Coal Tattoo

When I read Mike Harman’s op-ed commentary in today’s Gazette, I really wasn’t sure what to make of it. Headlined, ‘War on coal’ is not a war at all,” the piece makes some good points. But I was worried readers would see it as some sort of violence “call to arms” against the mining industry.

Read a little and you’ll see why:

A real war on coal would be something much different. It would entail sabotage against coal mine equipment and operations, such as derailing coal trains, blowing up bridges, blasting train tunnels, that sort of thing. Desperate people might attempt to mess with mine operations in any number of ways. They might take it on themselves to go after coal trucks and coal haulage roads, strip mine bulldozers, Caterpillar machinery suppliers, coal company law firms, or any number of collaborators in partnership with the coal industry.

People engaged in a war on coal would go after the boards and management of coal companies, their business relations, collaborative financial and accounting firms, sympathetic politicians, and so forth.

… Obviously, the people in West Virginia, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Kentucky are not yet ready to wage a real war on coal. But if enough people get tired of suffering and dying, this could change.

If you read further down to the comments section, you’ll see some people are indeed taking it the way I feared. But after talking to a few people about the piece, I’m convinced that’s not at all what Mike Harman meant — and I’m further convinced that, whether you believe President Obama is out to shut down the entire coal industry or not, everyone from angry laid-off coal miners to top political leaders like Sen. Manchin and Gov. Tomblin, should just stop calling it a “war.”

War is war, folks. People shoot at each other. They drop bombs on each other. We all probably know people who have seen war. To call a political debate a war is insulting to people who actually fought in or died in wars.

People are dying because of coal.  A 35-year-old miner became the latest one in an accident this morning in Southern West Virginia.  Today in Raleigh County, residents and leaders will gather to honor the 29 who died in the worst coal-mining disaster in a generation.

In his op-ed piece, Mike points out:

I saw recently that around 10,000 coal miners died from black lung disease in the 10-year period from 1995 to 2004. That’s more than the American lives lost in the George Bush wars since 2001. If there is a “war” going on in the mining industry, the body count is piling up entirely on the side of the mine workers, not the industry that finances and runs the mines.

On this blog, I’ve taken to calling the Republican effort to block new mine safety rules, especially one aimed at ending black lung disease, a “war on coal miners.” I was wrong to do that, and I’m going to stop it. Maybe the coal industry’s PR people and political supports would agree to do the same. Maybe someone like Gov. Tomblin or Sen. Manchin would announce their intention to abandon this silly rhetoric, and call on others to join them. It’s worth noting that United Mine Workers President Cecil Roberts, despite some of his far-out rhetoric about President Obama’s coal policies, does not use the phrase “war on coal.”

Mike also wrote this in his op-ed:

A real war on coal might look a lot like the war fought against mine unionization in West Virginia back in the early 1900s, when your chances of survival in a coal mine were worse than surviving in the military engaged in “real” war.

There’s no question that coal’s history in West Virginia has seen its share of real violence. Some of it happened not so long ago. I still remember nearly 20 years ago when I interviewed the young daughter of Eddie York, who was shot and killed during the 1993 coal strike.  But I had forgotten that I started off a long Sunday piece about the strike’s impact on families this way:

James Tompkins slammed his pickup to a halt, shattering the quiet on the picket line.

The burly, bearded miner hopped out of the cab. He stomped over, stuck his head under the blue canvas lean-to, and glared at five or six fellow United Mine Workers.

“There’s going to be a lot of trouble on this picket line over this,” Tompkins said, pointing across the bridge to a square particle-board sign.

Black spray-painted letters spelled out, “Scab of the Week.” Poster paper taped to the sign identified Local 2935’s latest target “We’ve got boys whose fathers and sons and brothers are bosses up there, and it’s better just not to talk about it,” he said.

“This is all kin here.” Tompkins’ own son, James Derrick, is a coal company engineer.

Every day on his way to work with other salaried employees, James Derrick crosses the UMW picket line.

“If they put his name up on that sign over there, there’s going to be trouble,” Tompkins vowed later. “Because he’s my son before he’s a boss.

“Your kin people are your kin people before they’re bosses or scabs or anything else,” he said. “And we don’t need to be fighting with each other.

It’s certainly true that pollution from coal-fired power plants causes many, many deaths. And concern is growing about the science that shows residents living near mountaintop removal coal-mining face increased risks of deaths and serious health problems, including cancer and birth defects. But two different people I respect -who come from very different backgrounds and have different political outlooks — told me this morning that they don’t like it much when environmental activists refer to mountaintop removal as “raping Appalachia” or “raping the mountains.” Rape is rape. Mountaintop removal is not rape. I feel the same way when I hear people toss around the word “genocide.”  Nobody has written more stories about the public health studies on mountaintop removal. They’re a big concern. But this isn’t genocide.

A friend of mine sometimes worries that in all of the stuff that pretends to be political speech these days we will somehow run out of words. We’ll exaggerate so much that when we see real horror, we won’t have anything left to call it.

We’ve been very fortunate so far that, in all of the heated arguments here about coal mining and mountaintop removal and the industry’s future, nobody has gotten shot. Tempers have boiled. There’s been intimidation and minor incidents. Hopefully this weekend, when activists launch their latest action against a mountaintop removal site, things will again stay peaceful.

War is war. This isn’t war. Let’s call it something else.