Last September, I joined a few thousand men and women in the nation's capital for an anti-mountaintop removal march from Lafayette Park to the White House. Our route led us past the Environmental Protection Agency, a massive building we completely surrounded while chanting, "EPA, do your job!"
Quite a few agency workers leaned out their windows, and to my surprise, a few of them even flashed us the thumbs-up.
After eight years of inaction, during which no one at EPA was even allowed to use the phrase "environmental justice," many of those standing at the windows did indeed seem ready to do their job — namely, protect American citizens from toxic air and water.
Since then, the journal Science has reported that mountaintop mining discharges dangerous levels of heavy metals such as magnesium and selenium into Appalachian streams, while nearby wells show alarming levels of lead, arsenic and beryllium.
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And last month, Michael Hendryx, associate director of the West Virginia University's Institute for Health Policy Research released findings that men and women living in heavy coal mining areas are far more likely to die prematurely of heart, respiratory and kidney disease than residents living beyond the coalfields. His study also found that birth defects in communities near strip mines are 42 percent higher than in non-strip mining communities.
So this month, when the EPA finalized new guidelines to protect Appalachian waterways from toxic mine runoff, one might have expected a collective sigh of relief that the government was standing up for the people of the coalfields. But one would have been wrong.
Instead, regional editorial pages made little mention of the new regulations, while West Virginia Congressman Nick J. Rahall accused the EPA of having "not only appointed itself judge, jury and executioner, but has also deemed itself Almighty God." Meanwhile, coal industry lawyers attacked Hendryx's research methods and even went so far as to blame inbreeding, for any birth defects found near strip mines.
Here in Kentucky, Sen. Rand Paul has warned constituents about some hypothetical "army of armed EPA agents" who stand ready to storm homes and thermostats, while Gov. Steve Beshear, in his State of the Commonwealth address promised to "get the EPA off our backs."
Follow that logic out a little further and you see what the governor is actually calling for: a "commonwealth" in name only where coal operators with terrible environmental records can dump mining waste in streams and forge water-quality documents — as the International Coal Group and Frasure Creek Mining have done — with near-impunity.
You also get the sinking sense that those state officials entrusted with enforcing the new EPA guidelines actually feel little inclination to do so.
This is, of course, not the first time science, guided by conscience, has come under attack by politics misguided by the influence of corporate money and an unprincipled hold on power.
Often over the years, when I've watched politicians, lawyers and lobbyists assail principled people like EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson for actually doing their jobs, I've thought about Henrik Ibsen's play, An Enemy of the People.
In the 1892 drama, doctor Tomas Stockmann discovers the medicinal baths of his small Norwegian town have been polluted by a local tannery. He tells the town's mayor and expects a thorough, though expensive, remedy to this health crisis. Instead, the mayor accuses him of trying to ruin the town's tourist economy.
Local citizens and the local paper, who at first praised Stockmann's findings, quickly turn on him, fearing for their jobs and afraid of offending the powers that be. Stockmann makes the mistake of believing, as he tells his wife, "In a free society to be right is what counts!"
Alas, that was no more true in 19th century Norway than in 21st century America.
By the end of the play, Stockmann has become completely isolated from the people he tried to protect, and so he turns his attention to treating the poor and starting a school for poor children who he hopes will grow up to become men and women who can think and act for themselves.
In 1950, the American playwright Arthur Miller wrote an adaptation of this play as a caution against the mob-mentality he feared was infecting this country because of McCarthyism. Sixty years later, a similar troubling attitude has taken hold under the aegis "Friends of Coal."
This industry-funded PR campaign, masquerading as a grass-roots movement, has masterfully blurred the lines and loyalties between coal miners and coal operators. Back when unions were strong in central Appalachia, it was clear who dug the coal in dangerous mine shafts, and who sought to profit from that labor by opposing safety laws and denying the fatal effects of black lung disease.
But today, the voice of labor has been muted or outright co-opted by the idea that everyone in any way associated with coal should proclaim their loyalty to it through bumper stickers and license plates.
Never mind that the coal industry is constantly looking for any way possible to reduce its work force through mechanization. And never mind that, after 29 miners were killed at Upper Big Branch because of lax safety enforcement, the coal industry almost doubled its campaign contributions — from $3.4 million to $6.4 million — in a successful effort to kill any new mine safety legislation.
With friends like that, we do indeed need individuals like Hendryx and the coalfield citizens who discovered the fraudulent documents forged by International Coal Group. These men and women speak truth to power, even when that truth gets shouted down by those who are paid to abdicate their conscience in the name of brutal self-interest.
And just as in Ibsen's play, powerful coal operators exploit the fear of working people by setting up the false dichotomies of jobs vs. the environment and insiders vs. outsiders.
But when foreign-owned companies like ICG pollute Kentucky streams and send their profits to stockholders around the world, the insider/outsider distinction becomes nothing more than a dubious tactic by which the industry manipulates regional pride to its own financial gain.
What's more, the much-maligned "environment" is hardly the enemy of job-seeking people. It is an inextricable part of who we are; the air, water and soil on which our lives — all life — depends. If that air, water and soil is toxic, the people of the coalfields will suffer. A recent Gallup study found that of all 435 Congressional House districts, Kentucky's 5th district — which has seen more strip mining than any other district in Appalachia — is the sickest in the country.
Here is what Friends of Coal will not admit, to others nor perhaps to themselves: The land and the people of central Appalachia are suffering from chronic abuse, and mining jobs will continue to disappear because the easy-to-reach Appalachian coal is gone and Wyoming coal is taking its place in power plants across the country and the world.
Instead of inventing false enemies to blame for these hard truths, the leaders and industrialists of the coalfield states should seize upon them to justify a new direction for the economy, the environment and the culture of Appalachia. From reforestation to biomass to wind and solar, the region still possesses the natural resources around which a sustainable, decentralized renewable-energy economy could thrive.
As the Old Testament prophet once said, without vision the people perish. In central Appalachia, the only real enemies of the people are those who reject the vision of a healthy, sustainable future — a future unshackled from the deadly costs of coal.