The Problem with Environmental Activism in Appalachia



Photo by Rustina Mullins


I tend to get flak from both sides of the argument surrounding coal. Environmentalists distance themselves from me because I am often critical of them, and some even hate me these days. Pro-coal folks tend to dislike me for my stance against coal companies. It only goes to show that telling the truth has never been popular, or easy.

So let’s get to it.

Coal mining families are not very receptive to environmentalists—and that’s putting it lightly. Why should they be? In what way have environmentalists approached coal mining families over the past two decades? In what way have environmentalists presented themselves to the public?

Though most environmentalists have their hearts in the right place when it comes to helping other people, I’m afraid they’ve done a poor job of translating it to the public. So when the knee jerk reaction of coal miners and their families is to identify environmentalists as “out of touch,” I am not entirely surprised.

Decades of outside media infiltration has portrayed our people (Appalachians) in a negative way. The “War on Poverty” brought thousands of people from outside the mountains to tell us how to live (like we were too stupid or something). Let’s not forget that the first outsiders to come into the mountains where the land agents and coal companies who would lie, cheat, and steal to take our lands and mineral rights, and would then force us into a mono-economy thereby making us dependent on mining coal to survive.Appalachian people have had enough of outsiders—and for good reasons.

That being said, I am very skeptical of many outsiders myself, and will gladly tell anyone who even remotely appears to be looking down their nose at us to go &#*^ themselves, no matter how “well intentioned” they think they are. But I digress.

For the longest time, unions helped us remind ourselves that coal companies were the outsiders, but when the unions were busted, the industry seized the opportunity to re-image themselves as part of our communities. Through industry public relations organizations, we were told that Appalachia was “coal” (see Bell & York, 2010) and that any threat against coal was a threat to our pride and heritage. They have even pointed to environmentalists as the new outside threat. Since the coal industry has the money to promote their message (see Friends of Coal), they have the coal miner’s ear at work and through paychecks. They can even paint a picture of environmentalists as being “out of touch tree hugging idiots” who support the “War on coal.”

Many environmentalists have played right into this portrayal, sometimes so perfectly that I’ve wondered if it was intentional. Let me repeat that last statement. Many environmentalists have played right into the negative stereotypes created by the industry, so perfectly that I’ve wondered if it was intentional. If the coal companies infiltrated the unions, you know they infiltrated the environmental movement.


Music group Rising Appalachia – Sound surprisingly similar to the “Appalachia Rising”  movement?

But why would the coal industry do such a thing? It all comes down to misinformation. If they could get environmentalists to keep portraying the negative stereotypes people know them for, environmentalist’s credibility within local communities becomes permanently damaged. People would not listen when they were being told about the health impacts caused by mining. Even if they did listen and understand, most people would never speak out for fear of being considered a “tree hugger”(see Bashir, Lockwood, Chasteen, Nadolny, & Noyes, 2013). It is no different than when coal companies placed people inside the unions to push violence. And if you don’t think the industry is that conniving, just read up on your history. Remember that Don Blankenship was caught red handed influencing the State Supreme Court (see Schnayerson, 2008) and that every coal company payout to citizens impacted by mining comes with a gag order to keep them silent about what the companies did. Let’s not forget how they even have an organization to develop school programs that teach children how great coal is. It’s all about image; make the coal companies look good and make the enemies of coal look bad—anyway you can. But I digress…again.

I think everyone has seen the pro-coal/anti-environmentalist bumper stickers, “Save a Surface Miner, Shoot a Tree hugger,” “Coal Keeps the Lights On,” “Don’t like Coal, Don’t Use Electricity,” “Let the Bastards Freeze in the Dark” and “I love mountains, the coal underneath them pays my bills” just to name a few. These are aimed directly at environmentalists. I’ve personally been in safety talks where mine management tongue lashed environmentalists and received the vocalized support of the miners. The election of Trump was in direct opposition to environmentalism. Look at the image at the beginning of this post again. Coal mining families show up at environmental protests as the opposition.

True Appalachians

I eventually had to ask myself, “How in God’s name can so many environmentalists not realize they are doing more to polarize the situation than to help it? How long can they keep blaming others while not taking accountability for their own actions?”

