Category Archives: Labor & Wealth

Philip Price for Congress in NC 11th

Western North Carolinians deserve a working person to represent them in Washington

Price for Congresscropped-logo-1-1

LENOIR, N.C. — If you want a working class person who understands working class issues representing you in Washington, D.C., The Lenoir Voice (the sister publication of the Appalachian Chronicle) recommends that Democrats and Unaffiliated voters in the 11th Congressional District (Western North Carolina) vote for Philip Price for the U.S. Congress during the Democratic primary, which has begun with early voting.

His values are Appalachian values.

In doing so, you will be picking a small business owner who has worked his nails to the quick while the GOP incumbent, Mark Meadows (who considers the district a nice place to visit, but essentially makes Washington, D.C. his home), has spent his time accumulating power though the so-called Freedom Caucus rather than serve his constituents, as he was elected to do.

You can learn more about Price and the other Democratic candidates wishing to replace Meadows at a forum in Morganton tonight.

Price_LogoBlue-e1522788048390.jpg FTRThe Lenoir Voice endorses only those candidates who understand that most Western North Carolinians are primarily blue collar and do not want much, but we do wish to be paid a fair wage, have access to “Medicare-for-all” health insurance, and be able to support our families on just one job. We support candidates that understand that. Philip Price is the candidate that gets that.

Early voting has begun and runs through May 5. The Primary is May 8. There are two early voting locations in Caldwell County — the ground floor of the Alden E. Starnes Building on West Avenue in Lenoir and the Granite Falls Recreation Department.

© Michael M. Barrick, 2018

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Privatization of the VA Would Make Mockery of its Mission

Party of Lincoln forgets that the VA was inspired by the 16th president

By Art Sherwood

LENOIR, N.C. – David Shulkin, who was fired by President Trump last week as head of the Veterans Administration (VA), told several national news outlets that he was fired because he stood in the way of efforts by Trump and the GOP to privatize the VA (read more at NPR and CBS).

While the VA was not established until 1930, it seems that the GOP has forgotten that the first Republican president, Abraham Lincoln, provided the foundational spirit of the VA as noted in the Mission Statement on the VA’s website: “To fulfill President Lincoln’s promise ‘To care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan’ by serving and honoring the men and women who are America’s Veterans.”

While Trump’s removal of Shulkin is not surprising from the “You’re Fired!” president, privatization would be disastrous for the men and women served by the VA. Yet, it is consistent with the goals of the Republican Party. This is not a new agenda item. It’s been going on a long time. It is the “Starve the Beast” mentality. To ensure its failure, the GOP-led Congress intentionally underfunds the VA so performance is not where it should be. Then the agency and those running it – rather than Congress – are blamed for failures due to inadequate funding.

While the GOP may have forgotten Lincoln’s intentions, I have not. I worked with and for the VA for more than a decade. It was an honor to serve those who gave all for our country.

We have a sacred obligation to honor the mission of the VA and should not farm it out to profiteers who will put making money ahead of caring for our veterans. There are nearly one million veterans in North Carolina, making up over nine percent of our population. They deserve better than having their treatment transferred to a private provider looking to cut corners to increase profits.

The VA system is clearly better equipped and more knowledgeable about the needs and care of veterans than private providers scattered across the nation that have little or no experience dealing with the specialized care veterans need – and deserve. My experience in the largest VA hospital in the system in Houston showed me that the variety of comprehensive services that veterans get through the system could in no way be provided by private providers. The VA provides mental care and physical, comprehensive treatment of complex injuries such as those to the spinal cord. The VA’s knowledge and treatment of these injuries is among the best in the world.

To ensure its failure, the GOP-led Congress intentionally underfunds the VA so performance is not where it should be. Then the agency and those running it – rather than Congress – are blamed for failures due to inadequate funding.

Is the VA perfect? Of course not. But it does provide quality care. When the VA has appropriate stable leadership at the top that is committed to the mission of the VA, it succeeds. The employees are loyal civil servants who will follow leadership dedicated to the mission of the VA as articulated by President Lincoln following the Civil War. My personal experience is that when civil servants are given a fair chance to compete against the private sector, they win. They provide better, more efficient care. Still, we must remain vigilant. We should fix any problems that occur. It’s a large system, so of course it has potential for problems.

Additionally, let us not forget that the VA’s case load has increased dramatically in the last few decades because of the wars we are fighting around the world. It is now commonly agreed that the invasion of Iraq in 2003 was precipitated on lies. We would have far less veterans to care for if we quit fighting unnecessary wars.

Also, the military deserves credit for improving its trauma care in battle zones. There are many more soldiers coming home alive than in previous wars. In addition, many veterans return home with the invisible wound of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). This puts additional stress on already underfunded social and mental health services for our veterans. The VA is uniquely qualified to provide the required care – again, assuming it is properly funded.

Only the VA can provide the specialized, seamless care that these veterans deserve. In the rare cases where a veteran may live far away from the nearest VA hospital, a referral to a local provider might be necessary, but those are rare instances.

It is noteworthy, that as I talk to veterans in Caldwell County, that they’ve told me of the excellent care they have received at VA hospitals in the area, whether in Asheville, Salisbury or over the mountain in Tennessee. Their testimonies are encouraging. (There are also VA hospitals in Durham and Fayetteville, as well as Outpatient Clinics scattered across the state).

So, as a North Carolina State Senator, I will vigorously defend the VA and work closely with our congressional delegation to protect it and challenge them to properly fund the system. I will also challenge the GOP to quit the saber-rattling than can lead to only more young Americans dying and being maimed on foreign soil.

It is clear, that when it comes to waging wars and caring for those who do the actual fighting, the GOP’s hypocrisy knows no bounds.

We can do better. I will do better, given the opportunity. So, I would appreciate your vote in November. There are nearly a million veterans in North Carolina counting on the VA. Let’s not let them down.

