Labor Day is as good an excuse as any to sit outside and have a few beers, even if we in America have to be different and observe it on the first Monday in September instead of the first day of May. If you are in Logan County, West Virginia that day, Don Blankenship wants to show you a good time. He is throwing a Friends of America rally – apparently our enemies are having a counterrally in Kandahar, or perhaps the Meatpacking District – and trotting out the finest in live entertainment: Sean Hannity, Hank Williams, Jr., and the Motor City Madman himself, Ted Nugent. It’s tough to find good bands when running a coal company, I suppose. And not just any coal company:
Don Blankenship runs West Virginia the way Herman Brown ran Texas. It just isn’t working out quite as well for West Virginians.
You see, as WVABlue points out, the location of Don’s party happens to be downrange from a billion gallons of coal sludge hiding behind the earthen impoundment dam of the Pine Creek Slurry Impoundment. A billion gallons of heavy metals sitting above your head isn’t that strange in Logan County. Crest a few ridges and you can get to the four billion gallon Jake Gore Slurry Impoundment; head northeast a few miles and you will come to the pride of Massey Energy, 8.2 billion gallons of sludge in the Bushy Creek Coal Impoundment. Just out in the open, waiting for some tremor or maintenance defect to send it rolling like an inland tsunami of shit across a few of the poorest counties in America (compare Logan County’s 2007 median household income of $32,251 with Bronx County’s $34,031). And break they do:
The Buffalo Creek disaster was caused by 132 million gallons. Massey itself has released three hundred million across the border in Kentucky. Surely nothing major would happen with twenty-five thousand people gathered…
In all likelihood, nothing dramatic will happen at the Labor Day picnic. A few tired conservatives will try to rouse the crowd, a crowd enjoying mediocre fried food and a welcome day off. And thousands of people will show Don their appreciation for the free party by signing his petition opposing the Waxman-Markey climate change bill. In fact, seeing as it’s right on the front page of the website and you need to register for admission in advance, thousands probably have done so already.
I can understand why they sign. Their entire economy revolves around digging coal out of the ground. Why would you want your product to be “capped”? But it is terribly short-sighted.
Climate change denial is generally an exercise in cultural defiance. Fuck you in your ivory tower with your numbers and your rules, which somehow always mean coming out here and telling me I’m doing everything wrong. I should believe in evolution and eat my vegetables and stop hunting and not drive my car. Well damn it, you’re not going to be the boss of me. I don’t care what you say about ozone or carbon dioxide, you’re just trying to fool me, so I am going to stand upon my patch of earth and insist it’s not happening.
I can even understand this. When the US beat Mexico at the World Cup, a reporter interviewed a distraught Mexican. Why was he so broken up about it; it is just a game, the players have undoubtedly gotten over it. Don’t you understand, the guy responded, it’s as if all your life you had a sister who was beautiful and rich, and you were plain, but you could play an instrument really well. When you were playing your instrument, you were the beautiful one. And then all of a sudden your sister was better at that too, and you just had nothing.
So defiance will meet economics in southwestern West Virginia, and there will be plenty of talk about “liberal elites” and “attacking your way of life.”
If I had the chance to address the crowd – and some Dragon Skin – I’d like to think I’d have the courage to ask them how well coal is working out for them. They can keep going down in mines, and sending their children after them, but the deposits are far more accessible in the Powder River Basin. Every day, at universities and corporate labs around the world, people are working on the future of the energy industry, and to the extent they touch on coal it deals either with the mundane reality of better scrubbers or the missile defense of energy, clean coal.
The jobs bleed away slowly, and for what – companies that have spent a century keeping their workers in ill health and desperate poverty? There will be no broadly-distributed wealth in the Appalachians until there is broadly-distributed value-added, and that is completely incompatible with a world of resource extraction where the wealth accrues to the guy who can get the permits. Coal is no better for the average West Virginian than oil is for the average Angolan.
A fact is something that is whether you believe it or not. Evolution, for example, happens all around us. Sure, there’s the stuff about the finches in the Galapagos, but what should make it more personal is that your loved ones are at risk of swine flu and staph infections that every day are under selection pressure to resist our countermeasures. You can believe that the world is a few thousand years old and all plants and animals were present at Creation, but when they stick an IV in your arm, make sure they sterilize the area, just in case. There is plenty of reasonable debate about the causes of global warming – it may be that we are just coming off an exceptionally cold period and would be warming anyway – but it should be clear at this point that we are on a collision course with a future for which we are woefully unprepared.
We can either do something to arrest the warming or live with the consequences. Opposing the Waxman-Markey bill does neither. It just perpetuates the status quo: the same poor jobs, poor education, poor health services, contaminated groundwater, and slowly dying business there is today. For all of our sakes, we need to find a way to cut down on our carbon emissions, if for no more noble reason than that someone is going to do it and it might as well be us. I am quite sympathetic to the argument that we would be suckers to agree to a unilateral reduction and simply sit by and watch China and India fill in the breach. Thing is, if we act together the EU and US still have the whip hand in the global economy, for how much longer no one knows. If we were to push the issue – state that as far as we were concerned, WTO membership included some environmental standard, and anyone who did not meet the standard was back to a tariff system – we could get something done. But that requires a willingness to lead and get our own house in order.
I’m one of the preachy coastal folks with no more use for West Virginia than a place to whitewater raft. I want schools that teach evolution and an end to the susbdies that make so much crappy food so cheap and gun control. But I would also prefer a war on poverty to a war in Iraq, and even while balancing the budget want to cut taxes on the working poor. I may not be West Virginia’s friend, but neither am I their dealer or their pimp, which is an important difference between me and their feudal lords; it give me the freedom to tell the truth, which is that the current way of doing business has failed. Finding a different direction will require getting out from under the Sword of Damocles in those slurry lakes.