Review: Desperate – An epic battle for clean water and justice in the Appalachians

Desperate: an epic battle for clean water and justice in the Appalachians

By Kris Maher

Scribner, 2021

In 2012, I spent a few days in Nitro, West Virginia, for the the Wall Street newspaper, report on a settlement the city had won from Monsanto for his pollution of local groundwater while making Agent Orange for the US military. I expected rage against the company. Instead, what I found was nostalgia for the smoke and particle days. That stinking air? To the folks at Nitro, it was the smell of work.

The tension between small town employment and its deadly costs, and the resulting tragedy, are at the heart of Kris Maher’s important and compelling new book, Desperate: an epic battle for clean water and justice in the Appalachians, the saga of the mining communities of southern West Virginia at the turn of this century, fighting the coal company Massey Energy and its titanic boss Don Blankenship, for clean water.

For Maher, a former Pittsburgh-based colleague at the the Wall Street newspaper, the story he tells is “a digest of what happened in other parts of the country with small towns,” he told me in an interview. “But it’s more obvious here because you only had the coal industry and you never had other industries to replace it. The focus is more on a specific industry and its impact.

Kris maher (Photo submitted)

Certainly, the vast coalfields of southern West Virginia are unique – a wild, dramatic, rural place of hollows and tight communities, where mining has seemingly been the only path to prosperity.

In the 1980s, a coal mining company called Rawl Sales & Processing, controlled by Massey in Mingo County, began injecting waste from active mines into abandoned mines which then seeped into the water supply. local towns.

The result, over the following decades, was catastrophic and criminal poisoning of household water supplies. Streams flooded with coal mud. Residents experienced a plague of physical ailments. A boy woke up with pus coming out of his penis.

The hero of Town and Maher is Kevin Thompson, an uncompromising West Virginia lawyer with a strong sense of outrage who in 2003 filed a class action lawsuit against Massey and Rawl, both under the control of a Don Blankenship. In the United States, where regulations can be light, it often takes a smart lawyer tapping into the legal system to hold companies to account.

Blankenship is a complicated villain who insisted on living, among the people, in Mingo County. But he could also be detached, build a special, unpolluted water pipe to his house, and move around in an armored car during labor disputes. The Coal Baron grew up in Mingo County, and although his childhood was not particularly poor, he liked to point out his hard roots. “I know what it’s like to be poor, I know what it’s like to be rich,” he once said. He was a math genius, with college-level abilities in third grade.

Although he has a soft voice, Blankenship pushed his accounting skills to the top of Massey Energy, where he was chairman and CEO until 2010, when the Upper Big Branch mine exploded, killing 29 minors. Blankenship then served a year in prison for his negligence. When he got out, undeterred, he ran for the Senate in 2018 and lost. And in 2020, he ran for president as a candidate of the Constitution Party.

Thompson and Blankenship inherit a legacy of conflict stretching back over a century, a story Maher commissions with rich effect. Coal mining arrived in West Virginia in the mid-19th century. Before that, it was “the edge of the border for whites, attracting trappers and settlers seeking to build a place to build a harsh existence by cultivating, collecting timber and distilling whiskey beyond the reach of collectors. ‘taxes’.

In 1920, “the valley reflected the modern industrial world, and the struggle was between the miners and the companies that profited from their work.”

During the Matewan massacre in 1920, anti-union detectives and coal miners shot him down in a battle that left seven detectives, two miners and the mayor dead. A year later, during the Battle of Blair Mountain, the US Army sent troops from the 26th Infantry Division and military planes patrolled the area, some even dropping homemade bombs.

Over time, mining has become safer. In 1920, there were 784,000 coal miners in the United States. In the previous 20 years, nearly 50,000 had perished in accidents, mostly explosions, a dismal safety record that has improved throughout the century.

But environmental disasters have persisted. In October 2000, a Massey impoundment in Kentucky ruptured, dumping over 300 million gallons of coal slurry onto the side of a hill, polluting and killing fish hundreds of miles of course. ‘water. In one neighborhood, the mud reached the height of a basketball hoop. Massey called the accident an “act of God”.

At the same time, the coal industry could generate impressive wealth. In the mid-1920s, the town of Willamson approved a five-story hotel with 116 en-suite rooms, electric elevators, a cut-glass chandelier in the main ballroom, and an upscale restaurant.

And the area remains haunted by the Hatfield-McCoy feud of the 1870s and 1880s. Blankenship’s mother turns out to be a McCoy.

When Thomson filed a complaint in 2004, he had the truth on his side. By the mid-1980s, “the company had pumped over 20 million gallons of slurry into the mountains most months, and over time the flow rate increased to 600 gallons per minute and then to 750 gallons per minute.” . And those interviewed by Thomspon had a long list of health issues. About half had episodes of diarrhea. They also suffered from migraines, urinary tract infections, memory problems, muscle tremors and heart disease.

The fight is also emblematic of the battle for clean water that has consumed other parts of the country. “In a lot of small towns in West Virginia, they always give you bottled water,” Maher told me.

Small towns often have water problems, for all kinds of problems. “You have chemicals, and there’s also agricultural runoff for pesticides, but also pharmaceuticals is a problem,” said Maher, who covered the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, for the. Newspaper. “Pharmaceuticals just come out of the sewage and they don’t get treated, they don’t get captured, like in sewage treatment plants, and they end up in rivers. “

Maher told me his book is partly a rebuttal of JD Vance Hillbilly elegy. “It’s about what people face in the region,” he says. “JD Vance criticizes people for not working hard or getting up, but I hope my book at least shows that there have just been generations of being a bit under the thumb of the industry. coal and you know you’re not starting from the same place as someone who lives elsewhere in a city. When your livelihood is tied to a single industry, economic mobility is limited, he said.

This is going to have to change because coal is in decline. In 2004, when the lawsuit was filed, coal produced about half of the electricity in the United States. In 2020, that number was around 20%.

I asked Maher about what will come next for communities that withdraw from the charcoal trade. After all, on dozens of trips to southern West Virginia he has come to worry about the people he writes about. He highlighted an article he wrote recently on a lavender farm in Boone County, West Virginia. “The hope is not to rely on just one industry,” he said. People are optimistic about the new infrastructure bill, which has $ 11.3 billion budgeted for mining land reclamation projects, which will help diversify economies through tourism and small-scale manufacturing in and around the southern coal deposits. And many areas of West Virginia still need better broadband, he added.

Ultimately, as Maher’s book illustrates, what people in West Virginia need is what people everywhere need: jobs that don’t stink.


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