© Citizens for Art, 2018. American flags photo by Cal Engel and dog tags photo by Holly Mindrup on Unsplash

Note: Art Sherwood is the Democratic candidate for North Carolina Senate District 46, which includes 3 Appalachian counties – Avery, Burke and Caldwell.  I am serving as Campaign / Communications Director for him. Impartiality is no longer an option for me. While it’s not news, 2016 reminded us that elections matter. How we care for the poor and vulnerable, how we protect the sacred earth which sustains us, how we protect human rights, how we care for the alien among us, how we defend voting rights, and how we treat each other in the body politic and the “public square” of social media, requires that I choose a side. – MB

 

West Virginia Teachers Authorize Statewide Strike

Rallies across the state point to plight of state’s working class heroes

NOTE: This article is reprinted with permission from the World Socialist Website. The original article is here.

By Nancy Hanover
12 February 2018

A statewide meeting of the American Federation of Teachers-West Virginia (AFT-WV) and the West Virginia Education Association (WVEA) in Flatwoods on Sunday announced that county-by-county balloting showed overwhelming support throughout the state for a teachers’ strike.

West Virginia teachers, now paid 48th lowest out of 50 states in the United States, are demanding an increase in salary and oppose plans by the bipartisan Public Employee Insurance Agency (PEIA) to increase out-of-pocket health care expenses. Last week, the state senate approved an insulting 1 percent annual raise.

WVEA President Dale Lee quickly followed up by assuring the state legislature and big business interests that the strike vote “doesn’t mean we’re calling something on Monday. The legislative process is still early. It’s time to look at the legislation that’s moving and…work the process for the best possible deal.”

The union executives are clearly concerned that they may not be able to hold back statewide action by 20,000 educators. Christine Campbell, AFT-WV president, remarked that there were demands for strike action even in the remote rural counties. “It’s coming from everywhere,” she said. For his part, Lee emphasized he was ruling out any “immediate action” while the “legislative process” continued.

Rank-and-file teachers, however, are determined to fight. Rallies were held in Preston, Kanawha, Fayette, Braxton, Marion, Berkeley and Jackson counties. At a rally in Wheeling, an Ohio County teacher told the press that her family’s monthly premium would double under the proposed PEIA plan, from about $300 to over $600 a month.

West Virginia teachers demonstrate at the capitol in Charleston (Credit:Sheryl Thomas, FB)

“This whole movement has been from the bottom up and I’m going to do my best to make sure that we demand actions that will benefit all West Virginia public employees and West Virginia’s children,” Nicole McCormick, a Mercer County teacher, told the World Socialist Web Site.

McCormick, who emphasized that all public employees need a substantial pay raise, continued, “I feel, and many others as well, that now is the time to harness this historic opportunity to demand what will progress and redefine West Virginia.”

Around the state there were reports that teachers were threatening to leave the unions if they failed to call a strike, while others called for broader strike action by public-sector workers who are all affected by the state’s move to increase health expenses.

In 1990, 22,000 teachers defied Democratic Governor Gaston Caperton and the state’s ban on teacher walkouts, striking for 11 days in the state’s only official teachers’ strike. Conditions for educators today are the same, or worse, than they were three decades ago when their pay was 49th in the nation.

Expressing the militant mood, reading teacher Karen Stroup declared, “Without us, the state of West Virginia would shut down,” according to local media coverage of a rally in the eastern panhandle town of Charles Town last Friday. “We’re not out here just for teachers,” Jamie Bowden, an English teacher, was quoted as saying in a report in the Journal. “We’re here for all employees in West Virginia, because what’s going on in the legislature affects all of us.”

Teachers and school workers in Cabell and Wayne Counties voted separately to call a one-day work stoppage February 16, the day before a mass statewide rally at the capitol in Charleston called by the unions.

Governor Jim Justice, a coal baron and the richest man in West Virginia, with a net worth of $1.6 billion, has remained adamant that the state will give teachers no more than an annual 1 percent raise—a de facto pay cut after inflation—for the next five years. Justice began his career as a Republican, ran for governor and was elected as a Democrat in 2016 and then moved back into the Republican column, underscoring the unanimity of both big business parties against the working class.

Last week, the governor gave vent to the backwardness and class arrogance of the West Virginia elite, saying that there was “not a Chinaman’s chance” that natural gas severance taxes would be increased to fund education.

The state senate has approved Justice’s 1 percent proposal, while state house representatives are calling for 2 percent the first year. Posturing as friends of the teachers, legislative Democrats are calling for a 3 percent increase, which is no less insulting for teachers who have not had a raise for a decade.

Far from speaking for the working class, the Democrats, who controlled the governor’s mansion during most of the last 100 years, speak for the coal, gas and timber interests that run the state no less than the Republicans.

By design, the county-by-county votes merely “authorize” the unions to strike. From the outset, however, the NEA and AFT have intended to use the vote as leverage in their backroom maneuvers with the governor—which both unions backed in the 2016 election—and the legislators.

The national AFT and NEA, as well as their local affiliates, are opposed to any genuine mobilization of teachers, let alone all public-sector workers, because that would immediately turn into a political clash with both corporate-controlled parties and raise the issue of why public education is being starved of resources in the state and nationally.

Having already sustained significant political and financial losses due to the state’s right-to-work law, the union bureaucracy is seeking to convince state officials that the unions are valuable to contain social opposition and help implement austerity if they are only allowed to retain their “seat at the table.”

WVEA President Lee signaled the union’s willingness to back a rotten deal in comments at a Princeton town hall meeting Saturday. “One percent is just the minimum, but when we get all these jobs coming and the revenue turns around and gets better, we are going to make that more,” Lee said, according to the Bluefield Daily Telegraph.

The WVEA president tried to dress up the legislators’ phony search for a funding source as “progress,” telling the crowd, Republican “House Speaker Tim Armistead wants a task force put together and wants us to have a seat at the table to come up with a solution to the problem.” The union official concluded, “I am cautiously optimistic the House leadership is really trying to come up with a solution to the problems.”