At the end of the day, I had to realize that perhaps many environmental organizations are just as “out of touch” as Appalachian people think them to be. They’ve kept repeating the same courses of action over and over, they’ve continued acting in ways that conflicted with local culture, and they’ve kept shoving their message down everyone’s throat in the way they wanted it to be given (protests, civil disobedience, all with some participants forcing counter cultural attitudes through their appearance). I’ve even heard some environmentalists say, “I’m fed up with talking to pro-coal people. They won’t LISTEN.” I’m sorry to tell them that 60% or more of people in Central Appalachia are pro-coal because their entire economy depends upon it.

Rather than realizing their approach needs to be changed, rather than understanding that they need to come down off of their lofty moral high ground and start talking to the people on their own terms, environmental organizations have become the uppity, elitist outsiders that Appalachians have distrusted—even despised—for generations.

A few environmental organizations have understood this problem. Their solution was to use a few local citizens to make themselves appear to be “grassroots.” Sorry folks, “grassroots” organizations are organizations in which the majority of people come from the community. It also means that “grassroots” organizations receive guidance and assistance from outside organizations but are in no way controlled or heavily influenced by them or their grant funding. If the majority of Appalachians are tied to coal, then it should also be true that a grassroots organization would be made up predominantly of people who are tied to coal and their main offices be located in the region, not just in the outskirts.

Before we go any further, I should mention that my critical analysis of environmentalism in Appalachia is in no way a lean towards the coal industry. I know my history, and I know they’ve raped us all, taking literally trillions of dollars of coal from our mountains and leaving us with the mess: high poverty rates, black lung, broken backs, drug abuse, water contamination, underfunded schools, and billions of gallons of coal slurry in impoundments all throughout Appalachia. So don’t count me as being pro-coal by any stretch of the imagination.

I’m also not an idiot. I know any change from a coal based mono-economy is going to be long and painful. As I mentioned before, the economy is utterly dependent upon coal, and I can’t help but blame the coal companies, their politicians, and their supporters for keeping it that way. Worst of all, coal won’t last forever. That’s the cold hard truth. Today companies are merely scraping up what’s left; they’re picking through the bones. Everyone should know this by now.

A true just transition will never take place until people living in Appalachia are no longer dependent upon the mono-economy of coal. It will take creating new policies that phase out coal while requiring the companies to clean up their messes, and policies that enable Appalachians to build their own local economies from within while providing them all the necessary resources to do so. Getting there will require electing politicians not easily bought out by coal, and that will only happen when people once again begin to question the coal industry. So long as they are pushed into an ‘us vs. the environmentalists’ debate by well-funded coal associations and environmental activists, we will never expect to see any progress.

At this point, even though the environmentalists are on the side of positive change, they do not have the credibility necessary to persuade people living in Appalachia that change must come. They’ve burned too many bridges. That’s why many organizations working in economic and community development won’t go anywhere near the subject of the environment. That’s why I stray from it as well on this blog. It’s sad too. I have many friends that are environmentalists and I know for a fact they have their hearts in the absolute right place (or else I wouldn’t be friends with them). Hundreds banded together to bring water to people in need during the Charleston, WV water crisis, and not just the city dwellers. Many jump at the chance to help people, be it digging mud out of basements after flooding, raising money to help people who’ve lost everything, to working in people’s gardens, and so much more. Many of them I am proud to call my dearest friends and I believe they are more selfless than most Appalachians I know.

But the truths are there, environmental organizations and activists have no credibility and they won’t have until they can take a long hard look in the mirror and see how they’ve portrayed themselves to coal mining families. I hope to, that coal mining families will read this and realize that all environmentalists aren’t bad people by any stretch of the imagination.

Perhaps coal mining families could open their hearts, show a little forgiveness, and realize what the real problem is, but it won’t happen until people outside the region come off their high horses.

And lastly, when it comes to the environment I will say this.  I love being in the woods—what’s left of them at least. I think most people back home do as well. No matter which “side” folks are on, they have to start admitting that the coal industry has done more damage to the land than anyone would like to admit. I think folks need to realize that replacing woodlands, natural springs, and clear streams with acidic mine drainage, runoff from coal slurry impoundments, and strip mines, may actually have something to do with the higher cancer rates we’re seeing. Yes, yes, it also has to do with poor access to health care, poor food choices, smoking, drug abuse, and all the like…but most of those issues are directly related to poverty which is caused by a mono-economy built by the coal industry. In other words, coal is and always has been the problem.

