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Mountain Top Removal Coal Mining Divides Communities Over Jobs and the Environment

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Posted Aug. 15, 2012

Interview with Dr. Dan Doyle, physician with the New River Health Association, serving Fayette County, W. Va., conducted by Melinda Tuhus

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Tensions are rising in the coal fields of southern Appalachia, as more militant – though nonviolent – protests are being staged to end mountaintop removal coal mining, and the demand for coal and its availability in the region is declining. In West Virginia, even some pro-coal officials estimate that the coal industry will play out in the state over the next 20 years, although vast amounts will remain accessible in the American West for much longer.

In mountaintop removal coal mining, mountain ridges are blown up using millions of tons of dynamite and the dislodged rocks and earth are dumped in the valleys below. The process so far has obliterated 500 mountain ridges and buried 2,000 miles of fresh water streams.

Dan Doyle is a family physician who has worked at the New River Health Association serving Fayette County, W. Va., for the past 34 years. He also directs the health center’s black lung clinic. Over the past several years, underground coal miners have seen a spike in black lung disease, which restricts breathing and in the most serious cases, is fatal. Doyle notes that several recent studies have revealed a marked increase in both birth defects and certain cancers in residents of communities near mountaintop removal sites. His patients include many residents who depend on the coal industry for their livelihood. Sitting on the front porch of his home, Dr. Doyle spoke with Between The Lines' Melinda Tuhus, sharing his views about the complicated nature of community support for and opposition to mountaintop removal coal mining.

DAN DOYLE: It's kind of almost a town/gown conflict, only it's not town/gown, it's more of a class thing, which is that the people most opposed to MTR, here in Fayette County, tend to be – people who are middle class, came from outside, are first generation here, have college education, often have professional jobs, or are employed often as owners and entrepreneurs in the tourism industry. So they have an economic interest against MTR. In addition, they tend to be environmentally aware, and have kind of a global perspective on climate change and environmental destruction in general. Then, there's probably the majority of the population here, whose families have been here a long time, many of whom are employed directly in the coal mining industry not just as coal miners, because those jobs have shrunk to a handful. But there's so many other jobs that are related: equipment, supplies, electrical equipment, maintenance, tires, fuel, insurance – that the coal and gas industry here is so pervasive in our economy that there are many, many people – and they tend to be natives and people who have been here a long time and who are working class or below – very strongly identify with coal mining both as what's putting bread on the table in somebody's family in their extended family right now, and also because it's their history and heritage. And so that difference has been easy to exploit for the energy industry and the coal mining industry. They've done a great job of keeping people divided, keeping people at each others' throats, keeping people blaming each other and hating each other. And it's a really big challenge here.

BETWEEN THE LINES: I've read a number of polls over the last number of years that show that overall, statewide, more people are opposed to mountaintop removal mining than in favor. But when you get in southern West Virginia, it may not be so...maybe less than a majority.

DAN DOYLE: There's a wonderful way to appreciate that around here because all you have to do is look at all the Friends of Coal decals on people's cars and trucks, and if you start looking, Friends of Coal is basically a coal operator/Republican/lobby and media campaign that is aimed at maintaining mountaintop mining with minimal restriction and minimal interference as long as possible. They know the handwriting's on the wall; they know that this can't continue. My analogy is someone who's won a prize where they get 15 minutes in a grocery store to run around and put as much stuff in their cart as they can. And they get in there and they go straight to the meat dempartment and load their cart up with meat, and throw in liquor...they're on the clock, and they're going to get everything they can until the whistle blows.

So the Friends of Coal campaign is to do everything possible to extend that by a few years, so that they can cram as much coal wealth and energy wealth into their carts before it finally comes to a stop. But they have succeeded in getting people with that coal mining history and legacy – and who are depending on that for this month's food, and this month's college tuition for their children, and this month's car payment – to join with that.

In addition, those stickers are handed out at work – at union and non-union mines, and equipment shops, and electrical supply shops, and barber shops – and people are basically told, "Show your support, put this on your car." And if you're a coal miner at a non-union mine and your boss tells you to put it on your car, you put it on your car, and you take it home and tell your wife to put it on her car. So you see this stuff all over the place. So, that's one way that it's easy to see, if not active, thoughtful support, gut support and identification with this anti-government, anti-EPA, anti-regulation, anti-inspection, pro-corporate, anti-union, cause. It's actually quite a big paradox and contradiction that that is the case, but it is.

For more information on the Coal River Mountain Watch, visitCRMW.net.

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