While the unions are preparing to call off the struggle, there is a growing sentiment among teachers for a broader battle which challenges the immense levels of inequality in the state. A teacher in the Princeton audience rebutted the claim that the state lacked “funding sources,” saying, “They [the coal companies] bled us dry and took the money to other states,” she said, adding that coal producing counties were left with no jobs, poverty and drugs.

Teachers also pointed out that the legislators were now looking to further impoverish the schools by eliminating the industrial property tax. The tax nets $140 million a year statewide and in Mercer County, 72 percent of it goes to the school system, according to the Bluefield Daily Telegraph.

Students also expressed their support. Trey Henry, a senior at Martinsburg High School, told the World Socialist Web Site that there were 200-300 people who came to support the teachers, including students from Martinsburg and teachers from around the county. “I think being a teacher is one of the most important jobs there is, if not the most important one. They set a foundation, they are life-changers. It is crazy that they are paid so little.

“Here in Martinsburg, the opioid crisis is terrible. I can’t take my little brother to the park without finding a syringe. My dad overdosed on heroin. This has really impacted my life and it is my family and my teachers who were my foundation. Because of that, I plan to be a teacher and major in secondary education. Most students feel this way, even if they are not yet willing to stand up like I do.”

The opposition of teachers in West Virginia is part of a broader movement of teachers, after more than a decade of attacks on them and the right to quality public education, spearheaded by the Obama administration and now being escalated by Trump’s education secretary Betsy DeVos. Teachers in St. Paul, Minnesota face a strike deadline on Tuesday, while teachers in Pittsburgh, who have been working without a contract since June 2017, are currently taking a strike authorization vote.

West Virginia teachers must take the conduct of the struggle out of the hands of the unions by forming rank-and-file committees to reach out to parents, students, public employees, coal miners and every section of the working class for a common struggle to vastly improve public education and living standards. This must be bound up with the development of a powerful political movement of the working class, independent of and against the two big business parties, whose aim is a radical redistribution of wealth and the reorganization of economic life to meet social needs, not private profit.

A Lesson from the Worst Mining Disaster in U.S. History

Many West Virginians suffer from the Stockholm Syndrome

By Michael M. Barrick 

CHARLESTON, W.Va. – It was 110 years ago today that the greatest coal-mining disaster in United States history occurred in the small mining town of Monongah in northern West Virginia.

On December 6, 1907, at about 10:30 a.m., two coal mines – connected underground – known as Monongah No. 6 and Monongah No. 8, were destroyed by a series of explosions that killed more than 500 miners. While the official count listed 358 miners and three rescuers dead, the use of subcontractors by miners to increase their production, as well as the number of funerals, have lead historians to conclude that the number of dead likely exceeds 500. Located just south of Fairmont, the mines – owned by the Fairmont Coal Company – rocked the earth, destroyed the mines’ infrastructure, and sent debris flying hundreds of yards above ground as it obliterated above-ground entrances and buildings.

The disaster affected every person in the town, which was built along the banks and hillsides surrounding the West Fork branch of the Monongahela River. Despite its small size and hard living, it was a diverse community, made up of nearby residents but also a vast number of immigrants from Central and Southern Europe. By 1905, Monongah had about 6,000 residents.

There is plenty of evidence that West Virginians suffer from the Stockholm Syndrome, ‘a psychological response wherein a captive begins to identify closely with his or her captors, as well as with their agenda and demands.’

Such human tragedy, unfortunately, has left many lessons unlearned. In fact, it suggests that a vast majority of West Virginians suffer from the Stockholm Syndrome.

That was made abundantly clear yesterday with the report by West Virginia Public Broadcasting that “Former Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship has officially filed paperwork to run for U.S. Senate in West Virginia.” Yes, that’s the same Don Blankenship that got by with murder, as I wrote here about the 29 coal miners that died in the Upper Big Branch (UBB) mining disaster on April 5, 2010. He is out of prison from his paltry one-year sentence for conspiring to violate federal mine safety standards.

The timing of his filing is beyond ironic; it is downright contemptible.

Just as miners were changing shifts that early spring afternoon in 2010 at the UBB coal mine, an explosion roared through the mine. Instantly, the 29 miners working for Massey Energy were dead, families were devastated and communities of southern West Virginia were forever changed.

Clearly, since technology has improved to the point that major mining disasters simply need not happen, the problem is not with the science of deep mining; it is with the culture that guides the crony capitalism which has dominated West Virginia since the beginning of the industrial age.

West Virginians and the Stockholm Syndrome

Unfortunately, it is just not industrialist and politicians who are to blame; so too are many West Virginians. They simply vote against their own interests. It would not surprise me if Blankenship wins the Republican primary and defeats the Democratic incumbent, Joe Manchin III. Regardless of how the campaign plays out, there is plenty of evidence that West Virginians suffer from the Stockholm Syndrome, “a psychological response wherein a captive begins to identify closely with his or her captors, as well as with their agenda and demands,” according to Encyclopaedia Britannica.

This notion was recently shared with me by a very frustrated mayor in a small West Virginia town long-ago abandoned by the coal companies, leaving behind a dying community and destroyed landscape in a once-beautiful valley carved out by numerous rivers. One might take issue with the mayor’s claim, which is based on his disgust with the overwhelming support that West Virginia voters gave President Trump and Governor Jim Justice, who this past summer switched to the Republican Party after being elected as a Democrat last year. Justice is also the state’s only billionaire.

What is not debatable, however, is the deadly history of the coal industry in West Virginia. That Blankenship has the audacity to file for office, exactly 110 years after the Monongah tragedy, suggests that West Virginia is full of people essentially saying, “Abuse me. Please.”

What happened at Upper Big Branch

This was the blunt conclusion of the Governor’s Independent Investigation Panel (GIIP) about UBB. Among the panel’s findings:
• The disaster was preventable because basic safety systems failed and/or were disregarded;
• These failure of safety systems was caused by a corporate culture by mine operator Massey Energy that put profits before safety;
• Massey Energy was able to operate with such a corporate culture because its dominant influence in the West Virginia coalfields allowed it to exert inordinate influence on West Virginia political officials responsible for ensuring mine safety; and,
• Those with regulatory oversight at both the state and federal levels failed in their roles as watchdogs.

