• Email
  • Print

Night Comes to the Appalachians

Coal River

by Michael Shnayerson
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 321 pp., $25.00

In the May 13 Democratic primary in West Virginia, Barack Obama, despite having practically sewn up his party’s nomination the previous week with a win in North Carolina and a narrow loss in Indiana, suffered his largest defeat of the primary season, losing to Hillary Clinton by 67 to 26 percent. Obama at least had the sense to anticipate the result, and therefore spent almost no time in the state, although his lone speaking appearance in Charleston, the capital, remains memorable as the moment when he again started wearing a US flag lapel pin (this was about a month after the ABC debate in which he was asked about his failure to do so).

The results from the state’s fifty-five counties read like electoral margins from the old Eastern bloc, especially in some of the counties between Charleston and the Virginia and Kentucky borders to the south—the deep, dark core of coal country. In Boone County, Clinton won by 79 to 14 percent, in Logan County 84 to 11 percent. In Mingo County, it was 88 to 8 percent. In Wyoming County (79 to 10 percent), John Edwards, whose name was on the ballot but who had not been an active candidate for nearly four months, came within sixty votes of beating Obama to finish second. I thought Obama might carry Monongalia, the county in which I was born and raised, which is home to the large state university (28,000 students). But Clinton won there 55 to 38 percent. Only in Jefferson County, the state’s easternmost, which has a much smaller university and has lately been infiltrated by ex-Washingtonians looking for inexpensive real estate, did Obama come within single digits, losing 49 to 46 percent.1

The crushing defeat led to a spasm of warnings about Obama’s chances in November against John McCain. How could he compete, some experts wondered, after performing so miserably among the white working class in so reliably Democratic a state as West Virginia? Maureen Dowd, in her post-mortem on the primary, reproved Obama for “acting the diffident debutante, pretending not to care that he was given a raspberry by a state he will need in the fall.”2 Many pundits said much the same.

These analysts do not understand that West Virginia has changed. It is much more culturally Southern and conservative than in my youth. It is no longer a Democratic state in presidential politics, and has not been since it backed George W. Bush in 2000. Dowd quoted Charlie Peters, the founding editor of The Washington Monthly and a native son who worked on John Kennedy’s famous 1960 primary victory there, which demonstrated that a Catholic could win a Protestant state. Peters argued that the 96 percent white state could prove open to the mixed-race candidate: “The point of West Virginia in 1960 is that you can change attitudes,” he said. But the West Virginia of 1960 was a very different place from the West Virginia of today.

The truth is that Obama does not need West Virginia and its five electoral votes. His coalition represents, in a very literal sense, an America of the future in which there will be more white-collar tech-related jobs and fewer blue-collar manufacturing ones. There will be more immigrants and people of color and fewer Anglo-Saxon whites. Cities and inner-ring suburbs will be more important than small towns and sprawling, diffuse exurbs. The concerns of the middle and upper-middle classes will predominate in political life, not those of the working class (i.e., not the traditional “backbone of the Democratic Party” of the passing industrial age). It will, finally, be a country more reliant on the young than the old.

By all these measures, Obama’s coalition is a protean alliance for the rest of the century. And by all of them, West Virginia is a place of the past. A high-tech and multicultural future seems not in the cards there. But what makes this conclusion sadder still, for one who loves the place as I do, is that even its past—a past in which, for all its hardships, men had good, steady union work—is now beyond its reach. There is only the grinding present, centered on the huge coal industry, the men who own it, the politicians, and the judges and bureaucrats they appoint; and there is a commonly held fear that even the little hope that exists now could evaporate.

