Going Against the Grain

Many people may consider me to be going “against the grain” when it comes to coal politics. I am, after all, very active in social justice these days and have been known to sit in front of buildings, participate in documentaries, testify at public hearings, and even have Op-Eds published in “The Hill.” In various Facebook conversations and comments made on this blog, I have been more or less called a traitor by fellow coal miners. I have been accused of being a disgruntled employee, dismissed as having been fired, as a man who is now acting out his petty revenge against those who wronged him in some way.

Let me set the record straight.

My time working in the mine taught me many lessons, some of which I did not realize until well after I quit. I was not fired. I was not laid off. In August of 2010, following a tremendous loss to my family, I took a giant leap of faith and I left the coal mines to start a new life for my family. I went to the main office, told the folks in human resources I was quitting, and filled out my termination paperwork. It was one of only two jobs I left without giving a two week notice. As to the question of being disgruntled—your damn right I was, but this isn’t a revenge story. The mistreatment I endured at the hands of both mine management and a few fellow co-workers was simply the most recent miniscule account of the struggle Appalachian people have faced for over a hundred years.

After quitting the mine I realized the Appalachian Dream of raising my kids close to home and having enough money to give them a good childhood was false. If there is anything I regret most, it is that I lost sight of what is truly important in life and I forgot the history of what the coal industry has done to the people of Appalachia.

For those who dismiss me as being disgruntled, or those who downright hate my guts for speaking out against coal, I have one simple request…think about where we came from and who the Appalachian people were before the timber and coal industries came, buying up and even outright stealing our land. Remember the labor struggles, the company hired mercenaries who pushed around and murdered hard working miners because those poor souls simply wanted something better for their families than a life lived in debt to the coal company. Think about the many senseless mine disasters caused when company owners put profits over the safety of their employees, even as recently as Upper Big Branch. Find out what the coal companies have been doing to keep from paying black lung benefits to the men and women who spent their lives mining their coal (ABC News).

Now, think about the current goals of the coal industry. Have they changed? Do they care about Appalachian people, or, are they still out there to make money the cheapest way possible? Think of all the things they are willing to do to continue making the highest profit at the lowest cost. Have they ever paid their employees what they are truly worth without coal miners banding together to fight for it? Have they promised employees the healthcare and retirement pension they will need to enjoy what years they have left after giving their best years to the mine? Do you think they make every effort to ensure our water sources remain clean? Think of all the wells that have been sunk due to underground mining, all the prep plants that inject slurry into old mines that have contaminated people’s wells.  Think about the orange water that now comes from our mountains. Is it worth it?

I spent so many years of my life working hard to obtain the Appalachian Dream, to give my kids a better future through decent paychecks. Sadly, I bought into a society that now judges us more by what we own and how hard we worked for it, rather than how much we are willing to take care of our neighbors and be good people.  

Appalachian people moved to the mountains to get away from that society, to live in simple peace. Sure life was hard, but it was a life they wanted, a life similar to what the Amish enjoy today. The many generations that came before coal stayed in the mountains rather than going off to find some big city or some big gold strike. They loved their mountain home, but when society and industrialization invaded, they did what they could to resist being slaves to it. They formed unions. They tried desperately to hold onto that sense of mountain family, sacrificing weeks, months, and sometimes years of paychecks to help their fellow neighbors.

After working in today’s non-union mines, I see the coal industry for what it is and always will be. I see it for the destruction of our mountain homes, the orange acidic water running off of old mine sites, slurry impoundments full of shit leeching out into our streams, and the continuous poverty created by buying off our political system in order to keep things the same. They know they need to keep us in desperate poverty to create an enthusiastic workforce, one in which more and more people are willing to forgo their principles in pursuit of “decent” paycheck.

I took a job in the mine to give my kids a better life, to make money and buy them what I thought would make them happy. I had high hopes they would do well in school and go to college, that my sacrifices would become worthwhile in their future. I was only fooling myself. Buying more things does not make our children happier, if anything it sets them up for a life of materialistic wants that will drive them into the same dark holes in search of happiness it drove me and so many other mountain people into. 

Dante’s Inferno (Salt Lake City)

The problem goes well beyond the Appalachian Mountains though.  All throughout the world, other people—other children—are losing their chance at a clean, healthy, happy future because of careless wasteful lifestyles led by wealthy city dwellers. This isn’t the legacy I want to leave future generations, and I would hope it is not one you would want to leave yours.  

People are suffering throughout the world and I am no longer going to live my life ignoring it. While the majority of people in the wealthier nations of the world are running around focusing on shortsighted happiness that makes only a select few people very, very rich—I am going to work hard and make sacrifices to help groups pursuing a future in which we can all live long, happy, non-destructive lives.

I’m sure someone will try to make me the hypocrite, stating that I am using electricity and tools such as this computer which require resources. It does pain me to know that I must use this stuff to be more effective in my resolve, and that, because of a society built upon greed and wasteful energy use, I am bound and connected to the same system, in pursuit of a better life for us all. I will say that my family is dedicated to limiting our negative impact, only using a minimal amount of resources to accomplish a greater conservation of our remaining natural capital.

For me, it doesn’t matter the injustice, be it the damage from large scale extraction or manufacturing of chemicals, or if it is the social injustices created by the defense industry or the prison industrial complex, I’m going to fight it. It all goes hand in hand. I’ve spent time with and heard the stories of people affected by hydraulic fracturing, tar sands development, chemical spills, and dozens of others who’ve suffered varying infractions upon basic human rights. I’ve even spent time on the Navajo Nation with elders who must endure living without easy access to water, who must withstand constant harassment from their own people bought off by coal company politics. I’ve seen how they suffer because the people of Phoenix and Tucson want cheap energy for air conditioning and Peabody is making enormous profits from the Kayenta Mine because of it.

And so, it is in this way I consider myself the thoughtful coal miner: thoughtful of other people, thoughtful of coming generations, and thoughtful of God’s creation—in its entirety.

Think of me what you will, consider me a traitor, a disgruntled employee, even a pretentious self-absorbed asshole (the latter of which, on occasion, I may not disagree with you about), but one thing I am not is utterly selfish. The lesson of “giving is better than receiving” has been handed down from generation to generation in my family, and I’m not going to forget it.

 I hope that you will stop for just a few moments, put all emotions aside, all the hatred you may feel towards me, and simply think; think of your neighbors, think of your children, think of your grandchildren. Who knows, maybe you’ll realize like I did that there are much more important things to be working towards than that next paycheck from a coal company, a factory, or the thousands of other jobs that take advantage of good people. It’s like what my grandfather always told me, “It’s not your needs that get you in trouble—it’s your wants,” but today, more than ever, it’s our children that are in trouble.

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