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Column: Samuel R. Cook

I HAVE been faithfully following Ken Ward's investigative series on strip mining. As a social scientist and Southern West Virginia expatriate, I feel compelled to offer some comments.

I think it is fitting that in his June 19 column, Dan Radmacher cited John Alexander Williams in his indictment of the coal industry. In many of his historical works, Williams has pinpointed the source of many of West Virginia's problems: The state government was created to serve - and remains in service to - industrialists, and not citizens.

To date, very few West Virginia statesmen do not have some direct tie to the coal industry. In fact, to my knowledge, only two governors in the state's history did not either come from coal families or have intimate ties with the industry: Henry D. Hatfield and William C. Marland. Both challenged the dominion of coal in West Virginia; both left office considerably disheartened and despised by fellow statesmen.

The marriage of industry and law in West Virginia is an extreme manifestation of one of the greatest flaws in the American legal system: Our law is essentially designed to protect private property at all costs, and to serve people only as a consequence.

The concept of private property is common to Western society in general, but in America it seems to have become a compulsion. Strip mining - the effort to get at as much coal as possible in the least amount of time, regardless of the social, cultural and environmental cost - epitomizes this sickness.

Industrial lobbyists and (unfortunately) many policy-makers are quick to argue that strip mining can provide jobs, and in the aftermath, much-needed flat land for other development endeavors. The question is, how many jobs, and what kind of development endeavors?

Strip mining is not labor-intensive. It requires relatively few workers, and in the meantime other human beings are often either removed from their homes or placed in great danger as a result of strip mining (as the residents of Blair Mountain and Pigeon Creek will testify). At the same time, the jobs that are provided are not secure. How many strip mines are in operation for more than a decade? Indeed, I find it ironic that some miners argued in support of Arch Coal's proposed 3,100-acre strip mine in Logan County on the grounds that it would provide their families with a future.

After the mine is closed, after the land is "reclaimed," who benefits? It is a proven fact that deforestation affects water tables adversely. What remains unproven is the fact that strip-mining sites can be effectively reforested, and that valley fills do not contaminate the water table. In fact, valley fills kill aquatic life by burying streams, which undoubtedly has a domino effect. An ecozone is a package deal. Kill off one species, and you can expect others to follow.

It would be nice to believe that the focal point of the law could shift from private property to the people as a collective in a few easy steps.

I can only encourage the concerned citizens of West Virginia to make a unified and coordinated effort to exert sustained pressure on all levels of government for positive change. You have done it before. In the 1970s, citizens' coalitions forced the passage of the initial strip-mining law at the national level and the Coal Severance Tax at the state level. Perhaps part of the current problem is that popular pressure subsided after these laws were passed.

 

Cook is an adjunct professor of anthropology at Radford University in Virginia.

 


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