“War On Coal”? More Like Coal’s War On Us

Remember when “Honest Bob” Murray of Murray Industries whined about a “War on Coal”? Most people in “Honest Bob’s” situation would’ve had the sense to keep their pie holes shut, considering he was responsible for the negligent homicide of the coal miners who died in one of his death traps just a few years earlier in the Crandall Canyon mine collapse. “Honest Bob’s” workers probably thought he’d declared a war on them.

And from the looks of things in the news lately, coal’s declared a war on us — with lots of help from the coercive apparatus of the state. A 60-year-old storage tank at a Freedom Industries site in Charleston, West Virginia leaked MCHM, an industrial chemical used to clean coal, and contaminated the drinking water of 300,000 residents. No doubt “Honest Bob” was dancing with joy at the thought of being superseded by a coal industry figure even sleazier than himself.

Murray Energy, the coal industry, and the fossil fuels industry as a whole have benefited massively from systematic state intervention on their behalf. The state’s actions on the industry’s behalf include not only original enclosure and appropriation of vast tracts of land and the resources on it — often to the prejudice of those already living there — but the use of armed troops in pitched battles to break strikes and the massive preemption and nullification of tort liability laws that would long ago have rendered the coal and fossil fuels industries bankrupt from damages for the harm they’ve done to surrounding communities and their own workers.

East of the Mississippi, enormous tracts of “vacant” land (except for American Indians already living there) were preempted by colonial governments, and doled out to favored persons in grants often comprising millions of acres. Land in the Alleghenies and Blue Ridge that was homesteaded by early settlers — who hence had no formal title because government was still irregular — was later expropriated by railroad and mining companies. A good fictional example is the indie movie “Matewan,” set in the 1920s Coal Wars of West Virginia. Striking miners in a tent city outside town, besieged by Pinkertons and sheriff’s deputies, were rescued by armed people who came down out of the woods to their aid. These so-called “hillbillies” were the descendants of earlier settlers, whose land had been stolen by the mining company and who consequently fled into the hills to eke out a subsistence on marginal land.

West of the Mississippi it was even worse. The great majority of land in the Guadalupe-Hidalgo session went directly from being state property of the Republic of Mexico to being U.S. federal land. Some of this land was later settled by farmers under the terms of the Homestead Act. Much more of it (an area roughly equivalent to France) was given away — with much less difficulty of claiming it — to railroads, not only to provide the actual rights-of-way, but also strips of land several miles on either side of the actual route to provide the railroad companies with valuable real estate as a source of funding. Still a great deal more of the land — a majority of land in some Plains and Rocky Mountain states — was retained in the “public” domain; this land, from which individual settlers had been conveniently excluded, was preferentially leased to mining, logging, oil and ranching interests for almost nothing.

Likewise the regulatory state — ostensibly created to protect the public from pollution and health hazards and labor from unsafe working conditions — preempted older,, traditional common law standards of tort liability. to the surrounding population for all the serious pollution, health effects, economic effects of watershed destruction, etc., etc., etc., from mountaintop removal. Quite simply, companies that engage in the kind of risky offshore drilling BP does, or in fracking or mountaintop removal, would not be able to afford staying in business in a just world. If local juries were free to award damages equal to the actual harm inflicted by these activities, the cost of liability insurance would outweigh likely profits in most cases. What’s more, without the corporate veil to hide behind the boys in the C-suites and boards of directors would have to fear having their entire personal fortunes seized to pay damages.

Workplace safety laws provide minimal protections at best, and even their requirements on paper often go unenforced because of chummy relationships between management and federal inspectors (the latter two groups reportedly having had sex on their desks on the Deepwater Horizons drilling rig). According to an independent analysis after the Crandall Canyon disaster, the Mine Safety and Health Administration’s review of the roof control plans submitted for the operation — where the central pillars supporting the roof collapsed — were perfunctory.

After Deepwater Horizons, the Crandall Canyon collapse and the Charleston MCHM spill, it should be obvious that federal labor, workplace safety and environmental laws are nearly worthless most of the time, and not much better even when enforced. So long as the state exists, the legal regime will never be made effective at preventing things like the Deepwater Horizons disaster or Crandall Canyon through any kind of governmental “reform,” because to do that would destroy not only the business models of the regulated industries, but the entire economic model that depends on wasting the artificially cheap energy and resource inputs those industries provide.

The only viable alternative is direct action. Ways to stop environmental pollution by energy companies include physically blocking pipeline construction and sabotaging equipment, doxing corporate officials and harassing them at their homes, churches and country clubs, and whistleblowing by employees (not martyrdom — just saving stuff to a thumb drive and anonymously sending copies to every reporter and advocacy group you can think of will work fine). Workers can fight for a safe working environment using an entire arsenal of time-honored direction techniques, many of them discussed by the Wobblies in the pamphlet “How to Fire Your Boss”:  Whistleblowing, doxing, and other public information/humiliation campaigns (including joint campaigns with friendly community organizers and social justice advocacy groups and boycotts like the successful campaign by the Coalition of Imolakee Workers), picketing and leafleting rights-of-way, random unannounced one-day wildcat strikes or sick-ins, slowdowns, and working to rule, protests and suppliers, contractors and outlets, enlisting the sympathy of teamsters who haul dangerous cargo — the list is endless.

The basic point is the state works for employers and resource extractors, not for us. So instead of begging the state to protect us from industry wrongdoers, we must do it ourselves.


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