Toxic West Virginia: Miners- Episode 3

VBS: The third episode is all about miners. They’re pretty amazing guys. They have a complex relationship with their jobs. It’s not cut and dry.
Meredith: The most important thing to remember about this particular issue is that we are still dependent on fossil fuels. Hopefully within the next 15 or 20 years we won’t be, but right now we are. Coal mining itself is not bad—it’s just the way that it’s being practiced. It’s the irresponsibility of most of the big mining corporations. Like any other corporation, it’s about the bottom line and it’s really expensive to be responsible. Anyone who buys recycled toilet paper or 7th Generation dishwashing fluid knows it is a lot cheaper to go to the grocery store and buy some Dawn. It’s more expensive to be responsible. So it’s not about stopping mining all together, or labeling miners as bad people. But some aspects of the system are simply irresponsible. The miners themselves are like collateral damage for our lifestyle. Every time we turn on the light switch, we should think about it. 60 percent of New York’s energy comes from coal.

That’s amazing. I think that’s the case with a lot of major cities. Most of our daily supply of electricity comes from coal. Like 50 percent!
When you’re in West Virginia you see a lot of coal trains. Millions and millions of dollars of coal just passes in front of you when you’re waiting to cross the street.

So these guys are the collateral damage for our lifestyle. But they have a complex relationship to the industry. Experience has taught them to be very critical and skeptical and they’re very self-conscious about what they do and how it affects them. And they party hard. Right?
Well, surface mining is really dangerous and underground mining is really dangerous. It’s like being in the military, knowing you might die today—you might lose your life for your job. I think if you live like that, then when you are off the clock you want to have a fucking good time. That’s how most of these dudes live. They work hard and they party hard. In this episode we’re at a bar because that’s how they socialize. That’s the center of the community. But they aren’t a bunch of dudes that just booze it up for nothing. There’s some kind of release that needs to take place after working for 16 hours underground in a space that’s five feet tall with no light except for the headlamp on your helmet. You better believe you’re going to want to come out and have a drink with your friends.

Let’s wrap it up by taking about the guys you interviewed in the back room at the bar. They seemed pretty smart and bitter.
Mining companies have never had a good relationship with their employees. In any extractive mining situation anywhere in the world, it’s always the people that live in the place with the natural resources that get fucked over. Look at Africa with diamonds, or South America or the Middle East with oil.

Those guys were very angry but also very conscious of their situation.
Your options are very limited in a place that fosters a single industry. It’s not like any other city, where you can either work in the fast food industry as a cook or a waitress or at a drive through, or maybe managing your own franchise. Small businesses are fucked there. There is no such thing. So you can go to the mines or the military. Nearly every man we spoke to had gone to the military.

If you think about it and take a step back, classically they were fucked before coal became a major industry. They’ve always been poor, right?
There is a difference though. The reason a lot of people think the Appalachians were settled was because of coal, but coal was only discovered in the 1700s. The Cherokees, who had been pushed out of their land in the Carolinas, settled in the Appalachians because that land was so rich and bountiful. There is plenty of water and there are valleys that don’t freeze in the winter. For subsistence it’s perfect. You have to work hard, but you are your own boss and you don’t have to participate in capitalist culture. So when you take the land away and fuck up the water, you force people into a situation they aren’t traditionally accustomed to. You take their independence away.

There’s a real culture shock to losing the land as a source of life and goodness.

Oh, completely. People are like, “Why don’t they just move?” It’s not about that. These people have been living on this family land for hundreds of years. And it’s not just principle. Why should the giant hand of a corporation be able to flick you off like a little flea?


Further reading…

Miners tell their stories in Vice magazine’s Appalachia Issue.

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