Coal Tattoo

Gazette photos by Lawrence Pierce

The Blair Mountain marchers entered their third day today on their trek through Boone and Logan counties, and apparently their effort has run into some problems — and some not-so unexpected opposition to their cause.

The Gazette’s Dr. Paul Nyden reports in today’s paper:

They originally planned to spend Monday night at John Slack Park in Racine, but Boone County Sheriff Rodney Miller told the marchers Monday evening they had to leave the site.

… The marchers ended up walking about 15 miles Tuesday, from Racine to a small park near the intersection of W.Va. 3 and Corridor G, just north of Danville.

They stopped briefly at about 2 p.m. outside the grounds of the Boone Career and Technical Center, part of Southern West Virginia Community and Technical College near the town of Foster.

They originally planned to spend Tuesday night on the school’s grounds, but were told by college officials they could not do that.

Rodney Smith, an administrator at the college, said on Tuesday he did not know why the marchers were told they could not stay.

“But we don’t have much grass. Big Earl’s Campground [about five miles north, near Julian] volunteered to let them stay there,” Smith said.

But Stanley said the marchers were told they could not stay there either, and they would have to take shuttles back to Marmet to spend another night there Tuesday.

Interestingly, I had a couple calls from anti-mountaintop removal activists who were really charged up about all of this, alleging that “coal thugs” had injured some of the marchers and stuff like that … at least according to the march’s own website, it thankfully doesn’t appear that any of that was true:

Monday night around 10 oclock the County Commissioner of Boone came to the park to order us to leave the park, overriding prior verbal permission and said that if the Marchers did not leave the park all marchers would be arrested. A small group of vocal counter-protesters added tension to the situation. Police worked with the marchers to evacuate John Slack Park safely.

We decided to leave because we aren’t marching to take a stand at this park, or confront the Boone County Commissioner; we’re here to March on Blair Mountain, confront coal industry power, and demand preservation of Blair Mountain, it’s history, and end MTR.

Sometimes, it almost seems as if some folks in the community of groups who oppose mountaintop removal almost want confrontations to occur — as if bad behavior by coal miners or supporters of the industry will somehow make their point. Or maybe some individuals in the industry have acted so poorly at some very public events that it’s easy for rumors about similar incidents to be believed and take on lives of their own.

It looks like the march organizers aren’t into that sort of thing and just want to march peacefully and try to grow the support for protecting Blair Mountain. But they do make clear in their most recent media update who they think is responsible for these problems with the camp sites:

Marchers have been met with supportive chants, calls and even flowers and waving school children along the route. This has occurred even though the coal industry has exerted great pressure on campsite owners and operators who have shut them out of six different sites in the past two weeks for overnight housing.

Owners and operators of both private and public campsites in Boone, the largest coal producing county in West Virginia, are being pressured and intimidated by the coal industry in an effort to inhibit the march.

“What we do know is that many of the owners of these campsites were very hospitable at first, but have since said with regret that we cannot rest on their property,” said Chuck Keeney, great-grandson of famed UMWA leader Frank Keeney. “The coal companies are trying to stop us by throwing obstacles and propaganda in our way. Still we march on. The time is now. The place is Blair Mountain, West Virginia.”

Some students on a Boone County school bus made some quick signs urging the marchers to leave.

There was an interesting exchange yesterday on the Facebook page of the Coal Miners Memorial Park, but it looks like it’s been deleted.  I didn’t save it or do a screen-shot, but basically, some local folks weren’t too happy about the march and said some inflammatory things — but after a little back-and-forth discussion, things calmed down into a pretty reasonable chat on the issues.

Much has been made about the involvement of some union coal miners and some United Mine Workers of America local unions being involved in the march, and about how the event is really about preserving an important piece of  our labor history.

But you have to wonder about some of this. While the folks being quoted in the media are being pretty careful to insist they aren’t against all coal mining, it’s obvious that some of the groups supporting the marchers really are out to eventually phase out the use of coal.  The Sierra Club, for example, calls its coal campaign Beyond Coal and advances this notion:

It’s time to move America beyond dirty coal. Coal provides about half of our electricity and more than 30% of our global warming pollution. From the mine to the plant, to the ash pond, coal is our dirtiest energy source. It causes asthma and other health problems, destroys our mountains, and releases toxic mercury into our communities. Continuing our dependence on coal chains us to dirty energy and prevents us from making the changes we need to bring about a clean, secure energy future.

Perhaps that’s one of the reasons that the UMWA’s national leadership hasn’t signed on to support the march.  UMWA President Cecil Roberts has made it clear he supports mountaintop removal, and the union has backed off any suggest that it would even discuss a phase-out of the practice.

But Cecil and the UMWA have joined with the Sierra Club in a lawsuit seeking to put Blair Mountain back on the National Register of Historic Places.

Given the way the coal industry and its political supporters have tried to divide coalfield communities — and the amount of heated rhetoric and near-violent confrontations we’ve seen in the last few years — any amount of unity among citizen groups, environmental organizations and labor unions is probably a welcome thing for the coalfields.

Residents here have a tough set of issues on their plates — the growing evidence of mountaintop removal’s impacts on the environment and public health, the huge hurdles in finding a way for the coalfields to deal with climate change, and the impending and dramatic drops expected in regional coal production. Maybe the marchers can provide some glimpse of what could be accomplished if West Virginians worked together, instead of fighting amongst ourselves.