Web Exclusive: New York is Burning

Jeff Biggers May 14, 2009

Maria Gunnoe, a community organizer in the mountains of West Virginia against mountaintop removal coal mining, stands in Times Square Manhattan in 2006. PHOTO: ANTRIM CASKEY

When the marquee signs on Broadway light up, a signal will most likely be sent from the New York Independent System Operator grid to the Lovett coal-fired plant, where the facility service will shovel in coal strip-mined from West Virginia mountains that have been clear cut, detonated with tons of explosives and toppled into the valleys.

In effect, Mayor Michael Bloomberg and his borough constituents, like acclaimed New Yorker author Malcolm Gladwell, will participate in one of the most egregious environmental and human rights disasters in American history — the employment of mountaintop removal mining methods in Appalachia that have literally blown up more than 500 mountains, wiped out 1.2 million acres of hardwood forests and sullied 1,200 miles of streams with toxic mining waste. In the process, scores of historic communities have been depopulated, left in ruin and saddled with unsparing poverty. Relying on heavy machinery and explosives, mountaintop removal operations have also stripped the region of needed jobs and any possibility of a diversified economy.

New York’s connection to Appalachia dates back to Washington Irving’s 1819 classic, Rip Van Winkle — the forgotten Appalachia, then, referred to the Catskills. Nearly 200 years later, the New York Loves Mountains Festival May 29-31 calls on all New Yorkers to awaken to their connection to this national scandal in the southern Appalachian mountain range.

More than 240,000 tons of coal stripmined through mountaintop removal operations are consumed by New Yorkers every year. Thirteen power plants in 11 counties burn mountaintop removal coal. And every day in the lush green coalfields of the central Appalachian mountains, at least three million pounds of ammonium nitrate and fuel-oil explosives are detonated to blow off the tops of mountains and topple the rocks and waste into valleys and streams.

While dramatic moves by the new U.S. Environmental Protection Agency administration to scrutinize and suspend select mountaintop removal operations in Appalachia are laudable and deeply appreciated by those who have endured the helter-skelter of unchecked strip-mining operations for decades, and while the deliberate move by the U.S. Department of Interior to rescind the Bush administration’s mishandling of the 1983 stream buffer zone rule is admirable, one indubitable fact remains: Mountaintop removal is an immoral crime against nature and our citizenry, and it must be abolished, not regulated.

As former Vice President Al Gore has stated in public, “Mountaintop removal is a crime, and ought to be treated as a crime.”

Even more outrageous: Mountaintop removal coal, which provides less than 7 percent of all coal production in the United States, could easily be replaced with underground coal or energy efficiency initiatives, or renewable energy sources.

But it endures.

All well-meaning intentions by the Obama administration aside, this is what is happening under our current policy: An estimated 400 million pounds of ammonium nitrate/fuel oil explosives will have ripped across and devastated our nation’s oldest and most diverse mountains since President Obama took office in January.

So, here is where Malcolm Gladwell, the celebrated New Yorker author of the bestseller, “Outliers,” can help New York break its Appalachian connection to feuding. In his “Outliers” chapter on eastern Kentucky hillfolk, Gladwell explored the coalfield feuds as “products of particular places and environments.” Nothing has been more divisive and tragic as mountaintop removal mining. As a first step toward an armistice in the coalfields, a proposed industrial wind farm in upstate New York could easily replace the 3 percent of New York’s electrical needs generated by mountaintop removal coal.

Secondly, Gladwell needs to learn more about Appalachia’s progressive coal mining heritage. The New York Loves Mountains Festival will kick off on Friday, May 29, 8pm, at the Philip Coltoff Center in Greenwich Village (219 Sullivan Street), with a reading by the New Mummer Group of “Light Comes,” the first national-touring original play on mountaintop removal in eastern Kentucky. As a sweeping epic on Appalachia’s historical entanglement with Thomas Edison and New York City’s first coal-fired plant, “Light Comes” is written and directed by Steinberg-Award winning playwright Sarah Moon, and includes a special appearance by Appalachian actress Stephanie Pistello, and acclaimed Kentucky cellist Ben Sollee.

