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May 08, 2012

From India to Appalachia, Coal Is A Human Rights Issue

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“This is a human rights issue. Certain lives are valued differently, are considered expendable for resources.”

This was the powerful message that resonated across the first full day of our exchange between India civil society participants and Appalachian community members fighting mountaintop removal coal mining. But it didn't come from one of our Indian guests; it came from Chuck Nelson, a former coal miner who spent 30 years working underground in West Virginia's coal mines.

In the 1990s, just as mountaintop removal coal mining was coming to the area, local residents like Chuck started noticing that people were getting sick and dying. Chuck lost a close friend who was only 28 or 29-years-old to cancer. A grassroots movement went into tiny communities and asked folks to write down any illnesses they had, and came away with 14 pages of cancers and other diseases.

The one thing that connected everyone was that they used well water. Before mountaintop removal coal mining became prevalent, the hollers in the mountains had some of the best water, but since then Chuck has seen black water flowing from the taps in some people's homes, the result of leakage from earthen dams that hold back billions of gallons of toxic coal slurry from flooding the valleys bellow.

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And it's not just one household or one community that is affected. Susan Lupis and Hap Endler from SouthWings took us on a flyover of just a few of the mountaintop removal coal mining sites in the Charleston area, but from the air we could see site after site going all the way to the horizon.

Chuck explained how the coal companies own West Virginia, from the politicians they have bought and paid for, to the very economy that creates a vicious cycle, driving out all other industry and keeping people reliant on coal as their only option for employment. "We don't need coal to keep the lights on," he told us, but the powerful coal lobby is actively working to block new technology like wind power, that could create more long term jobs in the state.

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The fear over job losses is the big stick that coal companies use to threaten the people of West Virginia, even though the coal industry's very practices have slowly eroded employment. Perversely, more mountaintop removal coal mining only means fewer jobs for miners. As Chuck explained, 14 workers can run an mountaintop removal coal mining site, while hundreds were needed for an underground mine.

It's not just jobs that are at stake, but good jobs. Companies like Massey have gone on a union-busting spree across the state, buying up union mines, shutting them, and then reopening them as non-union mines. To ensure that the unions didn't return, Massey refused to hire back the local miners, breaking the social bonds that gave the unions power. For people like Chuck, being in a union gave them dignity, something that expendable non-union jobs couldn't do in the same way.

Without the unions to protect them, the workers were left at the mercy of the coal companies. Safety was overlooked in favor of profits, and anyone who dared to speak out was fired and blacklisted. This is how Chuck lost his job. After over two decades working as a union miner, Chuck was forced to spend eight years as a non-union employee. But he couldn't stay silent while workers were put at risk and local residents were dying. The reprisal was severe. He hasn’t been able to work since being fired in 2000.

Under these conditions, it was only a matter of time before something like the Massey Upper Big Bend disaster that killed 29 people occurred. Chuck lost two friends in that accident. Without the union inspecting the mines, workers were left at the mercy of company inspections, whose purpose was to keep the mines open, not to keep them safe. Chuck told us that whatever stories we've heard about Massey, the reality was even worse. But people couldn't speak out without losing their jobs like he did.

Now the coal companies are literally destroying what's left of the small, mountain communities. They've made it so no other industry can grow and they’ve poisoned the water. People who stand up to the industry can't get work. There is no choice but to leave the state. But no one will buy a house with toxic well water in the shadow of an mountaintop removal coal mining site or below a toxic coal slurry pond. Residents have no choice but to turn to the coal companies, which buy up and demolish entire communities -- tearing down and burning houses, churches, and everything else until nothing is left.

This is what 150 years of coal development looks like. There is no prosperity, except for a very few. All other livelihoods are destroyed, making people entirely dependent on the coal companies. But they can only make enough to scrape by, never break free, and eventually they can't even do that. Communities that have existed for two or three hundred years are finally razed to the ground.

This is the future that communities in India face if they continue down this path. Soumya Dutta came to the U.S. to challenge a project that received IFC funding from the World Bank, Tata Mundra. The backers promise it will create 700 permanent jobs, but it is already destroying the livelihoods of tens of thousands of people who depend on the polluted tidal zone for fishing, grazing, and salt production. If these are destroyed, the only option for local communities will be leaving or poor jobs with the coal companies, just like in Appalachia.

Chuck told us that "the companies will continue killing people until we run out or get off fossil fuels.” Places like West Virginia and India have huge potential for clean energy such as wind and solar power. But to realize this potential, the communities in Appalachia and India need our help. As Chuck explained, we are all complacent in what is happening in West Virginia every time we turn on the lights. The question is, will we stand with local communities and demand safe, clean energy? Or will we continue to let them be treated as expendable?

-- Nicole Ghio, Sierra Club Campaign Liaison

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