In short, it is business as usual in the West Virginia coalfields. From the worst mining disaster in U.S. history, to the most recent disaster at Upper Big Branch, the words of Mary Harris “Mother” Jones are as appropriate today as when she first spoke them roughly a century ago – “There is never peace in West Virginia because there is never justice.” 

Monongah

At Monongah, both mines were less than 10 years old and were producing in excess of 12,000 tons of coal a day by the time of explosion. They were also considered state-of-the art. “Mines No. 6 and 8 both employed the most up-to-date, sophisticated ventilation systems.” (McAteer 64). John Nugent, the Immigration Commissioner for the State of West Virginia affirmed an advertisement made by The Consolidated Coal Co., Inc. seeking immigrant help. The mines, the company claimed, were, “Practically free from explosive gases.” (McAteer 74).

Obviously, the advertisements were mistaken or false. Thus, the all-too cozy relationship between operators and those charged with regulating them was formed. As the UBB GIIP reports, that has remained unchanged a century later. While the exact cause of the Monongah explosion was never determined – as much for political as scientific reasons – there was no mistaking that the influence the mining owners enjoyed with local and state politicians ensured that the operators’ interests – profits – always trumped the miners’ interests – a safe working environment.

Monongah headline

Headline tells of the disaster at Monongah

When the explosion occurred, 19 coal cars (each loaded with two tons of coal), being pulled out of the bowels of the mine broke free and crashed 1,300 feet back into the mine portal. The runaway cars broke lose electrical wiring, destroyed structures and ultimately disrupted the ventilation system. “At that instant, from deep within the mine an explosion rumbled, a terrible explosive report rocketing out of both mines, rippling shocks through the earth in every direction. … A second explosion followed immediately, and at the No. 8 mine entrances explosive forces rocketed out of the mine mouth like blasts from a cannon, the forces shredding everything in their path” (McAteer 116). 

Blaming the Victims

Even though an exact cause was not immediately known or even determined, it was not long before the miners themselves were made the scapegoats. Fairmont Coal Company President C. W. Watson immediately capitalized on the anti-immigrant feelings of the time, telling the New York Times almost immediately after the disaster that “… he could not account for the ignition of the dust unless it had been through careless use of an open lamp” (McAteer 158).

Conversely, Clarence Hall, a leading expert on mine explosions at the time, was in nearby Pennsylvania when the catastrophe occurred. He stated, “When I enter a mine these days it is with fear and trembling. We seem to know so little of these gas and dust explosions. Sometimes I feel the poor miner has not a ghost of a show for his life when he enters a mine.” (McAteer 159) 

Tragedy upon Tragedy

There were no organized rescue teams in U.S. mines at the time. However, the dangers to the rescuers, along with the reality that the effort was a recovery effort for dead miners allowed for time to organize miners and volunteers. Of course, rescue efforts – such as repairing the ventilation systems in the hopes of removing the deadly gases from the mines – were heroic, if unsuccessful. “What has to be said is that the rescue efforts were not successful and the equipment provided to miners to ensure their escape was inadequate” (McAteer 264).

It soon became apparent to the rescuers and stunned families of the miners gathering on the Monongah hillsides that the force of the blast, the lack of oxygen, and the instability of the mine combined for a horrible reality – virtually all those in the mine had perished. Recovered bodies were a horrid site to behold. Mine explosions “…inflict multiple-system life threatening injuries on many persons simultaneously. When the explosion is of a high order of magnitude, it can produce a defining supersonic, overpressurization shock wave” (McAteer 131).

Monogah-Mining-Disaster-1907-sign-CREDIT-Einhorn-Press-DOT-com

Photo credit: Einhorn Press

Injuries include damaged or destroyed lungs, blunt force trauma to the head and body, ruptures of the middle ear and eye, and damage to internal organs. Those that survive those injuries generally die from suffocation as lethal gases are released following the explosion. Rescuers, too, were at great risk. In addition to the instability of the mine and lack of oxygen, rescuers had no personal protective equipment or breathing devices. “Imagine a handful of reckless, bedraggled men going into the cavern with lanterns with sulfurous fumes in their faces dragging out the charred bodies of men, some with their faces burned off. That is what Monongah looked like. …In some instances the bodies were perfectly preserved and recognition was immediate; in other cases, the bodies were so badly disfigured or mutilated, identification was impossible.” (McAteer 143). 

An Unholy Alliance

Motivated by the example of John D. Rockefeller, who in the late 19th Century controlled much of the world’s oil resources, financiers from outside of West Virginia collaborated with well-connected Mountain State elected officials, judges, municipal leaders and state and local law enforcement to extract coal from its mountains, leaving not even the dignity of the coal miners intact. “The fact that the Fairmont companies, led by the Monongah mines, paid lower wages across the board meant that the three mines could sell their coal at a lower rate and thereby capture an increasing share of the markets, threatening the wages and unionization in the other states” (McAteer 101). Indeed, by the turn of the century, three men – U.S. Senators Johnson N. Camden and Clarence Watson, as well as Judge A. B. Fleming, controlled all of the mines along the Monongahela River in West Virginia, as well as the railroad lines.

Meanwhile, the company fought efforts to compensate the surviving family members of the dead miners. This is not surprising, as “In the early 1900s, families of miners who died in a mine accident or disaster had nothing in the way of economic protection and little legal recourse following a mine disaster. This was especially true in West Virginia where the coal interest was entwined with every facet of the state’s political, economic, social and legal systems” (McAteer 212).

Companies also vigorously – and successfully – opposed unionization efforts for decades. “The powerful elite of West Virginia on both Democrat and Republican side of the aisle united in their opposition to union organization efforts, and after seeing the success of the Fairmont Consolidation Company, the southern West Virginia mine operations that wished to build on the success met in secret to decide on some general plan of resistance to union encroachments based on the successful strategy employed at Monongah” (McAteer 113).

