Don Blankenship, longtime Chief Executive Officer of coal giant Massey Energy, was indicted November 13 on charges that he consistently violated federal mine safety rules at the company’s Upper Big Branch Mine until an April 2010 explosion that killed 29 of 31 miners.
The Charleston, West Virginia Gazette reports that a federal grand jury charges Blankenship with “conspiring to cause willful violations of ventilation requirements and coal-dust control rules — meant to prevent deadly mine blasts — during a 15-month period prior to the worst coal-mining disaster in a generation.” The allegations come with a maximum prison sentence of 31 years.
I take no joy in the prospect of another dehumanizing incarceration, but regret that a coal baron held so much power in the first place.
Before industry came to the mountains a unique form of common governance existed. Communities obtained subsistence from the surrounding old growth forest. Everyone understood not to claim more than necessary from the commons. This governance naturally produced the maximum sustainable yield of resources. Locals labored, bartered and brought goods to market together.
As European expansion claimed the new world, land became the ultimate commodity and all eyes were fixed on the pristine forests of Appalachia. Enclosure movements commenced as a cash economy developed in the region for the first time. By the early 19th century violent confrontations ruined native populations. The mass slaughter of indigenous people culminated in the Trail of Tears, eradicating tribes from Appalachian governance.
Decades later, in post-Civil War America, mountain settlers were coaxed into selling mineral rights to would-be industry barons. Broad form deeds were developed to acquire local lands. Mineral rights were obtained for less than a dollar an acre as mountaineers maintained surface rights. Clauses in these deeds, however, allowed industrialists to take over the land at the company’s discretion for resource extraction — even if such acquisition would surprise grandchildren decades later. Locals were forced off of their property to line the pockets of absentee capitalists, often by rights that had been sold generations before. By the end of the Industrial Revolution coal reigned as king.
Industry came to own a vast amount of property in the Central and Southern Appalachians, affording barons incredible power over mountain communities. Company towns popped up near mining operations. Workers lived in company barracks, were paid in company scrip and were required to purchase goods at the company store. Mono-economies developed across the coalfields that still persist today.
Working conditions were incredibly hazardous for miners. Explosions, shaft collapse, Black Lung and Silicosis ran rampant in coal communities, as did poverty. Company scrip kept workers incredibly poor as billions of dollars were extracted from the region. Worker organization was rather difficult in these company-owned communities, but rebellion and unionization did take place. Unionization failed to liberate labor, however, as class struggle fell to capital. The coal towns acted as an exploitative system of power, impacting every aspect of the lives of miners and their families. Powerlessness produced quiescence.
With the news of Blankenship’s indictment, we are reminded of this historical context and confronted with the realization that not much has changed to this day. Appalachian communities experience some of the worst poverty in the United States. Miner safety is set aside for the sake of capital. Vast ecosystems are destroyed as mountaintop removal blasts its way across the landscape. Broad form deeds, after the boom of strip mining in the 1970s, claimed family hollers throughout the 1980s and 90s. The regulatory state, charged with oversight, continually turns a blind eye to industry violations and worker injuries so coal mines can stay in operation, as recently reported by NPR.
But, for what it is worth, I am an optimist. Restorative justice and regeneration is coming to the coalfields. A beautiful anarchism awaits Appalachia.
Coal has established deep cultural roots in the region and will no doubt remain a market mainstay for some time to come. But coal will no longer reign. Deserved competition will significantly reduce its role. Pristine mountain ecosystems will reclaim prominence in emerging economic orders. Beneficial ecosystem services, far too important for the cash nexus, will reclaim their rightful place in the market. Holistic medicine, decentralized food production, eco-tourism, alternative energy markets and trade cooperatives are just a few examples of market forces that will empower mountain people to reclaim the commons. As opposed to capital, individuals will own the means of production, hold agency over their labor and signal the market.
There are no words to describe the complexity that will follow. Such a liberty can only be imagined by the people of this incredibly diverse, ancient terrain. Appalachia will be wild, wonderful and free.