“Recently I tried to start a conversation about the poisoning of water caused by mines at my local barbershop full of retired miners. I was glad to see no shouting began but the results were as I had expected. No one seemed to care. They instead quickly changed the subject.
The barber, who is a little more open minded, whispered in my ear when I sat down to get my hair cut. He told me only two days prior someone mentioned how environmentalists were hurting the coal industry and the entire shop erupted in scornful and derogatory remarks about ‘tree huggers’.”
– Daniel Hawkins
The coal industry is making every effort to portray anyone who is concerned with the environment as a ‘hippie tree hugger’.
Coal miners, both underground and surface, have an extremely misconstrued perception of environmentalists. Sadly, these men and women only hear one side of the debate which comes from the industry they depend upon for money. Men who typically shun conspiratorial thoughts about our government are willing to believe “New safety and environmental legislation are a result of the Obama administration attempting to get rid of coal,” as the superintendent of one mine put it.
Safety talks given by mine management often become a means of spreading anti-environmentalist propaganda and rallying support for their industry. During one of these safety talks I recalled a mine foreman going on a rant. “If it wasn’t for coal we wouldn’t have nothin’. Fifty percent of this nation’s electricity comes from coal and it is needed to make steel and all sorts of other stuff we need. Environmentalists are getting a lot of media attention and are doing a good job of portraying coal as a horrible thing. Most don’t know the difference between met coal (metallurgical used in steel production) and steam coal (used in power plants for electricity. I’d betchya they’d sing a different tune if they flipped their light switch on and nothin’ happened.”
Such comments usually provoked a response from their audience of miners getting ready to start their shift, some of which would shout out comments I’d rather not put into writing.
Miners believe environmentalists just love plants and animals. They believe ‘tree huggers’ are willing to fight vehemently to shut down mining operations in order to save a single endangered species, “probably a fly or a worm or something”. When they view the entire environmental movement against mountain top removal they believe it is only to end our dependence on fossil fuels for energy. The common mental image they have of an environmentalist is a long haired, out-of-state, pierced, unemployed college hippie who has no idea what responsibility is.
I hate to use the term close minded when it comes to the majority of coal miners, but it fits like a glove. As soon as anything is mentioned about the environmental effects of mining, many coal miners switch off their attention or become angry. Recently I tried to start a conversation about the poisoning of water caused by mines at my local barbershop full of retired miners. I was glad to see no shouting began but the results were as I had expected. No one seemed to care. They instead quickly changed the subject. The barber, who is a little more open minded, whispered in my ear when I sat down to get my hair cut. He told me only two days prior someone mentioned how environmentalists were hurting the coal industry and the entire shop erupted in scornful and derogatory remarks about ‘tree huggers’.
The lack of information miners have about the purpose and drive behind the environmentalist movement is enormous. As Judy Bonds mentioned in the documentary Coal Country, Upton Sinclair once quoted “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his job depends on him not understanding it”.
Perhaps the most damning ignorance involves why permits have been denied or retracted. Miners continue to think that environmentalists are having new laws created. They do not understand that environmentalists simply had current laws properly enforced. Many of the coal industry’s tactics to manipulate laws and coerce the regulatory agencies who uphold those laws have been uncovered by environmentalists. Since that time coal companies have cried bloody murder about their inability to make easy profits.
The old song, Which side are you on? written during the Harlan County War has been resurrected by the organizations which seek to save the Appalachian Mountains. Its context has changed very little. It asks which side are you on: the side of the coal companies whose interest is only to make money, or the side of the people who face the many health problems caused by coal mining.
Daniel Hawkins is a former coal miner from Virginia. Having finally gotten fed up with current labor practices and environmental destruction within today’s Appalachian coal mines, he has left the mines in search of a better future for his family. In this series, he looks into Appalachia’s past and possibilities for the future. You can find his full series on his own blog, http://thoughtfulcoalminer.blogspot.com/. This post originally appeared on Daniel’s blog on Saturday, October 23, 2010.