Combating Mountaintop Removal: New Directions in the Fight against Big Coal by Bryan T. McNeil (review)
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Combating Mountaintop Removal: New Directions in the Fight against Big Coal. By Bryan T. McNeil. (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2011. Pp. 216. $45.00 cloth)

Combating Mountaintop Removal focuses on a grassroots activist network devoted to stopping mountaintop removal coal mining (MTR) in southern West Virginia. In a MTR mine, large quantities of explosives [End Page 121] are used to loosen the rocks and soil above the coal seam. This "overburden" is removed and often dumped in an adjacent valley, where it can be engineered into a valley fill. Then giant earthmovers mine the coal. The process can continue on to deeper coal seams, dismantling the mountain like a layer cake. This technique reduces the demand for labor at the same time as it intensifies the environmental costs of mining. Entire mountains are denuded of resource-rich hardwood forests and topsoil; the topography is permanently altered; and the dust and slurry waste threaten the health and safety of surrounding communities, all with a ruthless efficiency that reduces employment prospects in coal mining over the long term.

The book is centered on the work of the grassroots community organization Coal River Mountain Watch (CRMW). McNeil uses a sharply focused ethnographic account of public hearings, activist meetings, and demonstrations, along with interviews, to demonstrate the complex linkages between the strategies and tactics of the activists, the political economy of West Virginia, and the global trends and forces at work in making MTR possible. He begins the book with the observation that MTR is a perfect illustration of neoliberalism in action. Drawing on geographer David Harvey, McNeil argues that neoliberalism is a political, economic, and social project bent on individualization and privatization in the interest of capital accumulation. He points out that neoliberalism is in direct conflict with the communitarian traditions of the West Virginia coalfields, which include histories of labor activism and solidarity, and the historical existence of a de facto commons, where private property (usually that of railroads or other absentee corporations) has been less important in everyday life than the usufruct rights of the inhabitants.

The book does an excellent job of putting an extremely complex set of issues and questions into perspective, locating the CRMW anti-MTR activism in a historical trajectory of labor and community-based activism in the area. In addition, he carefully parses the techniques used by state government to assure that the question of whether MTR should be legal at all is never allowed to arise at public hearings on permits. For the Department of Environmental Protection officers [End Page 122] present at such hearings, questions of public health, biodiversity, flooding, or water quality are almost always off topic. The question of what democracy consists of, properly speaking, when state and corporate interests become so blurred is at the center of McNeil's critique of neoliberalism. He also points out the contradictions of a model of economic development based on comparative advantage, which is inherently undemocratic. Finally, McNeil briefly considers the impact of the civil-disobedience model deployed by Rainforest Action Network, Mountain Justice, and Appalachia Rising.

Overall, the book presents a very useful and informative account of coalfield activism. My critiques are minor. In the two chapters before the conclusion, McNeil takes on the big questions of gender and environmental philosophy. Both discussions are interesting and convincing. However, the book would have been strengthened had he found a way to integrate the insights from these chapters into other chapters. For example, the highly relevant term "environmental justice" does not appear in the book until the end of chapter eight, leaving the connections between it and the other questions he raises relatively unexplored. Nonetheless, this book is accessible for a wide audience, and I enthusiastically recommend it for use in classes as well as for general interest.

Rebecca R. Scott

Rebecca R. Scott teaches sociology at the University of Missouri in Columbia, Missouri. She is author of Removing Mountains: Extracting Nature and Identity in the Appalachian Coalfields (2010).

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