So, politicians debated and dithered. Meanwhile, miners continued to die at alarming rates. In fact, “On November 20, 1968, the Farmington Mine, a mine not five miles from the Monongah mine in the same Pittsburgh seam owned by the same company, Consolidation Coal Company, exploded, trapping seventy-eight miners” ( McAteer 262). Though federal legislation followed that disaster – the Federal Coal Mine Safety and Health Act of 1969 – the unholy alliance between coal officials and West Virginia elected leaders continued – and does to this day. For proof, we need look no further than the UBB disaster. 

We know we should learn from history. Yet, as we consider the human suffering inflicted upon the people of Monongah 110 years ago, and upon those of Upper Big Branch, Farmington, Buffalo Creek, Sago, Blair Mountain, and countless other communities since, we must conclude that we have not.

This should give us pause. The West Virginia state motto is Montani Semper Liberi – “Mountaineers are Always Free.” Though they may think they are, they are mistaken. In reality, my friend the mayor is right. The proud people of the Mountain State are not free; rather, as the Stockholm Syndrome illustrates, they “identify closely” with their crony capitalist captors and their demands.

WV State seal.png

© Appalachian Chronicle, 2014 – 2017. Michael M. Barrick is a native of Clarksburg, W.Va. He has lived also in Weston and Alum Bridge. He presently writes from his home in Western North Carolina, but continues to visit and work in his home state. 

Works Cited
David McAteer, Monongah: The Tragic Story of the 1907 Monongah Mine Disaster (Morgantown, W.Va: West Virginia University Press, 2007).

Upper Big Branch: The April 5, 2010 explosion: a failure of basic coal mine safety practices (Shepherdstown, W.Va: Governor’s Independent Investigation Panel, May 2011).

The Sago Mine Disaster: A preliminary report to Governor Joe Manchin III (Buckhannon, W.Va: Governor’s Independent Investigation Panel, July 2006).

 

Learning by Teaching

Fellow students respond favorably to comic strip about Mountaintop Removal

Editor’s note: On Dec. 1 we published an article about Olivia Bouzigard’s efforts to educate herself and others at Appalachian State University about the deadly impact of Mountaintop Removal (MTR). I asked her to write an essay explaining how she chose the topic and method for teaching it. She explains below. Personally, I extend thanks to her instructor, Heather Custer, who has the rare ability to challenge her students to demonstrate evidence of minds at work. Also, the illustration is published again, just in case you missed it the first time. – MB

By Olivia Bouzigard

BOONE, N.C. – I am a sophomore at Appalachian State University (ASU) with a major in Public Relations and minors in Recreational Management and Philosophy. I am currently enrolled in a writing class where I was to take on the task of writing about an issue that I thought was important. When I came to ASU as a first year student, I was enrolled in a recreational management class where I learned about Mountaintop Removal (MTR). This was the issue that I chose to write about.

mtr_0388 courtesy OHVEC

Mountaintop Removal. Photo courtesy of Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition

The first part of the project dealt with composing a white paper of the research that I had done. I interviewed several people, read books, watched a documentary and read through health studies people had researched about MTR. Finally, the second part of the project was to come up with another way to present this information. I chose to make a comic strip that combined all my research together into three simple illustrations. Then as part of the project’s requirements we had to somehow present this information. I chose to set up a contact table in the student union on campus and ask people for their time as I passed out my comic and taught them about MTR.

Essentially, I wanted to illustrate a pattern that one cannot easily escape the effects of MTR and that everything that comes with MTR is devastating.

As students passed by the table I would stop them to ask if I could have a few minutes of their time. For those who said yes, I followed with the simple question: Do you know what Mountaintop Removal is? Those who said they did, I asked how they knew what it was and asked them to give me a description. Many said they had learned about it at ASU or in a class in high school, which I thought was interesting.

I then asked them to give a brief description of what they knew about MTR. One student responded, “It has to do with our energy and stuff, right?” Another student said, “I know that it is bad.” However, no one could give me an overall quick description of it. A key goal of my project was to help students to be able to quickly define it, so in the comic strip, I start off with a definition of MTR from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Those who said they did not know what mountaintop removal was, that definition is the one I used.

MTR comic

Illustration by Olivia Bouzigard

I then explained the comic to the students that stopped by. I shared that the mountain is upset because it has no say in whether it is destroyed or not. Coal companies are known for coming in quickly, destroying the area, and then quickly leaving. Their focus is only on the coal and nothing else. Then the comic moves into air that is upset and lungs that are upset. The purpose of this drawing is because many people are breathing in the particles from the removal sites and do not realize it, so their lungs become damaged. The final picture shows a sad house, a sad human and an angry crane. This illustrates that MTR not only devastates the mountains but devastates the towns and ruins them. It also is illustrating that the people of these towns have no say in whether these coal companies come and they just wait for them to leave. The angry crane shows that the coal company is just there to get the job done and leave.

Essentially, I wanted to illustrate a pattern that one cannot easily escape the effects of MTR and that everything that comes with MTR is devastating.

After presenting the comic to students, I asked if it was helpful. Everyone said yes. Comments included that they now know what it is. There were many comments of gratitude for sharing the information and acknowledgements that MTR is a significant public health and environmental issue.

Still, I am not done. I know that people have spent lifetimes learning about opposing MTR, so I intend to continue to educate myself about MTR, keeping others informed and finding alternatives. The comic strip was a first, but very powerful step for me and those I taught.

© Olivia Bouzigard, 2017.

MTR photo courtesy of the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition. To learn more about their work, visit their website.

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Federal and State Agencies Targeted for Lax Oversight of Mountaintop Removal

Have We Learned Anything from Buffalo Creek?

