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June 15, 2011

Mark Ovaska in West Virginia: “Strip Mining Prevents Forest Fires”


Ninety years ago, during the late summer of 1921, one of the largest armed confrontations of American history other than the Civil War occurred in Logan County, West Virginia, when the struggle between coal miners and the coal companies exploded into open warfare in the Battle Of Blair Mountain. Hundreds were killed, and every weapon from rifles to machine-guns and airplanes were used. The companies, backed by what we would now call private contractor paramilitary militias and eventually the US Army, broke the union and crushed the uprising. In the decades afterward, it did lead to successful union organizing efforts that lifted workers out of poverty and tenuously into the middle class during the great postwar boom.

But in our own time, those gains and jobs have evaporated and the land, more than ever before, has been destroyed by mining. Blair Mountain itself has been nominated for the National Register of Historic Places, yet threatened by the new generation of surface mining through mountaintop removal. BagNews has been tracking the corrosive environmental costs with Antrim Caskey’s Mountaintop Mining Watch series, and last week, photographer Mark Ovaska covered a march of activists both commemorating the battle and trying to save the mountain. Several hundred marchers followed the historic route.

Some local residents certainly didn’t welcome the protest. The coal companies dominate politics and the economy, and while lip service is often paid to “Clean Coal,” the harsh reality is that people are desperate to keep the few remaining jobs they have even though they know that they are taken advantage of and their land despoiled. There is also a “culture war” aspect, with the perception that the demonstrators are largely middle class outsiders poking their noses into working class communities.

The United Mine Workers of America (UMV) did not participate in the march, although some individual members did. Sadly, it is a shadow of its former self, supporting the coal industry even as it wants to preserve the sites of its own tragic history. Such division among the different groups against the hegemony of the coal companies has meant that not only is resistance weakened, but that legitimate issues are mocked rather than taken seriously: “Strip Mining Prevents Forest Fires” reads the misspelled sign.

Nonetheless, concerned citizens from across the country gathered, and at the march headquarters in Marmet, a group of young activists joined together for a moment of fun and relaxation. These are the kind of morale-building exercises that they need, as their campsite permits were cancelled and their numbers too small. The divisiveness and anger are disheartening. But the spirit is compelling and the cause urgent. The battle continues.

–Alan Chin, with reporting from Antrim Caskey and Mark Ovaska

PHOTOGRAPHS by MARK OVASKA

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