The Appalachian Mountains—the name comes from the Apalachee native people of northwest Florida who, in the 1500s, directed Spanish and French plunderers in search of gold toward the hills to the north3—were formed some 300 million years ago, as was the coal underneath them. The eastern United States was near the middle of the super-continent Pangaea, and Europe was just to the north. This was the late Carboniferous period, characterized by the development in these then-tropical areas of lush forests with huge trees with thick, soft bark, and of giant insects and bugs and amphibian creatures (no dinosaurs yet, but cockroaches the size of small dogs). Sea levels went down, creating vast lowland swamps. The presence of the swamps meant that dying plant and animal life, rather than decaying from exposure to oxygen, fell into water or mud. Barbara Freese, in her excellent book Coal, explains what happened next:

Because oxygen could not reach the buried plants and do its disassembly work, the plants only partly decayed, leaving behind black carbon. The spongy mass of carbon-rich plant material first became peat. After being squeezed and slow-cooked by the tremendous pressure and heat of geological forces, the peat eventually hardened into coal.4

The deposits were first exploited as early as the twelfth century in England, where the benefits of coal’s tremendous heat and energy were evident. So, too, were its negative effects on the atmosphere. The first commission to study the ill effects of coal was empanelled in 1285, and Edward I decreed a ban on coal-burning in 1306. Coal wasn’t widely used again until the Elizabethan Age, when, in what may have been history’s first energy crisis, Britain started running out of wood.

In America, explorers and speculators didn’t begin to appreciate the vast riches underground until the mid-1800s. The native tribes—in central Appalachia, mostly Shawnee and Cherokee—had just been driven west. The white settlers who held the land did not know that they were subsistence-farming on top of fortunes. They sold their timber rights for a pittance, usually, and about mineral rights they had no idea at all. Harry M. Caudill, in his finely written book Night Comes to the Cumberlands, describes how, with the methods used in the late nine-teenth and early twentieth centuries, one acre could yield 5,000 to 20,000 tons of coal. “For this vast mineral wealth,” he wrote in 1963, “the mountaineer in most instances received a single half-dollar.”5

In came capitalists and industrialists, who took most of their profits with them to Pittsburgh or Baltimore or New York. The local people were left with the job of getting the coal out of the ground—dirty work, dangerous, and largely unregulated. But at least with the rise of the labor movement and the advent of Franklin Roosevelt’s presidency, the workers won rights and protections. In 1940, West Virginia had 130,457 miners, nearly 110,000 of them members of the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA). By 1960, the year I was born in Morgantown, advances in technology had reduced the number to 48,696, but fully 75 percent of them were union members. West Virginia life was never glamorous, but in those days, at least, many miners felt they could count on having their jobs for life, and the unions kept the state’s politics reliably Democratic and even, to a surprising extent, fairly liberal.6

Around about that time, new machinery began to make a new kind of mining possible. Now some miners didn’t have to go underground; these machines could strip the soil off of mountains. In the intervening decades, the machines got bigger and bigger. Michael Shnayerson, a Vanity Fair writer who has clearly done his research, describes the evolution in Coal River :

Once upon a time, in the 1970s, mountaintop mining had been done on a modest scale in the coalfields. Then, in the 1980s, operators imported methods and new machines from the open-pit mines of the West. Sites grew suddenly from hundreds of acres to thousands. On some of the largest sites, one of the biggest machines on the planet pitched in. A dragline [the excavating machine] was like a steam shovel as high as a twenty-story apartment building. Built on-site, it scooped up 100,000 pounds of debris at a time; the equivalent of forty standard-sized cars.

The new method provided a bonanza for the coal business. It required far fewer men and yielded at least as much coal if not more—by 2002 West Virginia had just 15,377 miners, and they extracted 164 million tons, as opposed to the 127 million brought forth by the 130,000 miners of 1940. And work was not nearly as dangerous. All that had to be done now was to scrape off the top quarter or third of a 1,500-foot mountain, and there you would find a coal seam.

Something, however, had to be done with the dirt.

For many years, most local residents barely knew that mountaintop mining was taking place around them. Operators were clever enough to seek permits for mountains that were at a remove from the major roadways. People would hear distant dynamite blasts, but most didn’t give them much thought. In August 1997, US News & World Report became the first national publication to publish photographs of mountains whose tops had been lopped off. It exposed, Shnayerson writes, “southern West Virginia’s dirty secret, unknown even to residents of Charleston, a mere hour’s drive away.”7

People began to make the logical connections. The dirt, known as “fill,” had to be dumped in the surrounding valleys, disrupting the streams and the teeming ecosystems within them. What’s more, the extracted coal had to be “prepped” on site, washed with chemicals before being hauled away. The chemical-laden sludge was stored in “impoundment” ponds built on site. In theory, steps were taken to see that the chemicals did not leech into the nearby land.

