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Combating Mountaintop Removal

New Directions in the Fight against Big Coal

Bryan T. McNeil

Publication Year: 2011

Critically examining the fierce conflicts over an intense and increasingly prevalent form of strip mining, Combating Mountaintop Removal: New Directions in the Fight against Big Coal documents the changing relationships among the coal industry, communities, environment, and economy from the perspective of local grassroots activist organizations and their broader networks._x000B__x000B_Drawing on powerful personal testimonies of the hazards of mountaintop removal in Boone County, West Virginia, Bryan T. McNeil shows how Appalachian community coalitions have fostered important connections in their opposition to coal mining practices. Focusing on the grassroots activist organization Coal River Mountain Watch (CRMW), composed of individuals who have personal ties to the coal industry in the region, the study reveals a turn away from once-strong traditional labor unions. With the decline in membership and political power of the United Mine Workers union in West Virginia, citizens have turned to alternative forms of activism to coordinate opposition to mountaintop removal mining, centering mainly on the industry's effect on community and the environment._x000B__x000B_The shift toward community organizing, particularly around environmental concerns, represents an effort to address social issues in a new space outside of organized labor. By framing social and moral arguments in terms of the environment, these innovative hybrid movements take advantage of environmentalism's higher profile in contemporary politics, compared to that of labor. In investigating the local effects of globalization and global economics, Combating Mountaintop Removal tracks the profound reimagining of social and personal ideas such as identity, history, and landscape and considers their roles in organizing an agenda for progressive community activism.

Published by: University of Illinois Press

Title Page, Copyright, Dedication

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pp. vii-viii

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pp. ix-x

A great many people made this research and book possible. I am eternally grateful to the people of Coal River, West Virginia, for the hospitality and grace they offered me during my stay there, especially Judy Bonds, Patty and Butch Sebok, Freda Williams, and too many others to name. ...

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pp. 1-18

From Chestnut Strip you can see forever. The mountaintops of southern West Virginia rise toward the horizon like waves on the ocean. Butch, my guide for the day, is a member of the United Mine Workers who has worked underground for more than twenty-‹five years. ...

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Part I. The Worst Goddamn Thing I’ve Ever Seen

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pp. 19-24

The Coal River Valley winds from its headwaters in Boone and Raleigh Counties north through some of West Virginia’s richest coal deposits to the Kanawha River near Charleston. The physical and social landscapes along the way are a study in contrasts: at times cold and hard, at others lush and vibrant; ...

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1. Welcome to Coal River

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pp. 25-43

Snow is pretty on the mountains, a white blanket that throws the jagged contours into relief. Sheets of ice pour down the cliffs along the road, like frozen cascades reaching toward the ground. Ice clogs the river where it bends and behind the rubble dams the coal companies use. ...

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2. Fighting Back .  .  . Again

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pp. 44-55

The outrage that greeted mountaintop removal coal mining in the late ••1990s was by no means new to the Appalachian region. Time and again conditions of social relations and political and economic domination have given rise to reform movements. ...

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3. What Are We Fighting For?

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pp. 56-66

“We considered it public land,” is a common refrain used to describe community relationships with the surrounding forests and mountains. Documented by historians to preindustrial Appalachian farmsteads, this tradition of common use is the basis for a local understanding of mountains as having an intrinsic value of their own.1 ...

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Part II. Banana Republic, Neoliberal Style

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pp. 67-70

Roger was new to the activist community. Thinking that more coal means more jobs and more prosperity is something of a rookie mistake in coal‹field activism. In the late ••1990s and early 2000s, mines in Coal River and all across southern West Virginia produced enormous amounts of coal. ...

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4. Strained Solidarities

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pp. 71-89

Over its lifetime, the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) has moved through three distinct eras that I label confrontational organizing, labor brokerage, and crisis management. John L. Lewis’s legacy as iconic union president transformed the union from a fractured organizing body to a streamlined labor broker, ...

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5. The Chase

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pp. 90-112

In the nineteenth century, railroaders and other industrial scouts developed plans and infrastructure for harvesting Appalachia’s rich natural resources.1 Created alongside the company towns and steel rails was an economic system whose distinctive relationships shape the region still. ...

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6. Whose Development Is It?

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pp. 113-120

Perhaps the most striking characteristic of West Virginia’s economic development is that there seems to be no focus on the quality of jobs created. There has been no long-term plan to develop any particular kind of workforce, other than the poorly paid service sector. ...

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Part III. Symbolic Capital, the Commons, and Community Activism

In this section, I present two broad sets of features that distinguish the community activism of Coal River Mountain Watch and the Friends of the Mountains from other forms of social activism. Chapter 7 explores the significance of prominent women’s leadership in the movement to stop mountaintop removal. ...

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7. Gender, Solidarity, and Symbolic Capital

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pp. 123-137

 The prominence of women in leadership positions is a signature characteristic of Appalachian community activism, including in the Coal River Mountain Watch (CRMW) and the larger Friends of the Mountains (FOM) networks. Women’s leadership in Appalachian activism is nothing new. Mother Jones was not a native Appalachian, ...

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8. Commons Environmentalism and Community Activism

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pp. 138-156

During the 2004 session of the West Virginia legislature, a prominent Senate committee chairman sought advice on how he could legally bar “environmentalists” from committee meetings. In response to the idea, Patty Sebok of Coal River Mountain Watch said, “That’s okay. I’m not an environmentalist; I’m an activist.”1 ...

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Conclusion: John Henry, Efficiency, and Community

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pp. 157-170

John Henry was a steel-driving man, but why did John Henry drive steel? Like most children, I assume, I learned the words to the song without knowing or even thinking about what he was doing in the first place. I knew it was about a man competing with a machine. ...

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pp. 171-176

My formal field research period ended in late 2003 and early 2004. Since then I have made many visits to the Coal River region, though never for as long as I would have liked. I have attended several events related to MTR, coal, and energy policy issues.

Appendix: Cumulative Local Impact of Surface Mining

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pp. 177-178


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pp. 179-190


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pp. 191-200


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pp. 201-204

About the Author, Publication Information

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E-ISBN-13: 9780252093463
Print-ISBN-13: 9780252036439

Page Count: 216
Publication Year: 2011

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Mountaintop removal mining -- Appalachian Region.
  • Coal mines and mining -- Environmental aspects -- Appalachian Region.
  • Landscape protection -- Appalachian Region -- Citizen participation.
  • Community activists -- Appalachian Region.
  • Environmentalists -- Appalachian Region.
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