Jim Justice Mining Operation Endangers Public Health and Ecology, Says Scientific Center

Monongah Tragedy Still Looms Large

Mountaintop Removal Semantics Debate Gives Ammunition to Energy Industry

Poor Emergency Planning in West Virginia Puts Citizens at Risk

Recent Coal Mining Deaths are Acts of Greed, Not ‘Acts of God’

West Virginia Catholic Diocese Challenged to Reject Coal’s ‘Dirty Money’

 

Black (Heart) Friday

Obsession with stuff that will become dust – like us – reveals our true priorities

By Michael M. Barrick

LENOIR, N.C. – Before this day is out, we will almost certainly see images of people stampeding over one another in order to be the first to get the newest trinket, cell phone, computer or toy. Then, of course, there are the unending advertisements in print, on TV and the web.

It is indeed, Black Friday in the U.S.A. Not, however, for the stated reason. A person recently asked me why the day after Thanksgiving is called Black Friday. I explained that it is the busiest retail day of the year, the day that helps ensure that the red ink on the balance sheet turns black for the year. However, I didn’t stop there. I also used the question as a teachable moment. I added that Black Friday is an apt description of our nation’s heart. In short, I said, it proves we care more about stuff than people.

You will hear from certain preachers and politicians that this is – or should be – a Christian nation. Black (Heart) Friday proves this is simply not the case. But in case anyone wonders what a true Christian nation would look like, consider first teachings from Jesus about money and possessions, and then what we are taught are God’s priorities. This much is clear: the “Christian” nation that many envision is totally opposite of what you read below.

Let’s begin with the Sermon on the Mount. “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal.  But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal.  For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. … No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money. Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? … So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’  For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them.  But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well” (Matthew 6: 19-21, 24-25, 31-33 NIV).

Black Friday photo

Is there really any doubt that serving money is our nation’s top priority?

God’s priorities, conversely, are quite different, as we read in the Old Testament: “He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8 NIV).

Our obsession with today’s best deals for what amount to nothing more than meaningless trinkets reveals a nation that is anything but “Christian.” So, think for yourself. Do not let the carnival barkers lead you astray. If we will change our priorities and care for people instead of possessions, we will find our land a much more livable and welcoming place. We don’t need to call ourselves Christians to do that. We simply need to behave as humans, not desperate animals.

© Michael M. Barrick, 2017.  Photo by José Martín Ramírez C on Unsplash

Enough with the Destruction

‘The Resistance’ can count me out if all it seeks is destruction

By Michael M. Barrick

I am an old hippie who has no use for the ways of the established order. Ask the CEO of any corporation or the principal of any school for which I’ve worked. Or the pastor of any church I’ve attended. Most “order” is based on outdated, controlling systems designed to destroy creativity, and hence freedom. That leads to injustice.

I was raised to recognize and oppose injustice. I was also taught to do it peacefully. I was also taught there were great costs to standing against “The Establishment.” I learned that mostly the hard way.

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I still oppose “The Establishment” even though my generation is the establishment. I am with the disaffected and dissatisfied. I am not satisfied with the direction of our nation. I believe “Citizens United” has led us down the path of crony capitalism even worse than the Robber Barron era of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In short, the inordinate control that corporations exert over our personal lives and political systems as a result of that Supreme Court decision have so polluted our national discourse that this outcome – violent resistance – was inevitable.

It is still unacceptable though. “The Resistance” must reject anarchy. Too many protesters are leaderless with no clear purpose short of destruction. If they wish to improve how our nation cares for the poor, vulnerable and the environment (I think that’s what they want other than Donald Trump’s head), they need leadership. Now.

That would – should – come from progressive clergy and politicians. The anarchists have legitimate complaints. There is truth to the saying, “If you want peace, work for justice.” There is plenty of injustice today. No ordinary American would ever enjoy the bailout received by Wall Street. Police departments do not need to be militarized. Energy companies such as Dominion and Duke should not be allowed to destroy the environment and seize private property through eminent domain to build fracking infrastructure. The War on Drugs is a complete failure, leading to the unjust imprisonment of tens of thousands of people, mostly minorities. We are spending more on the military than ever before even though we can’t muster the will to provide health coverage for all Americans.

So, one can understand the anger.

Violence, however, is not the answer.

To appreciate that, one needs a sense of history. There is talk on street corners no matter where I go that people say they’ve never seen our country in such a mess. I have. It was 1968.

The Vietnam War was at its peak, with thousands of young Americans subjected to an unjust draft. It was called the Selective Service System and it was very selective. If you were in college or could get a deferment because daddy had connections, you weren’t selected. So, eventually, the working class youth had enough of it and started burning draft cards, fleeing to Canada and even occupying buildings. Yes, there was some violence, especially at the Democratic National Convention, but that was largely precipitated by Chicago’s ruthless police.

Also in 1968, blacks, a century after the completion of the Civil War, were still having to fight for economic justice and attempts by white supremacists such as Alabama Governor George Wallace to deny them their constitutional rights.

The nightly news in 1968 was dominated by headlines about war, domestic unrest, racism, and political assassinations. We’ve been here before.

The most obvious attack upon the Civil Rights movement was the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. But he was not the only person killed that year. So was Bobby Kennedy, as he closed in on the Democratic nomination for president. So were activists and students. The nightly news in 1968 was dominated by headlines about war, domestic unrest, racism, and political assassinations. We’ve been here before.

As I did then, I turn to music for guidance. The folk and rock protest music of the 1960s and 70s helped stop the Vietnam War. And, the most popular group of the decade, the Beatles, spoke to the madness of 1968 through their song, “Revolution,” which was released in November of that year. Compared to many other groups, such as Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, the Beatles had been relatively silent on political issues – until John Lennon penned “Revolution.”

Here is the first verse: “You say you want a revolution / Well you know / We all want to change the world. / You tell me that it’s evolution / Well you know / We all want to change the world. / But when you talk about destruction / Don’t you know you can count me out.”

Well, 50 years later, nothing has changed. I want to change the world. There are literally as many ways to do that as there are people willing to do it. But when you are destructive, you lose me as an ally.

