MAC: Mines and Communities

US Update

Published by MAC on 2006-10-28

US Update

28th October 2006

A new Christian front against mountaintop destruction? You bet! Masssey Energy (the principle destroyer) lobbying for the Republican party? No doubt about it! More miners' lives lost thanks to the Bush regime's refusal to implement basic safety rules? That's par for the course.

As the mid-term US elections inch nearer day by day, will a Democratic party success make all the difference?

Don't bank on it!

Coal magnate trying to fire up GOP support

By IAN URBINA, New York Times

28th October 2006

CHARLESTON, W.VA. — Don Blankenship is not the governor of West Virginia. But, here in coal country, some say he may as well be, considering the power he wields.

Blankenship, chief executive of the state's largest coal producer, Massey Energy, has promised to spend "whatever it takes" to help win a majority in the state Legislature for the long-beleaguered Republican Party in a state that is a Democratic and labor stronghold.

In a state where candidates who win typically spend less than $20,000, Blankenship has poured an estimated $6 million into political initiatives and local races in the past three years.

Blankenship has spent at least $700,000 in his current effort to oust Democrats.

The state is awash with lawn signs, highway billboards, radio advertisements and field organizers that he has bankrolled.

"Don Blankenship would actually be less powerful if he were in elected office," said Rep. Nick Rahall, a Democrat whose congressional district includes a majority of Massey's coal mines.

"He would be twice as accountable and half as feared," Rahall said.

Rather than bankroll his own political ambitions, as have wealthy businessmen such as Gov. Jon Corzine of New Jersey and Mayor Michael Bloomberg of New York, Blankenship has exerted his financial clout in the mold of Warren Buffett and George Soros, choosing issues and candidates in line with his philosophy.

Union leaders say Blankenship, 56, is the main reason that less than a quarter of the state's coal miners are now organized, down from about 95 percent just three decades ago.

And environmentalists describe him as the biggest force behind a form of mining called mountaintop removal that involves using explosives to blow off the tops of mountains to reach coal seams.

Local Republicans admiringly say that Blankenship combines the strategic savvy of Karl Rove, the White House adviser, and the fundraising skill of Richard Mellon Scaife, the conservative financier.

Blankenship personally oversees his media campaigns; he writes advertisements and designs polls, and speaks on talk radio more than the chairman of the state Republican Party.

"This has never been an easy state for Republicans," said the party chairman, Doug McKinney. "But finally this state is at a tipping point, and Don is a big reason for that."

Taking On a Coal Mining Practice as a Matter of Faith*


28th October 2006

HALE GAP, Va. — The windswept ridge that Sharman Chapman-Crane hiked to on a recent fall afternoon is the kind of place, she said, that she normally would avoid. From there, she could see what she loved about Appalachia and what it had lost, and she wanted her visitors to see it, too.

The old rounded peaks of the mountains encircled the ridge, dense with trees smudged red and gold. But in the middle of the peaks, several stood stripped bare and chopped up, a result of an increasingly common and controversial coal mining practice called mountaintop removal.

"Doesn't it say in Scripture, 'Who can weigh a mountain, measure a basket of earth?' " Ms. Chapman-Crane said, recalling descriptions of God's omnipotence in Isaiah 40:12. "Well, only God can. But now, the coal companies seem to be able to do it, too."

Ms. Chapman-Crane, her colleagues at the Mennonite Central Committee Appalachia and other Appalachian Christians are trying to halt mountaintop removal, and at the heart of their work, they say, is their faith.

They are part of an awakening among religious people to environmental issues, said Paul Gorman, executive director of the National Religious Partnership for the Environment, an interreligious alliance. Increasingly, religious people across denominations are organizing around local issues, like preventing a landfill, preserving wetlands and changing mining.

"People of faith are thinking afresh about human place and purpose in the greater web of life," Mr. Gorman said. "They are asking, What does it mean to be present in a crisis of God's creation made by God's children?"

Although Christian environmental activists speak out against mountaintop removal at different levels of government, many believe that showing the practice's toll will persuade others to join them in seeking stricter regulation of it, if not an outright ban.

A new group, Christians for the Mountains, urges religious people to take up mountaintop removal "as a spiritual issue," and it has made a DVD that it is distributing to churches and individuals, said Allen Johnson, an evangelical Christian and a founder of the group.

The Rev. John Rausch, director of the Catholic Committee of Appalachia, has led tours of mountaintop removal sites since 1994. Mr. Rausch estimates that 400 people have taken his tour. They learn of the tours by word of mouth or from their churches, pay a few hundred dollars to stay in simple accommodations, hike several miles through forests and mined lands and talk to people whose lives have been affected by mountaintop removal.

The Mennonite Central Committee Appalachia, based in Whitesburg, Ky., gave its first tour in October, focusing on a corner of southeastern Kentucky and southwestern Virginia rich in coal and diverse forests.

On the second morning of the four-day tour, the trip's leaders, Ms. Chapman-Crane and the Rev. Duane Beachey, marched their three-member group up the mile-long trail to Bad Branch Falls. Poplars, beeches, hemlocks and magnolias thatched together a canopy above the trail, and the rain of their leaves made a soft ticking sound. Wild ginseng and wintergreen lined the path. Cottage-size boulders leaned forward over a rushing stream below the trail.

