Our Common Good

An executive who ran several coal companies for Massey Energy and worked closely with former CEO Don Blankenship faces criminal conspiracy charges and is cooperating with federal prosecutors, a sign that authorities may be aiming their sights even higher in the company as they probe a fatal West Virginia blast that was the nation’s worst mine disaster in four decades.

David Craig Hughart, president of a Massey subsidiary that controlled White Buck Coal Co., is named in a federal information document — which signals a defendant is cooperating — filed Wednesday in U.S. District Court in Beckley.

Although Upper Big Branch is never directly mentioned in the document, U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin told The Associated Press the charges come from the wide-ranging and continuing investigation of the April 2010 explosion that killed 29 men.

Hughart is the highest-ranking official yet to be charged, and his cooperation suggests that federal officials could be working their way up the Massey hierarchy. Blankenship was known for dealing directly with presidents of his subsidiaries, possibly even bypassing layers of management in between.

Massey was bought after the disaster by Virginia-based Alpha Natural Resources, which has said it was sealing the mine permanently.

The court document accuses Hughart of working with co-conspirators to ensure miners at White Buck and other, unidentified Massey-owned operations received advance warning about surprise federal inspections many times between 2000 and March 2010.

Those illegal warnings gave workers time to conceal violations that could have led to citations, fines and costly shutdowns, the document says.

Four investigations have concluded that Massey concealed problems at the mine through an elaborate scheme that included sanitized safety-inspection books and an advance-warning system.

This weekend marks the anniversary of the most brutal confrontation in the history of the American labor movement, the Battle of Blair Mountain. For one week during 1921, armed, striking coal miners battled scabs, a private militia, police officers and the US Army. 100 people died, 1,000 were arrested, and one million shots were fired. It was the largest armed rebellion in America since the Civil War.

This is how it happened. In the Twenties, West Virginia coal miners lived in “company towns.” The mining companies owned all the property. They literally ran union organizers out of town – or killed them.

In 1912, in a strike at Paint Creek, the mining company forced the striking miners and their families out of their homes, to live in tents. Then they sent armed goons into that tent city, and opened fire on men, women and children there with a machine gun.

By 1920, the United Mine Workers had organized the northern mines in West Virginia, but they were barred from the southern mines. When southern miners tried to join the union, they were fired and evicted. To show who was boss, one mining company tried to place machine guns on the roofs of buildings in town.

In Matewan, when the coal company goons came to town to take it upon themselves to enforce eviction notices, the mayor and the sheriff asked them to leave. The goons refused. Incredibly, the goons tried to arrest the sheriff, Sheriff Hatfield. Shots were fired, and the mayor and nine others were killed. But the company goons had to flee.

The government sided with the coal companies, and put Sheriff Hatfield on trial for murder. The jury acquitted him. Then they put the sheriff on trial for supposedly dynamiting a non-union mine. As the sheriff walked up the courthouse steps to stand trial again, unarmed, company goons shot him in cold blood. In front of his wife.

This led to open confrontations between miners on one hand, and police and company goons on the other. 13,000 armed miners assembled, and marched on the southern mines in Logan and Mingo Counties. They confronted a private militia of 2,000, hired by the coal companies.

President Harding was informed. He threatened to send in troops and even bombers to break the union. Many miners turned back, but then company goons started killing unarmed union men, and some armed miners pushed on. The militia attacked armed miners, and the coal companies hired airplanes to drop bombs on them. The US Army Air Force, as it was known then, observed the miners’ positions from overhead, and passed that information on to the coal companies.

The miners actually broke through the militia’s defensive perimeter, but after five days, the US Army intervened, and the miners stood down. By that time, 100 people were dead. Almost a thousand miners then were indicted for murder and treason. No one on the side of the coal companies was ever held accountable.

The Battle of Blair Mountain showed that the miners could not defeat the coal companies and the government in battle. But then something interesting happened: the miners defeated the coal companies and the government at the ballot box. In 1925, convicted miners were paroled. In 1932, Democrats won both the State House and the White House. In 1935, President Roosevelt signed the National Labor Relations Act. Eleven years after the Battle of Blair Mountain, the United Mine Workers organized the southern coal fields in West Virginia.

The Battle of Blair Mountain did not have a happy ending for Sheriff Hatfield, or his wife, or the 100 men, women and children who died, or the hundreds who were injured, or the thousands who lost their jobs. But it did have a happy ending for the right to organize, and the middle class, and America.

Now let me ask you one thing: had you ever heard of this landmark event in American history, the Battle of Blair Mountain, before you read this? And if not, then why not? Think about that.


Alan Grayson

SarahLee: This should make you angry - for so many reasons.  I’ve got to add the following snippet from the article:

Now, that photo of Makayla Urias is a photograph of a naked child, a child exactly as naked as nine-year-old Kim Phuc was when, forty years ago, an Associated Press photographer snapped a picture of her, while she was running and crying from American napalm. You’ve probably seen that photo. It’s iconic. The photographer got a Pulitzer prize for taking it.

Yesterday, on the other hand, Maria was told that she would not be allowed to show that photo. It was not appropriate. She had the blessing of the child’s parents, but Republicans on the subcommittee alerted the capitol police (according to Spencer Pederson, a spokesman for GOP panel members), and after the hearing, the capitol police took Maria aside for questioning about “child pornography.”