But at Marsh Fork Elementary School, outside the town of Whitesville and sitting in the shadow of a large-scale mountaintop mining operation, parents were noticing that their children were suffering headaches, dizziness, vomiting, and diarrhea. They noticed, too, that when the school year ended, the symptoms went away. They observed that their streams no longer had many fish, and that the wildlife that once stayed up in the mountains was now coming down to the hollows, right up to their porches, to forage for food. Judy Bonds lived near Marsh Fork Creek. She had not been the type to get involved in environmental activism. But what she saw happening around her house led her to join Coal River Mountain Watch (CRMW), a group that had been started in Whitesville in 1996.

The story Shnayerson tells so adroitly in Coal River is chiefly the story of CRMW’s battle with Massey Energy, the owner of the operation above the school and, according to Shnayerson and to numerous news accounts, probably the most rapacious of the half-dozen or so major coal companies operating in Appalachia. It was Massey, writes Shnayerson, that established the practice of buying a union mine from another operator, shutting it down for a time, and reopening it as non-union. Once the Massey company had set up a mining operation on a mountain, it would swoop in and offer to buy out nearby residents at fair-market value, “‘fair market’ being what the houses were worth now that a huge mining operation was situated above them.”

Massey’s CEO is Don Blankenship, famous in West Virginia as the man who successfully bought himself a state supreme court justice in 2004 and then tried to buy himself the state legislature, failing spectacularly at the latter effort. The justice he succeeded in having replaced in 2004 was Warren McGraw, one of the elected, five-member court’s liberals who frequently sided with workers in injury and compensation cases. McGraw was up for reelection in 2004, and Blankenship wanted him out. That McGraw had sided with workers was not likely to stir much passionate opposition, so Blankenship found a case in which McGraw had been part of a 3–2 majority that had freed a mentally disturbed child molester who then went to work in a school. Blankenship established and funded an independent tax-deductible group called And for the Sake of the Kids, which ran ads attacking McGraw’s part in the decision.

McGraw was defeated, and Brent Benjamin, the conservative candidate whom Blankenship favored, duly took his seat on the court. To demonstrate that his interest in the children was sincere, Blankenship had vowed that after the election, he would endow a foundation to help the state’s needy children. Shnayerson reports that no such foundation was set up; and Blankenship’s tactics didn’t help other Republicans. In 2006, the $3 million that Blankenship provided for forty Republican challengers to Democratic state legislators brought just one victory.

The details of Coal River ‘s story are complex and of necessity somewhat arcane. Shnayerson delves skillfully into the details of the Clean Water Act, which governs fill dumping; the bureaucratic thickets of the state government and the Army Corps of Engineers, which is charged with enforcing the Clean Water Act; the ideological leanings of, and political pressures on, the judges and courts that handed down various rulings. The story he tells moves from the courtroom to the Massey boardroom to Governor Joe Manchin’s offices in Charleston and back to the hollows of Whitesville, and much of it will be new to readers who know little about mountaintop mining.

The moral, though, is familiar enough, not just to West Virginians but to any reader of Zola or Steinbeck. Shnayerson’s heroes chalk up victories here and there. Among them—along with Judy Bonds—are the valiant lawyer Joe Lovett, who kept telling himself he wanted to stop fighting Massey but kept being drawn back in, and the late federal judge Chuck Haden,8 who despite his Republican Party activism ruled bravely that virtually all fill dumping was a blatant violation of the Clean Water Act, and that the Army Corps had routinely ignored the law in granting permits. Invariably in the wake of such decisions, the coal operators loudly claim that jobs will be lost, which strikes fear into the politicians and, more understandably, the local people.

