the consumer, either as taxpayer or consumer; and one might anticipate much complaining about the higher price of one’s electrical bill or one’s tax liabilities.

I hope this excursion into the free enterprise system hasn’t been too complicated for your readers to understand.
Catnlion, you said I couldn't name any alternatives. When I did name some you proceeded to address alternatives I never mentioned, such as wind power, and to imply that I said underground mining can get all the coal - I said no such thing - and to ignore the fact that underground mining of the seams now being mined with MTR (where that is possible, and bearing in mind that the overburden on many MTR sites is 400 vertical feet) would create more jobs, not fewer. The fact remains: mountaintop removal mining is not essential to our national interests, nor even to good energy policy. I described why that is so, and you failed to list any compelling reasons I was wrong. So much for your snide "them danged libruls jest don't get it" attitude. Physician, heal thyself...
Unclechri says "I hope this excursion into the free enterprise system hasn’t been too complicated for your readers to understand."

Well shoot, Unc, thanks for the lecture on Remedial Economics 101. Don't know what we'd have done without you settin' us right on sech arcane matters! Tell me, if I by cheep shud I sell deer or sell for even cheeperer then I bot it?
Steve, excellent post by the way. My apologies for being a smart-ass here; I'd prefer to engage in respectful discussion with people who hold differing views, but when their first comments in the thread are delivered in a sneering, condescending fashion, I tend to reply in the manner they seem most comfortable with. There are conservatives in OS who are capable of holding an adult conversation, but Catnlion and Unclechri obviously don't fall in that category.
Mining in general was and still is, an open sore, no pun intended. The miners bring up the ore that kept and still keeps the system moving, the bring problem is A)The Company likes their dollars flowing through without the hassel of such things as enivormental or labor costs clogging up the line(labor includes safety measure......that's something that can be cut right? Thought so....)

The Company owns us(well, our government officials at least!). Back in the day, it was worse, but even to this day, with improvements in environmental clean up(my hometown of Butte, Montana is doing better than even back in the mid 1980s, early 1990s, you still don't want to pick up some rocks in the Silverbow Creek in the fear that it might be a stray phosporous and you can duck your feet in it without worrying about the corrisive stuff dissolving your feet...back in my dad's childhood, they'd put in aluminum cans and watch them dissolve!! That was good water!! :D) the Company still holds all the cards.

Coal mining has gone wild, like termites, move in, chew down the mountain to a pit, and move on, leaving a disaster area.

Rated(sorry, I kind of went wordy just to say GOOD PIECE, RATED!! :D I went to a college in Butte that was like one side mining engineers in training(MINE THE PLANET, WILL GET TO THE REST LATTER....) and enviromental engineers(ALL WE HAVE IS ONE PLANET.....CONSERVE, RESUSE, HUG A TREE!!) and well ,there was me, I like my soda pop in aluminum cans, but I like trees I went and became a business major!!! :D) screaming across the Student Union Building.)
If hillbillies don't want poisoned streams and black lung disease they should live somewhere else. Kpfft.
I used to tell my college students that if they truly wanted to know what this Fascist nation is about, read about the labor movement, how workers were gunned down, murdered by hired guns working for the wealthy because they wanted a decent wage or better working conditions. Average Americans have never had the right to speak up, to strike, to march and work for better conditions, and those who don't believe this, better re-read some American history, and I don't mean the homogenized version we're fed in high school. I mean, really read!

West Virginia represents what has always happened on this planet since the beginning of human history: the wealthy rape the planet , its people, and all living things with neither conscience nor consequences. Now that such evil occurs on a global scale, with the non-economy deliberately created by the rich causing misery worldwide, we are at the apex, the pinnacle of Western Civilization in the 21st century........and the "greatest nation on earth" proves to be the biggest lie of all, the biggest con to ever go down. But the brainwashing that occurs from birth in our glorious nation, teaching children that they live in a great nation despite no proof of such, is so entrenched that I wonder if Americans will ever recognize what slaves they really are! (See my earlier posts on Americans as the most controlled population on earth and don't even know it.....or read Lawrence Britt's study of Fascist nations and how "the greatest nation on earth" has ALL the characterisitics of Fascism, not to mention police harassment and brutality, a major characterisitic of Fascism, growing daily!)
This is a wonderful clarion call to action. Now would you like to comment on the radiation contamination that surrounds the Department of Energy nuclear sites? I used to work at Oak Ridge. We all wore radiation monitors attached to our badges.