Being destructive is being lazy. It shows a lack of real thought about how to address our many disagreements. It sets a horrible example for our children, and converts nobody. It is unbecoming of a human being. So, if we wish to convince others to be more humane, we must set the example.

No violence. No destruction. Only love.

Try it. It is my experience that in the end, to be effective, you’ll only have time for love.

© Michael M. Barrick. Photo by Alice Donovan Rouse on Unsplash

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Alpha Natural Resources Ordered to Justify Mountaintop Removal Mine Permit

Mining site on Coal River Mountain has pattern of violations

Courtesy submission

CHARLESTON, W.Va. – The West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection (WVDEP) ordered Alpha Natural Resources subsidiary Republic Energy to show cause why a mountaintop removal coal mine permit on Coal River Mountain in Raleigh County should not be suspended or revoked. The order was issued on Aug. 1. Republic has 30 days to request a hearing or a consent order; otherwise, the permit will be suspended or revoked or its bond forfeited.

Republic has received seven notices of violation at its 802-acre Middle Ridge permit since July 25, 2016. Three or more of the same type of violation within a year demonstrate a pattern of violations and initiate the “show cause” procedure.

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Alpha’s Middle Ridge site above the McDowell Branch neighborhood, Clear Creek, W.Va

Alpha subsidiaries operate over ten square miles of active, approved or pending mountaintop removal sites and coal waste slurry impoundments on Coal River Mountain. Local citizens group Coal River Mountain Watch has opposed the operations because of the documented public health impacts of mountaintop removal, including significantly elevated rates of cancer, heart disease, birth defects and other deadly illnesses. Mountaintop removal also causes long-term pollution of mountain streams and the loss of access to the mountain for traditional activities including hiking, hunting, and gathering ginseng, berries, mushrooms, ramps and other forest resources. Increased runoff from the deforested sites and altered topography can also contribute to flooding.

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A blast above the McDowell Branch neighborhood, Clear Creek, W.Va. Photo credit: Coal River Mountain Watch

Four of the seven notices of violation on Republic’s Middle Ridge permit were for sediment control violations related to improperly constructed ditches and sediment ditch failure. Citizen complaints generated two of the sediment control citations.

“This isn’t rocket science. It’s a ditch. If Alpha can’t even properly maintain a ditch, why should we expect them to comply with any of the other regulations and permit conditions meant to protect water quality and nearby residents and property owners,” asked Vernon Haltom, executive director of Coal River Mountain Watch.

Local residents with Coal River Mountain Watch plan to continue pushing for the permanent revocation of the Middle Ridge permit, protection for Coal River Mountain and surrounding communities, and a strong, sustainable economy for southern West Virginia.

wv-dep-logo“The West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection needs to start living up to their name and their mission of promoting a healthy environment in West Virginia,” Haltom said. “Instead, they continue to grant mountaintop removal permits knowing full well that these operations will cause long-term water pollution, serious harm to the health of people in our communities, and damage to the long-term viability of our economy.”

Coal River Mountain Watch of Naoma, W.Va., has a mission to stop the destruction of our communities and environment by mountaintop removal mining, to improve the quality of life in our area, and to help rebuild sustainable communities. The website ishttp://crmw.net.

More information

Show cause order: https://drive.google.com/open?id=0B87Y5QG4Eg0Xa211WUJEV2YxRWc

Middle Ridge violations: https://apps.dep.wv.gov/WebApp/_dep/search/Permits/ViolationsDetailsQuery.cfm?permit_id=S301712&dep_office_id=OMR

Republic Energy permits on Coal River Mountain: https://apps.dep.wv.gov/WebApp/_dep/search/Permits/RP_PermitQuery_new.cfm?office=OMR

Meanwhile, Outside the Beltway

Obsession with Russia is manipulative, voyeuristic, and distracting from vital issues

By Michael M. Barrick 

OUTSIDE THE BELTWAY, U.S.A. – Here, where it is not Red Square or either end of Pennsylvania Avenue, the spectacle playing out on our TV screens, computer devices and in the newspapers regarding alleged Russian involvement in the 2016 U.S. presidential election is simply nauseating.

For God’s sake, enough already! You’ve lost me.

I’ve quit reading, listening and watching – that includes you John Oliver, Samantha Bee, Stephen Colbert, et al. That means I’ve abandoned my primary source of news – late night comedians who are really journalists; and, my secondary sources – the mainstream media and alternative media, who are clowns posing as journalists.

It is a topsy-turvy world, indeed.

Am I surprised that Russia probably meddled in our election? No. However, I think we’ve got that covered. Between the special prosecutor and congressional committees, plenty of investigating is occurring. That’s good. What we don’t need, however, is speculation. And, 99 percent of what I’ve seen, heard or read is exactly that.

 … election-meddling is not exactly new to geo-politics; the United States is quite expert at regime change – we’re just not as subtle.

On the part of the media, it’s manipulative, voyeuristic, and ultimately rooted in a sick drive for profits. But it’s also distracting us from what is important. Let me pause here and say, yes, a foreign government interfering in our election is concerning. So, let the investigators investigate. And, yes, I would expect any editor or producer to assign a reporter or two to the story. However, we have far too many issues that are simply being ignored by The Fourth Estate. Additionally, election-meddling is not exactly new to geo-politics; the United States is quite expert at regime change – we’re just not as subtle.

Hence, the media needs to abandon the feigned outrage and get to work on covering what most of us living Outside the Beltway know are the vital topics of the day.

More about those in a moment; but first, a quick demand of Congress and the president – do your jobs! America and the world have multiple challenges – not the least of which is a scarcity of leadership.