Now, this is just what it was, and no more. Coalfield activists like Maria face threats, intimidation, and vandalism regularly; she’s received verbal threats to her life, her children have been harassed at school, “wanted” posters of Gunnoe have appeared in local convenience stores, and so forth. This is a strong lady, and I suspect I’m not wrong to say that it’s far from the worst of the shit she’s faced for daring to be strong in a part of the country where Coal is King. It was just the kind of insulting humiliation that it was meant to be. Coal-friendly congresspeople were using the resources at their disposal to harass someone who had the nerve to speak out against the industry they shill for, to try to intimidate someone like Maria who speaks for (and is) one of the people that industry poisons.

But it’s pretty clarifying, don’t you think? The real obscenity is that people drink that water, that they have no choice but to bathe in it, and to bathe their children in it. You know that, and I know that. But if a massive surface mining operation in the vicinity of your house poisons your water table, and if your well water runs brown with coal sludge and heavy metal particulate, well, that’s just the cost of doing business in America, a cost that will be paid by the Appalachians who only live there. It’s regrettable, at best. You can’t call the police and the state doesn’t want to know. And if you dare to take a picture of child’s exposure to that poison, if you have the nerve to walk into the halls of Congress and show them the obscenity that is a child that must wash herself with poison every day, they will call you a child pornographer. They will call the police.

Companies like Arch Coal(ACI), Patriot Coal(PCX) and Alpha Natural Resources(ANR) — which all have major Appalachia coal mining operations in West Virginia — each have seen shares shrink by 41.4%, 31.1% and 19.8% year to date, respectively, largely due to incredibly cheap natural gas prices.

"We have a supply of natural gas that can last America nearly 100 years," Obama said during his January State of the Union address. "The development of natural gas will create jobs and power trucks and factories that are cleaner and cheaper, proving that we don’t have to choose between our environment and our economy."

Politicians in West Virginia, fearful of what the rapidly sinking coal industry could mean to jobs in the state, are timid to endorse an energy policy that backs gradual transition by utility companies to the industry (natural gas) that’s wrecking things.

Well, that is just sad. ~SarahLee

A strip-mined peak (foreground) may be a sign of things to come for Blair Mountain, a portion of which is visible at center.

On a sultry August morning in 1921, some 15,000 coal miners converged at the foot of the steep, brambly slopes of West Virginia's Blair Mountain. On a high ridge above, coal industry forces, private detectives, and state police officers peered out from fortified positions, training Thompson submachine guns and high-powered rifles on the men below.

After years of violent confrontations with mine operators in West Virginia coalfields, the miners were marching to Mingo County, West Virginia, to free miners imprisoned by state authorities and unionize workers who lived in dire poverty in company towns. But the 1,952-foot-tall (595-meter-tall) Blair Mountain stood in the marchers’ path. So the miners—armed with machine guns and other weapons, and wearing red bandannas around their necks—started up the slopes.

The ensuing battle, the second largest civil insurrection in U.S. history, lasted about five days and claimed dozens of lives. And while the miners eventually decided to lay down their arms when federal troops arrived, the battle of Blair Mountain focused national attention on the oppressive company towns of West Virginia and dangerous mines, resulting in part from lagging state safety regulations.

Twelve years later the federal government passed an act giving workers the right to form unions and bargain collectively, and the United Mine Workers of America dispatched its organizers across the United States. Blair Mountain, said Barbara Rasmussen, a historic preservation consultant in Morgantown, West Virginia, “was the flash point. This was where it all boiled over.”

Today, Blair Mountain is again the focus of a pitched battle—this time pitting preservationists against coal companies. Subsidiaries of two of the United States’ largest coal producers—Arch Coal, Inc., and Massey Energy Company, the owner of the Upper Big Branch Mine that in April claimed the lives of 29 miners in Montcoal, West Virginia—hold permits to blast and strip-mine huge chunks of the upper slopes and ridge of Blair Mountain, removing much of the mountaintop. (See mountaintop-removal mining pictures.)

This strip mining, some say, would bring welcome employment to struggling local communities. “Mining-occupation jobs are the highest paid [blue-collar jobs] in our region, if not in the country,” said Jason Bostic, vice-president of the West Virginia Coal Association, an organizationthat represents coal-mine operators, “and the economic effects ripple out from there.”

But many local residents are incensed by the devastation left by mountaintop-removal operations elsewhere in West Virginia. And they deeply oppose any such operation on Blair Mountain, seen as one of the most important historic sites in the U.S. labor movement. “It’s like they’re trying to destroy anything that the union had to do with,” said retired West Virginia coal miner Paul Nelson. “I think they want to destroy Blair Mountain and all memory of it.”

Democrat Earl Ray Tomblin won the race for West Virginia governor on Tuesday, according to The Associated Press.

Coal industry says west VA streams not unique environs, do not warrant protection

In late summer 1921, Blair Mountain, W. VA. was the site of the largest uprising in American history since the Civil War. It was the only time in history that U.S. air power has been used against American civilians, miners fighting for the right to organize unions.