The fact of the matter is, people in distant cities use our mountains and our people as a means to cheaper energy to live fancier lifestyles. We must stand up and say that if they want Appalachia’s energy resources, they’ll have to pay a much higher price for it that includes taking care of us and mitigating the environmental health issues coal mining causes, not just filling the pockets of outside banks, coal company officials, and stockholders. Otherwise, we should seek out reparations for all that has been done to us, and other people who suffer the same issues in similar places across the nation.

Last Updated September 1, 2017

Bashir, N. Y., Lockwood, P., Chasteen, A. L., Nadolny, D., & Noyes, I. (2013). The ironic impact of activists: Negative stereotypes reduce social change influence: The ironic impact of activists. European Journal of Social Psychology, 43(7), 614–626.

Bell, S. E., & York, R. (2010). Community Economic Identity: The Coal Industry and Ideology Construction in West Virginia. Rural Sociology, 75(1), 111–143.

Schnayerson, M. (2008). Coal River. Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.

20 thoughts on “The Problem with Environmental Activism in Appalachia

  1. Once again, Nick, you provide evidence for why you have quickly become one of my favorite bloggers. As you say, if one seeks the truth, then better be prepared to make enemies on both/all sides. Whether with the environment or politics, this is a lesson for us all. Thanks


  2. Hi, Nick,

    Looks like you’ve reached a place a few of us got to awhile back. Welcome.

    A couple of notes: (1) I won’t let anyone call me an “environmentalist.” “Environmentalism” is a parlor game when the real world stakes are life-and-death. It’s a parlor game played largely by elite out-of-staters who never have to deal with our toxic existential realities; (2) I call my activism Human Rights activism. I don’t have time for those aforementioned parlor games.; (3) one minor critique of your argument: the first “outsiders” to come into Appalachia were US. My ancestors were the ones who stole (we may as well be honest about it if we want an honest discussion about how we got into this fix) the land from people who had lived here relatively peacefully for thousands of years. I submit that that “original sin” has followed us down the generations.

    Don’t be surprised if you get lectured by the Big Greens. On more than one occasion, I’ve been told “you can’t criticize the Club!” Never mind the degree to which such a statement obviates any democratic posturings of said Club.

    The late, great Judy Bonds, my friend and mentor, once remarked “Bob, they want the dancing hillbilly. That’s all they think we’re good for.” She was right. The “grassroots” are a fund-raising adjunct to the Big Greens, not a raison d’etre.

    And, yes: the coal industry, specifically the UMWA, was caught a number of years ago trying to infiltrate the anti-MTR grassroots. One should recall that the UMWA is, and has been, vociferously pro-MTR which means, as we’ve known for years now, pro-poisoning.

    Finally, a poem I wrote awhile back about the Big Greens:

    Career environmentalists
    in cool offices,
    posters printed on cruelty-free 
    paper with earth-friendly inks;
    waste-free coffeemakers,
    triple-bin trash cans;
    bicycles and 
    compostable condoms:

    earnestly working for
    “those people”
    never dreaming
    “those people”
    “those people”
    because they
    are the people
    who make “those people” 
    “those people.”

    The day “those people”
    stop being “those people,”
    the career environmentalists 
    in  cool offices
    will, maybe, 
    to live in the wild.

    ‘Til then,
    hothouse flowers
    will keep blooming
    where they can’t
    ever grow 
    a ton 
    of shit

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’ve only lived in West Virginia for fifteen years, but I started coming here over 40 years ago to paddle white water. I stayed because of the beauty of the country, the comfortable pace of life, and the friendliness of people and communities. I’m a board member of Friends of the Cheat, which focuses on remediating acid mine drainage. Your writing is really special, making me more aware of the miners and mining that built the state’s economy. I often share your writing on my Facebook pace as well as FOC’s. As an organization we work with people and businesses in the community rather than confronting and litigating. Our work has helped bring fish back to the main stem of the Cheat River and has brought millions of dollars of funding into the area to build the water cleanup sites.

      We often wince when some national environmental groups blunder into Preston County with just enough knowledge of water quality issues to cause trouble. But I understand what’s behind it. Since the West Virginia state government, starting with the legislature, does not really support environmental protection and often ignores their own laws, the only alternative for many committed activists is confrontation. It’s frustrating work, and the people who stay with it are angry and militant. Friends of the Cheat has always been collaborative, but political polarization makes it more and more challenging. Our previous legislators, men like Byrd, Mollohan, Rayhall, and Rockefeller were pro-coal, but they supported environmental cleanup and economic development. The new guys are anti-union, anti environment, anti gay, anti abortion and not “for” anything except cutting taxes on coal companies. I don’t see it getting better soon and I fear for the days when those cleanup funds dry up to pay for more tax cuts for the well off.