So the main story that Coal River tells is just how stacked the deck is. Massey built two coal storage silos near Marsh Fork school. The amount of coal dust released into the air during transfer and hauling was alarming. A Charleston Gazette reporter discovered that on maps Massey has submitted to the state over the years the property line has been mysteriously moved nearer the school. Lovett demonstrated this to the state bureaucracy. It ruled with Massey anyway.

At the end of Germinal, Zola’s Étienne Lantier gives up the fight for justice in the coalfields and moves to Paris. Shnayerson’s heroes don’t move—they love the place, and besides they have nowhere to go. Coal River ends with a tentative court victory for Lovett, as a West Virginia judge, a Bill Clinton appointee, condemned the Army Corps’ permit practices. The “buffer zone” required between the placement of mining waste and an existing valley stream had, he said, been violated. But shortly thereafter, the federal Office of Surface Mining, under the Bush administration, promulgated new and looser rules on buffer zones.

At different points, Shnayerson invokes an important figure in the recent battles over coal in West Virginia, and a major event in the state’s recent history. The figure is Davitt McAteer, a lawyer in the state who was assistant secretary for mine safety and health in the Clinton Labor Department and is a renowned expert on mine safety.9 The event is the disaster in 1972 at Buffalo Creek, a small community in Logan County. On February 26 of that year, an impoundment dam broke, and 132 million gallons of black wastewater flooded the valley, killing 125 people and leaving four thousand homeless. The lead lawyer for the plaintiffs, working pro bono from the offices of Arnold & Porter in Washington, was Gerald M. Stern, who reached a settlement with the Pittston Coal Company amounting to about $13,000 per survivor.

Stern had just wrapped up that litigation when he got a call asking him to represent fifteen women whose miner husbands had died in March 1976 in an underground explosion in eastern Kentucky at a site called the Scotia mine. As he writes in his book The Scotia Widows, he initially refused. Then a congressional report noted that Scotia “apparently found it cheaper to pay the fines for its numerous safety violations of federal ventilation standards…than to comply with the law.” After this, he writes, the widows’ “grief had turned to rage.” Eventually, Stern—who had left Arnold & Porter and started a small firm that couldn’t easily afford pouring so many hours into contingency-fee work—took the case.

The Scotia Widows is a more modest book than Coal River. Succinct and accessible, it moves briskly through the four years from the explosion to the settlement with the widows, which gave each of them about $400,000. Its story is quite similar to Coal River ‘s, with an intractable coal company paying handsome fees to highly respected lawyers (in this case, a former governor of the state), and judges who are loathe to rule against the company. To the extent that the ending is a happy one—Stern insists, credibly, that $400,000 per widow was the best he could have done in Frankfort, Kentucky, against a coal company in 1980—the morals of the story are that luck helps and politics matters.

The case went originally to a conservative judge who ruled uniformly for the company on every motion. The luck came in the form of a call from an anonymous tipster who alerted Stern to the fact that the judge “owned land on which he received royalties from coal mining”—a glaring conflict that the judge had not made public, and that forced him to withdraw from the case. The politics arrived in the election of Jimmy Carter in 1976; the more liberal judge he appointed to the circuit took the case over from the corrupt one, and suddenly rulings started going Stern’s way.

Davitt McAteer’s Monongah is not a modest book. It’s the summary of the author’s nearly thirty-year study of the explosion in a coal mine on December 6, 1907, that took the lives of around five hundred men. McAteer has read every document he could get his hands on. He is not a lyrical storyteller, but he is painstaking and judicious in giving us much useful information about what coal towns were like then (Monongah is in the north-central part of the state). A nearby newspaper wrote in 1903: “In visiting Monongah we are always reminded of Mr. Pickwick’s description of a town in England” with its “great quantity of dirt, smoke, and dust to be found” that should be taken as a sign of “commercial prosperity.” We learn the details of the names and backgrounds of many of the immigrant miners, many of them Italian and Slavic; what the company-owned houses were like, who lived where and in which row of housing. We read about the immense national and even international response to the disaster. And naturally, we find in the end that the mine’s owners were exonerated from any responsibility for the hundreds of deaths. The chief difference between then and now seems to be that then, there were no rules, whereas today, there are rules, but they are almost never enforced.