Malcolm Gladwell, like all New Yorkers, needs to see this play in the Village to glean another vision of Appalachia’s coal wars.

When I read Gladwell’s “Outliers” recently, my mind drifted back to an evening at the Village Gate jazz club in 1961, when a striking contralto took the stage. All the hep cats of jazz were there; front row was probably lined with those Carolinian hilljacks like John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk, Billy Strayhorn. The Stray actually knew the diva; had exchanged stories of the backwoods life in the Blue Ridge, and those revivals straight out of Africa.

When Nina Simone finally sat down at the piano, she dazzled the crowd with her jazz ballads, pop tunes, Broadway musicals, and those haunting piano riffs that tailed off with a Bach motif. Then, she turned to the audience and announced she was going to play a little folk song — “probably something you’d never heard before”–that she had learned in the Appalachian woods of western North Carolina. She performed, “House of the Rising Sun.” Before long, Bob Dylan and the Animals would be covering her famous recording.

Simone, the high priestress of soul, didn’t know that the classic English ballad had actually been recorded by another Appalachian in the 1940s, a coal miner in eastern Kentucky.

Appalachian literary critic Jim Wayne Miller liked to recount an old tale about flatboaters who trundled down the Tennessee River, passing house after house at night with a “great fire burning, people dancing, always to the same fiddle tune.” The boaters didn’t realize they were caught in the “Boiling Pot” eddy, going in circles around the same house, unaware of the greater wonders in the Appalachian mountains.

For Gladwell, the eastern Kentucky coalfields are the poster children of environmental neglect, victims destined to fail, trapped in a tragic Scot-Irish destiny of war.

In the 1930s, as coal goons busted into her home and disturbed the peace in her near famine environment in Harlan County, threatening the life of her husband, a union organizer, Florence Reece simply tore a sheet from her calendar on the wall, hummed a Baptist tune, and wrote down the same words that echoed in Chicago in May, as strikers demanded severance pay from their morally bankrupt employers: Which Side Are You On?

Reece, like Nina Simone, was not alone in drawing from the conflicts in Appalachia to provide a quintessential American form of nonviolent achievement.

Black History Month was started by former West Virginia coal miner — the historian Carter Woodson — who at one point could find a teaching job only in West Virginia. Booker T. Washington rose out poverty in Appalachia, as did the pioneering black nationalist Martin Delany; Nikki Giovanni, the godmother of black-arts poetry has hill roots; the legendary novelist William Demby, the last living writer of the Harlem Renaissance, wrote about his native West Virginia and its “beetlecreek”; the jazz and blues legends W.C. Handy, Bessie Smith, and country legend Leslie Riddle, who transcribed songs for the Carter Family for years, drew from the forests; Harvard literary critic Henry Louis Gates Jr. invoked the environment of his West Virginia past in his memoir, Colored People.

Four months before Sister Rose Parks refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery bus in 1955, she took a seat at a radical folk school in Appalachia, where she learned a ballad — “We Shall Overcome” — and said that for the first time in her life she had met white people she could trust. The Highlander Folk School trained the shock troops of the Civil Rights Movement.

In fact, “All the News That’s Fit to Print” came from Appalachia, a motto applied by a young Jewish publisher from Knoxville and Chattanooga, who resurrected The New York Times in 1896 and set its course for world success. Adolph Ochs, like Cormac McCarthy, thrived on all of those hill stories.

As Gladwell writes, “Cultural legacies are powerful forces.”

Or, in the words of the Asheville novelist Thomas Wolfe, one of the greatest literary successes in New York City, hill folks have come down from these hills and “changed the great American destiny.”

The first step in this process in the 21st century is for New York to end its use of mountaintop removal coal, and allow Appalachia’s true cultural legacies to rise again.

Jeff Biggers is author of The United States of Appalachia: How Southern Mountaineers Brought Independence, Culture, and Enlightenment to America (Shoemaker and Hoard), and The Reckoning at Eagle Creek: The Secret Legacy of Coal in the Heartland (The Nation/Basic Books).

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