      Mr. Obama may not have a “war on coal” but the Sierra club surely does, and they’re proud of it. It came out when the Albright Power Plant closed down a few years ago. The plant had been operating sporadically for several years because of high operating costs, and it was one of several older plants closed. They were a good neighbor; pollution was improving and I had neighbors that worked there. One of their engineers was on our board. So I was angry to hear the Sierra Club crowing over their “victory”. They even held a meeting in Albright to discuss future alternatives. I skipped that one so I wouldn’t say anything impolite.

      In 2007, before Mr. Obama took office, the Albright plant was closed for six months. Officially it was because of a “bad economy”, but a friend of mine who was an energy reseller had this to say: “The coal business is in trouble, and the coal people don’t know it yet. You need to run a coal plant 24/7 to be profitable, and there’s enough wind power to handle the overnight minimum load. Then in the day, a lot of the slack is being taken up by gas plants. They can come on line in fifteen minutes rather than in 4 hours, so they’re a lot more responsive to changing demand. Plus you can build a gas plant for a fraction of what a coal plant costs; the fuel is easier to handle and you don’t have all the ash to move afterwards. Environmental rules are part of the picture, but mostly it’s technology. Don’t be surprised if Albright closes!”


  3. P.S. I have yet to see anyone from the grassroots hauling down high-five into six figures annually, but there’s plenty of them among people who are in a Club or claim to be the “voices” of people who are Appalachian.

    Dance, hillbillies, DANCE!

    Contribute $15 now and we’ll send you a canvas messenger bag just like the one Fergus Ferguson carried on his hikes a hundred years ago (except yours will have been made by a 12 year old Chinese slave laborer chained to a table somewhere in Guangdong Province).

    Save the last grey wolf, y’all!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Reblogged this on In Frog Pond Holler and commented:
    Great blog post. The same thing is happening in every environmental and social justice effort — and most political ones — that I’ve been involved with. We all need to figure this one out and learn how to hear each other and work together.


  5. And the outsiders who came to Appalachia and removed people from homes and land to create national parks. It seems Appalachians are always in the way of some peogressive movement.


  6. Having been a position where my opinion was asked re: coal ( see ‘Deep Down’ the film) and mtr, I know where I live and where my neighbors money comes from. That said, being “moderate” and straddling the fence will get you splinters from both sides. Not a simple black or white even grey issue.


  7. A good read with some well-made points. Wish Mullins had more to say on how the communities of MTR sites and other disaster regions could be connected and educated instead of merely pointing out the problems. While I don’t completely disagree with the author’s argument I’m not really certain who exactly they are referring to by calling out “the environmentalists” as there ARE radical environmentalists in these communities (Sylvester’s Dust Busters) that have had huge impacts on the perception and awareness of mining issues…but none more real than the events of disaster itself…

    Friends of mine and I were on that march to Blair Mountain in 201. Although our roots are in West Virginia the communities that defended the coal companies by harassing us and yelling obscenities definitely perceived us as outsiders. “Go home, Hippie! We don’t want you here.” as you can hear in the video. While I agree that reaching the communities through these activities can cause a reinforcement of beliefs (most I would say antagonized by the companies themselves) there certainly won’t be any change if it not were for demonstrators and “outsiders” that can at least help us remember what’s at stake.

    There are no outsiders; we’re all tied to these issues. These communities are both healed and poisoned inside and out, just like everything else. So, it feels like a waste to call out those who tried to do something to bring up the conversation because what’s important is to not forget these times of tragedy and triumph in our history. Even if it is diminutive to have “outside” voices in the call.

    Thank you, Nick, for sharing. I feel your confliction, but I am left wondering how else do you reach the communities so deeply influenced by the industry than to start planting seeds everywhere, anyway you can?