It’s easy to chalk up Obama’s defeat in West Virginia in May, and his almost certain defeat there this November, to racism. As the polls showed, race was on the minds of many voters.10 But it’s also true that a white forty-six-year- old newcomer talking of “change” and “hope” would be regarded with suspicion in the state—the inevitable result of decades in which promises turned out to be false and the system rigged. The suspicion blends with race to produce a worldview that is, I think, unique to the working-class whites of Appalachia, as opposed to the agrarian Midwest, and explains why Obama did so poorly there. As my friend Ed Tallman, a journalist in the state, recently put it:

Fatalism is a common Appalachian trait, and quite a few of the region’s working-class whites see politics as a stark zero-sum game pitting losers against winners. Upper-middle-class professionals and the wealthy will be fine no matter who the president is. But a lot of white Appalachians wonder: if Obama is in the White House and the competition for left-over scraps is between us and blacks, will we be screwed yet again?11

The irony is that Obama, who represents a coal-producing state, is not opposed to coal mining in the way Al Gore was. Obama has seemed open to proposals for “clean-coal” technology, by which the carbon dioxide produced at coal-burning plants is captured and buried rather than released into the atmosphere—a scheme that most environmentalists consider utterly chimerical. At the same time Obama has proposed an aggressive “cap-and-trade” program to reduce carbon emissions—John McCain supports a watered-down version of cap-and-trade—and it seems a safe bet that coal operators will use Obama’s support for this scheme to argue that he will cost West Virginians their jobs. Someday, probably sooner than it would like, the state will have to face the fact that we need to move away from coal. In the meantime, the dirty business grinds on.

August 28, 2008

  1. 1

    You can toggle across an interactive map at edition.cnn.com/ELECTION/2008/primaries/results/county/#WV DEMMAPprimary.

  2. 2

    Raspberry for Barry,” The New York Times, May 14, 2008.

  3. 3

    See John Alexander Williams, Appalachia: A History (University of North Carolina Press, 2002), p. 19.

  4. 4

    See Barbara Freese, Coal: A Human History (Perseus, 2003), p. 20.

  5. 5

    See Harry M. Caudill, Night Comes to the Cumberlands: A Biography of a Depressed Area (1963; Jesse Stuart Foundation, 2001), p. 75.

  6. 6

    For more detail on all this, see my essay on West Virginia in These United States (Thunder’s Mouth Press/Nation Books, 2003), pp. 475–484.

  7. 7

    Today, anyone with a computer can have a look. Go to the Google Maps homepage, with the view set on “map.” In the search bar, type in Whitesville, WV. You’ll be automatically directed to a close-in view of that town. Next, zoom the view out two clicks. Now change the view from “map” to “satellite.” You will be stunned by what you see.

  8. 8

    Haden was a close friend of my father, a prominent trial lawyer in the state in his time, their vast political differences notwithstanding. Haden delivered one of the eulogies at my father’s funeral in 1997, and he died of cancer in 2004. His ruling in Bragg v. Robertson was eventually overturned by the federal Fourth Circuit Court in Richmond, the country’s most conservative circuit court. The full story of Patricia Bragg’s ordeal, which led to Haden’s landmark decision, is movingly told by Penny Loeb, the former US News & World Report reporter who wrote the groundbreaking 1997 feature story, in Moving Mountains: How One Woman and Her Community Won Justice from Big Coal (University Press of Kentucky, 2007).

  9. 9

    My father and McAteer were friends also.

  10. 10

    According to exit polls, 21 percent of the state’s white Democratic primary voters acknowledged that race was a factor in their decision, and they went for Clinton by 84 to 9 percent. See www.msnbc.msn.com/id/21226014.

  11. 11

    See Ed Tallman, “Winning Over West Virginia,” June 30, 2008, at www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2008/jun/30/uselections2008.race.

  • Email
  • Print