It has become fashionable of late to describe every muttering of the masses, and the pundits who wish to speak to them, as a story. Whether this is a breakthrough in our ability to communicate or just another buzzword, like messaging, framing and narrative that this now ubiquitous term has replaced, is a question we might want to ask ourselves. While we are at it, we might also want to ask, just what is a story? And it is this question that, at least for me, poses the greatest problem.
Let me suggest that a story, since it could be true or false, or more often somewhere in between, is no more than a myth. A myth is a story with a purpose, and while it may contain truth, it is at its roots a means to an end. Accepting the myth as truth not only binds us together in a unity of purpose, it also separates us from those whose myths may reveal a different truth. Myths are the building blocks of nations and religions, but they can also lay the foundations for hatred and division. Neither good or bad, they can be used to promote harmony, used as a tool for mind control and groupthink, or to confuse and obfuscate.
Perhaps the most beguiling current myth of this sort is the one that is being perpetuated by both the coal companies and some of the country’s most influential environmental groups: that the coal industry is on the ropes, mountain top removal is winding down, and that this is the fault of the War on Coal being waged by these very same environmental groups. It is a comforting myth, designed, among other things, to alarm the good citizens of West Virginia and to comfort the supporters of these organizations and garner more financial support. For both parties, the myth serves a central purpose: it hides the truth. The truth is that any downturn in coal mining on the Cumberland Plateau is due to market conditions, not clever internet campaigns and striking logos. Both parties know this, but there is no political advantage to either in acknowledging it.
The myth I find the most disturbing is one I’ve seen on some recent Sierra Club press releases, namely that mountain top removal is “winding down.” This comforting claim was made in response to a recent ruling in Federal Court that coal companies must stop releasing water from surface mines containing high levels of “conductivity,” a well-understood measure of aquatic health. The claim is that this ruling will make it much more difficult to get new Mountain top removal (MTR) valley fill permits. This is yet to be seen, and I remains very skeptical as I spent hours in many of these courtrooms over the last ten years and the court process has yet to stop any new permits, although a few have been delayed. And I have seen first hand how the coal overburden can be hauled back on the mine site for disposal, while the stream was still obliterated all the same when the upper watershed that fed these streams was blasted and lowered by as much as a thousand feet.
Now I want to offer up my own myth. Mountain top removal has not slowed down. Divestment campaigns will not slow MTR down. Revising the Clean Water Act will not end MTR. The only approach to ending MTR is passing a law that forbids blasting. It is the dust and debris from blasting that posses the threats to our communities, to our streams and to our wildlife, not the water running off the mines. Coal companies will find a way around any conductivity rules, just as they have every other regulation on the books. We will then find ourselves back in court without any hope of injunctive relief.
Residents on the Coal River and other watersheds in Central Appalachia know this very. And we have come up with another plan, endorsed by many of the organizations long involved in this struggle. This is the Appalachian Community Health Emergency Act, or the ACHE Act. Unlike any other piece of legislation proposed so far, this bill will end MTR. It calls for a moratorium on the issuing of any new blasting permits until a federal investigation can be conducted to study the health impacts of MTR on the people of Appalachia. And again, unlike other approaches that serve to unite our opposition and confuse our allies, this bill deals only with the Cumberland Plateau, which has some of the highest mortality rates in the nation and previous peer reviewed studies by many scientists and medical experts has shown conclusively that this is due to the dust produced by detonating two million pounds of high explosives each and every day except Sunday. We have broad bipartisan support and more sponsors in the House than the previous Clean Water Restoration Act, which has been languishing for over a decade due to broad opposition from many quarters. The CRWR Bill affects more than surface mines, so many other interests groups, including developers and even farmers are opposed to it. These same groups have no opposition to our bill, because does not affect them.
But the truth is that this bill can only pass if these big environmental groups get on board and support it. So far their backing has been timid. This must change. The Coal River is the cradle of the climate crisis. Civil rights workers went to Montgomery, Selma and Birmingham not to achieve an easy victory, but rather because they understood that those cities wereheart of the beast. They endured violence and hatred, but carried on in the belief that if Jim Crow could not be defeated here, he could not be defeated in New York, Indiana, Oregon or anywhere where it held sway.
A win here in Coal River would of course not end the crisis. But it would be a symbolic victory that could lead the way, a rising tide to lift all boats. This is neither a new or novel strategy. Indeed it was the one agreed to ten years ago by these very same green groups. Rather than roll up their tents and leave declaring victory, these groups should return to Appalachia and double down and really win one for a change. It would not only bolster their image, but it would also provide some critical relief for the communities that are being destroyed, and the people who are being relocated, and the soil that is being poisoned.
Stories that hide the truth that coal is still King do a disservice to all of us. At best they are self-serving and at worst they actually makes our job here in West Virginia much harder. It is time to admit that our efforts as of yet have not yielded the results we claim, and get back to the hard dirty work of ending the most destructive mining industry in the US before it’s too late. I shouldn’t have to remind anyone that we are running out of time. And that is the rest of the story.