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The public schools are essential, but must also be scrutinized. Photo credit: Megan Soule

Now, about those vital topics; following is just a quick, partial run down the list:

  • Health Care: Polling shows that the majority of Americans support universal, single-payer health care. In short, Medicare for all. Only one in six support the current GOP proposal. Why? Because those of us living Outside the Beltway understand that the Medicare for all approach is the most humane; it provides for our most vulnerable citizens.
  • North Korea, et al.: Even our own military strategists say that a war with North Korea would almost certainly kill millions, and perhaps tens or hundreds of thousands just on the first day. The Korean War, which is still technically exactly that since we have only a truce with North Korea, was caused by inept diplomacy – Harry Truman indicated to the Russians that the U.S. would not wage war over control of the Korean peninsula. Today, we have a president who is the opposite. All he does is issue threats. Every president in between has kicked this matter down the road. That simply won’t do anymore. What I believe we expect Outside the Beltway is that a peaceful solution be found. Yes, waging peace is harder than waging war. But hey, we sent men to the moon. We’ve sent enough of our youngest adults to die on foreign sands and distant hills. We can figure this out.
  • Campaign Finance: Because of Citizens United, we are experiencing an age of crony capitalism like that of the Robber Barons of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. This is evident in many places, but currently most obvious in the health care debates. Insurance and pharmaceutical companies are among the biggest obstacles to meaningful – and simple – reform (we’ve been doing Medicare a good while now). Gerrymandering has also altered the political landscape in a manner not consistent with voting patterns, accomplished through the buying of legislatures by the millionaire class. As a result, our most fundamental right – the right to choose our elected representatives – has been degraded or denied.
  • Infrastructure – From aging school buildings to hospitals not equipped to handle modern telemetry, to collapsing bridges and pot hole-filled roads, we have simply been negligent. We have not maintained our infrastructure. We all know it. We all see it. We have allowed private companies to own and manage our water systems, diverting money that should be reinvested in those systems to far-away shareholders that care only about profit and nothing about the quality of the water you and I drink. Certainly, the country that intends to send people to Mars by 2040 can fix roads and sewer pipes.
  • Failed War on Drugs: Billions of dollars have been spent, and tens of thousands of people sent to prison, simply to restrict the use of a naturally growing plant – marijuana. Our treatment of it – legal here, illegal there – is more schizophrenic than any alleged side effect of it. Three years ago, when interviewing John Buckley, the Libertarian candidate for the U.S. Senate in West Virginia, this is what he had to say about the War on Drugs: “What makes drugs a threat to society is the drug gangs pushing them because there is a hefty profit in pushing it. We have not stopped the war on drugs. We have not accomplished the goal. We have spent money. We’ve jailed people, yet we still see an increase in crime. We haven’t made a dent. We have set horrible legal precedents in rigorous law enforcement. When you add them all up, and say we haven’t made a dent in drug abuse, it cries out, ‘Is there a new approach?’ If you eliminate the profit, you eliminate the gangs and the terrorists profiting from it. If we will take a new approach, then it allows us to address it as a medical issue, not a criminal issue.” He was right then, and has been proven to be right repeatedly since that interview.
  • Education: We’ve known for years that educators reaching retirement age hit the door the first minute they can; what is more disturbing is that our best and brightest young teachers are leaving also. Why? They have lost control of their classrooms to everything from bureaucratic interference to children not ready for school because of poor living conditions. Virtually our entire society makes its way through our public schools. If we do not address society’s problems, every day in the classroom becomes more difficult. And, there are systemic problems as well. This is an example where a political party – in this case, the Democrats – must challenge a sacred cow. Yes, public education is essential; that, however, does not mean we refuse to take a critical look at its failures and alternatives. Additionally, the cost of college (and textbooks) must be addressed. Having to go into debt for years to earn a degree is counter-intuitive. Once educated, one cannot contribute to society unless unencumbered with unnecessary debt.
  • Ecology: Last, but certainly not least, is how we approach the management of the ecology – that is, our interaction with the natural world. Presently, human health and the environment are in great distress for a number of reasons. Mountaintop removal, fracking, clear-cutting and other practices that support the fossil fuel industry are harming people and the land, air and water which give us life. Climate change is real. Responsible reporters, for example, should not be asking politicians if they believe in climate change; rather, they should be asking what they know about it and how they intend to address it.
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Clean water is essential for human survival and a healthy environment. Photo credit: Jeffrey Workman.

This is by no means an exhaustive list. I’m sure you can certainly add to it. My prescriptions to the vital topics of the day may be different than yours. In fact, they likely are. That doesn’t matter nearly as much as this: that we agree that politicians of all stripes and the media need to be taking a critical look at these issues and working together to solve them rather than obsessing over Russia. In time, conclusions by the Authorities Having Jurisdiction regarding Russia will be reached. That will be news. For now, all the talk inside the beltway and TV studios is simply commentary that rivals the Tower of Babel.

We expect action, not talk. Sure, there are political purists (or opportunists) who will refuse to work with others, but they are in the minority. We know that because in our families and communities, we have to work together.

At least, that’s how it is Outside the Beltway.

© Michael M. Barrick, 2017

Our Way of Life

“Our way of life” requires
a war machine says the president.
He is not the first to say so;
“The Donald” is just more blunt.

Despite the feigned consternation
of the chattering class, this is our history.
A continent conquered through genocide,
the slaughter completed when Chief Sitting Bull was shot down.

An economy sustained by slavery,
its history screams of man’s inhumanity to his own.
Tolerated far too long,
it could be ended only by Civil War carnage.

Industry was built on the backs of laborers
as crony capitalism profited all but the workers.
War was waged on miners in the West Virginia hills
while children in Southern textile mills labored to the bone.

An empire was built
from Cuba to the Philippines.
Puppet dictators were established here and yonder,
while we fought undeclared wars in Southeast Asia.

We have been at war
since our children were – children.
Our granddaughter has yet to live
in a world in which we don’t wage war.

We justify it easily,
even though the boxes we call home
are filled with boxes of stuff.
It is, after all, Our Way of Life.

All “dire threats” to it
will be destroyed.
If in doing so we obliterate ourselves –
it is Our Way of Life.

© Michael M. Barrick, 2017

Sitting Bull quote