  8. I agree with a lot of this article and Nick is a good friend of mine; but with that said ; I will not distance myself from my environmental friends. Some of us who live in the friends of coal country ; have had enough and I am sure Nick feels that way at times. If these people could be changed ; I think a little would already have sunk in when the Blair Mountain March took place. I look at these people cussing local 1440 because of their support and I think ; history will really look good for that local. There are two lines of thought on how to end the destruction that is taking place in Southern WV; and the other ares where MTR mining is taking place. By thoughts I mean who will stop this ; the locals or the so called outsiders . Believe it or not ; most of the environmentalist I’ve talked to think that the locals will have to stop the mining and they seem to think if these people were just informed on the issue they would come around. I disagree. I have fit MTR for over twenty years in the community ; with my neighbors and even in my UMWA local { why do you think 1440 supported march} I don;t think this can be stopped at the local or state level; and I;m not the only person who believes the outsiders caused our problems and the outsides will have to fix the problem. John Alexander Williams who wrote WV. a History also thinks it will have to be fixed by outsiders. I love those environmental people who came here and marched with many locals to save a piece of history; and I look at these people as being more a part of Appalachia as those who live here but could give a shit about how they leave it; for future generations. A lot of what was showed in these video clips was negative to the marchers; but there were many times ; that people supported the marchers school children lined the fence at Madison and waved ; old men held up signs and thanked the marchers. This march was put together by many ; my wife being one ; and I think it served a good purpose ; one being that the national press coverage it brought and another that there is still one local that understands the difference between friends of coal and the UMWA.


  9. Reblogged this on Living Echo and commented:
    I’m reblogging this post from the Thoughtful Coal Miner because I think it eloquently describes a problem I have been witnessing, but don’t feel qualified to weigh in on yet. The author of this piece has an insiders perspective, having lived and worked in Appalachia for his whole life. As an outsider to this region, I can only watch these tensions from a distance, but this piece was essential for helping me to sort out some of the levels of complexity that environmentalism can cause for struggling communities.


  10. Pingback: Lou Martin: A Response to Nick Mullins’s December 2015 blog post “The Problem with Environmentalism in Appalachia.” « RAMPS

  11. I’m not sure I agree with his complaint against environmentalists in other parts of the country. If I lived in Maine and somebody in WV was mailing poison to random people in my state, my first priority would be to get the mailings to stop. I sure as heck wouldn’t stop to wonder how that would affect the poison manufacturers or the people who work for them.

    In fact, if somebody suggested that I consider the fate of the employees at the poison factory, I’d wonder whether they knew they were making poison and, if so, how long they had known that.

    If it turned out they knew and had known for years, but selfishly continued to do so for decades because they just didn’t want to bother to find alternatives, well, how much sympathy for them am I going to have?

    And blaming the coal companies and the politicians they buy, well – which came first? The selfish miners who failed to own up to the consequences of their actions, or the coal compani s that exploit their labor?


  12. Pretty impressive blog. I only hope that everyone in coal country, will finally come to the conclusion that you have. Its the coal companies and share holders that are the enemies. Not environmentalist, Not the tree huggers, Not the yuppies. Not a president. Not a government agency.
    I remember having that same feeling of confusion of total misunderstanding of why coal country, cannot see the forest for the trees. Regardless of who is showing them exactly whats happening. Something I could never understand, is why coal companies, after busting up unions, killing workers, destroying land, taking land, endangering the health of the community, that coal miners and their families, would be right outside and stand with the company and protect them as if they were the best employer that you could ever have and they do no wrong. All the while, the executives are laughing all the way to the bank, and even recently, laying off workers, filing for bankruptcy, and then taking million dollar bonuses. And still, to this day, coal miners and family members will defend them.
    I know its all about jobs, the economy, and etc.
    But, as I have said in other posts related to this consistent ridiculous created War on Coal scenario and the EPA has something to do with mines going out of business. Mining towns come and go. And for anyone to think, coal is always going to be in demand, or that it will be there consistently out of the ground. Is ludicrous.
    Mining towns disappear, like gold mines, silver mines, etc etc etc. When the ore runs out, the company and its millions of dollars, leaves. Moves on. When the demand runs out, as it has with most of Asia where WV for one, exports a majority of its coal, then mines close. Its sad, that coal companies have done zero to invest back into communities. They basically have left you with no options. What they have left you is dirty water, destroyed and decaying infrastructure, and a host of health issues. But im guessing, some will say, it was worth it. They will die in coal country. Sometimes, pride gets in the way of making the proper choices and clouds the minds ability to become more educated.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. my assistant required I 485 form recently and was told about an online service with a searchable forms database . If you are searching for I 485 form as well , here’s a


  14. Pingback: Searching for Justice in Appalachia | The Thoughtful Coal Miner

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