"Not every place on the mountains has waterfalls like Bad Branch," Ms. Chapman-Crane said. "But this is pretty much what it's like on the mountains here. The forests of the Appalachian range are like a northern rain forest."

Mary Yoder, who had volunteered to come on the trip for her congregation, Columbus Mennonite Church in Columbus, Ohio, asked, "So this is the kind of place that gets blown up in mountaintop removal?"

Mr. Chapman-Crane replied, "This is what would be lost, is lost, when they blast a mountaintop."

The United States is rich with coal, and mountaintop removal has begun to replace underground mining in Appalachia as the preferred method of extraction because of its efficiency and lower cost. Mountaintop removal involves leveling mountains with explosives to reach seams of coal. The debris that had once been the mountain is usually dumped by bulldozers and huge trucks into neighboring valleys, burying streams.

The coal industry asserts that mountaintop removal is a safer way to remove coal than sending miners underground and that without it, companies would have to close mines and lay off workers.

Luke Popovich, a spokesman for the National Mining Association, a coal lobbying group, said that by fighting mountaintop removal religious groups might find their priorities colliding.

"They find themselves in a difficult position," Mr. Popovich said, "because they're expressing support for those who purport to protect nature, and, at the same time, that activism carries implications for the human side of the natural equation. Human welfare depends on the rational exploitation of nature."

Organizing to Stop Mountaintop Removal Christianity runs wide and deep in Appalachia. At the Courthouse Cafe in Whitesburg, Mr. Beachey explained that as a Christian concern for his neighbors drove his desire to rein in mountaintop removal. But as in much of Appalachia, pastors and churchgoers here are reluctant to stir up trouble: many work for coal companies, or the people next to them in the pew do. Others believe stopping mountaintop removal would eliminate the few jobs that remain.

Many understand their faith differently than Christian environmentalists do. One night, Darrell Caudill and several friends gathered to play their guitars for the environmental tour and sing traditional songs and hymns. Mr. Caudill, 57, works for a coal company and believes in being a good steward of the earth. But to him, he said, being a Christian means being saved and spreading the Gospel. There is no tension between being committed to his faith and supporting mountaintop removal.

"Why did God produce coal then and put it underground?" said Mr. Caudill, who attends a nondenominational evangelical church. "He produced things that we need on this earth. Without coal, you wouldn't have the warmth and light you have right now."

Late in the trip, the tour group drove Lucious Thompson, 63, a former coal miner, to the horseshoe of peaks above McRoberts, where he lives. The peaks have been leveled. The woods where he had hunted are gone. The new grass on the new plateaus barely clings to the soil, which means that McRoberts often floods now after hard rains, he said.

"I've been flooded three times since they started working on the mountaintop," Mr. Thompson said.

He talked of neighbors whose house foundations had been cracked because of the daily blasting, of a pond lost to sludge and of respiratory ailments because of the coal dust flying from the coal trucks.

"The coal company says it's God's will," he said. "Well, God ain't ever run no bulldozer."

People like Mr. Thompson and the woods and mountains of Appalachia seemed to make the point the tour's organizers hoped for. After the tour, Ms. Yoder returned to Columbus to tell her congregation of about 200 what she had learned.

"My comment to the church was that I would do the tour with an open mind," she said, "and my conclusion is there is no room for mountaintop removal in our country."

Union demands safer coal mines, protests Stickler appointment

By VICKI SMITH, Associated Press

24th October 2006

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. - About 100 West Virginia and Pennsylvania coal miners gathered at a district federal mine safety office Tuesday to demand stronger safety measures and better enforcement in the nation's coal mines.

The rally came a day after a Pennsylvania miner was killed in an explosion, bringing the number of coal-mine fatalities to 42 this year. Of those, 21 have been in West Virginia.

Members of the United Mine Workers gathered outside the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration's District 3 headquarters in Morgantown, where the agency's district managers were meeting.

UMW spokesman Phil Smith said miners want to meet with new MSHA chief Richard Stickler to discuss 17 proposed safety regulations that were scrapped by the Bush administration in 2001. Stickler, who started work Monday, did not attend Tuesday's meeting.

The proposals range from dust control and safety plans to improvements in mine rescue teams and emergency responses.

"We haven't received a response," Smith said of the request to see Stickler. "Not even a no, nothing."

Morgantown district manager Kevin Stricklin met with the miners and said he would pass along their concerns to Stickler.

The union also wants thorough testing of the air packs that miners depend on to keep them alive in fires, explosions and entrapments, as well as a timetable for hiring more MSHA inspectors and getting them underground.

Since the Sago Mine disaster, which killed 12 West Virginia miners trapped by a Jan. 2 explosion, air packs have come under growing scrutiny. Survivor Randal McCloy Jr. said at least four of his co-workers could not get theirs to work.

Recent tests by federal health officials concluded the SR-100 made by Pennsylvania-based CSE Corp. is prone to air-hose damage and other problems, though the company defends its product as a lifesaving device.

Last week, while Congress was in recess, President Bush appointed Stickler to head MSHA, even though the Senate had twice rejected him. The UMW joined some lawmakers in arguing the West Virginia native had spent too many years as a mining executive and failed to demonstrate adequate concern for safety problems.

Stickler worked for Beth Energy Mines of Pennsylvania for 30 years and briefly for Massey Energy before running the Pennsylvania Bureau of Deep Mine Safety from 1997 to 2003.


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