Blood on the Mountain is a documentary about coal mining in Appalachia. It is also a synecdoche for the growth of capitalism across the globe and its impacts on the people and environment that feed its insatiable need for continuous growth and consumption. The film begins in the nineteenth century with the discovery of what seemed to be a miraculous and infinite source of energy. Coal provided a more efficient fuel for the iron and steel industry than anything that had existed previously. By the late nineteenth century, it was also powering generation plants for the growing demand for electricity. What until then was a mineral of relatively minor economic importance became subject to enormous industrial demand. It also carried the promise of huge profits to those who could extract it in large quantities. Capitalists soon bought the mineral rights to large parts of Appalachia, where geologists had ascertained that high-quality coal lay under the mountains. The advent of railroad lines facilitated the transportation of coal out of the area, leading to the construction of mining towns financed by capitalists. Coal towns became closed economies in which workers were paid in scrip that they could use to buy necessities at the company store; as a monopoly it could set inflated prices. Because workers were paid in scrip, it became impossible for them to save their earnings in currency that was valid outside the company town. This system made miners and their families into so-called serfs, although in medieval European society many peasant villages were arguably more benevolent. In company mining towns, when a miner died in the mines, which many did, their families were evicted from their houses and communities. This late nineteenth-century system set the tone for the coming decades. Cracks in the system appeared with the rise of the union movement. Although the United Mine Workers of America was formed in 1890, the union movement in Appalachia gained traction after World War I. Mine owners, with the goal of suppressing the movement, hired the Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency, whose brutal methods led to the Matewan massacre on May 19, 1920. This escalated tensions between mine owners and miners, many of whom had served as soldiers in Europe. They were, as a result, trained in weapons use and battlefield tactics. In late August and early September 1921, approximately ten thousand striking miners took up positions on Blair Mountain in Logan County, West Virginia. Local sheriffs and the Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency responded but were unable to overcome the resisting miners. The governor called in the National Guard; President Warren Harding ordered General Billy Mitchell to fly bombers over the resisting miners. Facing overwhelming opposition, union leaders ordered miners to return home, ending this incident with the cost in lives numbering between fifty and a hundred miners and up to thirty strikebreakers. The lines between the mining unions and labor, on the one hand, and mine owners and state and federal governments, on the other, were clear. In the following years, miners faced unprecedented health problems arising from the use of new technologies, in particular pneumatic drills. The most egregious example of this was the Hawk’s Nest Tunnel disaster. In a project that lasted from 1927 to 1930, Union Carbide constructed a tunnel under Gauley Mountain in West Virginia to improve electrical generation for a ferroalloy plant located in the unincorporated town called Alloy. More than three thousand workers, a large percentage of whom were African American, were employed to complete this project. Pneumatic drills and explosives filled the air with fine particles of silica, permeating their lungs with a dust that resulted in widespread silicosis. As many as a thousand workers died from this disease. Most African American workers who died from it while there were interned in unmarked graves in the Hawk’s Nest area. Company officials who visited the site wore filtration masks but refused to provide them for the workers. While not directly related to coal, this was yet another example in the same vein of corporations exploiting labor, with complete disregard for their health; especially in the last stages of the project, the Great Depression made workers desperate for jobs. The election of Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1932 marked a turning point for labor. FDR called for the “good of the greater number” and did not fear stepping on the toes of corporations and state oligarchs in order to save capitalism. With the establishment of collective bargaining rights in 1933, unions forced companies to end payment in scrip, improve safety conditions, and give labor the right to strike and other concessions. Over the next four decades, unions became formidable forces in their own right yet often rife with corruption under leaders such as Tony Boyle, who hired killers to murder an opponent named “Jock” Yablonski in 1969. The film then shifts focus to another important issue: the previously ignored environmental problems arising from coal mining. The Buffalo Creek Flood of 1972 occurred when a coal slurry impoundment dam burst in Logan County, spewing a 30-foot-high wave of coal wastewater across multiple communities, killing 125 and injuring over 1,100. Yet since then, local schools have taught that this was a natural event. Arch Moore, the West Virginia governor at the time, called it an act of God as if the coal industry had nothing to do with it. The film’s message is clear: King Coal treated not only the health and safety of workers with callous disregard, but the health of the environment as well. These themes remain intertwined throughout the last part of Blood on the Mountain. It focuses on the career of Don Blankenship, former chief operating officer of Massey Energy, who managed to break the unions while at the same time diminishing safety standards in the mines. Under his management, fifty-two Massey Energy miners died in the mines, with twenty-nine killed in the Upper Big Branch disaster in 2010. Around this time the coal industry began mountaintop removal mining, destroying entire mountains with massive amounts of explosives; the resulting rubble was pushed into valleys, exposing seams of coal too small to mine using underground methods but requiring only a handful of workers. The result is massive environmental destruction. Entire watersheds feeding the Ohio and other major waterways have been obliterated. Those that remain often pour heavy metals and other pollutants into both groundwater and streams devastating local ecosystems. Mountains and valleys once filled with highly diverse biomes are now barren spaces visible from outer space. Corporate and government responses have been predictably weak. Blankenship encouraged Massey Energy miners to think of themselves as “members” rather than employees, and he expended considerable personal funds to sponsor a pro-Massey rally in which he depicted himself and the company as forces of patriotism, implying that those who opposed him were less than patriotic themselves. During the first decade of the twenty-first century, companies pitted mine workers against members of local communities who opposed mountaintop removal mining and the declining safety standards in the mines. Although Blankenship was eventually convicted of mine safety violations resulting in a one-year prison term, the disregard of environmental devastation caused by the coal companies and their supporting industries continues. Coal companies started public relations campaigns with the slogans “Clean Coal” and “War on Coal,” which politicians have themselves frequently repeated. Blood on the Mountain makes the point that the real war, however, has been on West Virginia itself. Coal mining there, including both underground and surface mines, has resulted in considerable loss of life and health to both miners and their communities. Mountaintop removal mining has created terrains that are worse than battlefields. In the meantime, out-of-state corporations take most of the profits. These situations continue to this day. This beautifully photographed film includes compelling historical footage from both still and motion picture images. The narrative is authoritative and well edited, including interviews with coal miners, politicians, corporate executives, historians, and journalists. It would be of value in environmental and labor history courses; it should be shown in all high schools throughout Appalachia and other coal-producing regions. The film might be stronger were it to include more about how unions became complacent during the 1960s and 1970s, as well as a section showing how Blankenship became militantly antiunion after his office was shot up by union activists early in his career. Moreover, one can only wonder how racial discrimination against African Americans played a role in the labor movement as well as in the mines and mining communities in the area. Yet in the end, these are minor quibbles about a film that compellingly contextualizes today’s attempts by the Republican Party to abolish universal access to health care, weaken labor unions, muzzle scientists, increase income inequality between capitalists and ordinary workers, and increase the velocity of environmental degradation. In doing so, it shows how coal mining in Appalachia is a microcosm of what is continuing not only there but across the United States and the rest of the globe today. © The Author(s) 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the American Society for Environmental History and the Forest History Society. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: email@example.com This article is published and distributed under the terms of the Oxford University Press, Standard Journals Publication Model (https://academic.oup.com/journals/pages/about_us/legal/notices)
Environmental History – Oxford University Press
Published: Apr 1, 2018
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