Appalachian coalmine pollution: we cannot fight for our health and the environment as citizens

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It is nothing new for capitalist industry, and mining in particular, to cause health problems and pollution. We have only to think of the lives lost to pneumoconiosis, to mining accidents and the collapse of slagheaps. However, mining companies in the Appalachian Mountains have taken this to a new extreme, clearing and blowing the tops of mountains and creating about 16 tons of “overburden” (the waste polluted by iron, sulphur and arsenic) for each ton of coal. Over 1,000 square miles of forest and soil has been destroyed, and 2,000 miles of streams buried, and the local water poisoned to the point that residents, mainly mineworkers themselves, have to travel miles to buy water to wash and cook, as well as to drink. Homes are damaged as orange water destroys pipes, sinks and washing machines.

Health is ruined as well. “Professor Michael McCawley, an environmental engineer who has spent time researching the health impacts of mountaintop removal.

‘It’s kind of like dumping geological trash,’ he explains. ‘It ends up increasing the concentration of acidic ions and metals [in the water], things like arsenic and nickel.’

This pollution, according to his research, has taken a catastrophic toll on the health of those whose water supply lies in its path.

‘This population is under assault from both water and air,’ Professor McCawley says. ‘What we’re finding in the water is likely to cause inflammation in the body, which can set off a lot of other chronic diseases. The big [problems] we have found are certainly cancers. Name a cancer and they’re seeing it here’.[1]

Dividing up the victims

Various websites describe various ways to tackle the problem. First, rely on the state to restore “the Stream Protection Rule in 2016 to mitigate some of mountaintop mining’s harmful effects. The rule required mining companies to monitor and restore streams polluted by their activities, but Congress got rid of it in one of its first acts under the Trump administration.”[2] This form of mining has been developing since the 80s, with or without the Stream Protection Rule and with or without Trump in the White House. Relying on the state and democracy is a false hope when the state itself belongs to capital.

Secondly, the citizen can take the mining companies to court. “That company is facing a lawsuit from a number of residents … who are seeking compensation for the costs of dealing with their water issues. It won a similar lawsuit a few years ago, and Jason, who was part of that legal battle, said it left the entire community divided between those who supported the coal industry and those who wanted to fight back.”1 For “supported the coal industry” we should read: fear to lose their jobs in an area which has no other industry.

This division, based on the false hope of regaining clean water or compensation by political or legal action as private citizens, is most destructive. Often the media portray the concerned public defending the environment against workers who need to make sacrifices for it, such as higher fuel prices. However, as the Appalachian situation shows, there is an impossible choice between needing to make a living and needing clean water and good health. You simply cannot do without either. And in this situation the division in the community created by this impossible choice is particularly destructive because it is dividing a mining community, which means dividing the workers, and when workers are divided they lose the one strength they have to struggle against capital. 

Alex  23.5.19