Op-Ed

Broad definition these days of friends of coal

The governors of Kentucky and West Virginia called out their respective National Guards last week to quell rioting caused by an indictment. The rioters wore hard hats, had their faces streaked with black, took labored breaths, squatted a lot, chewed tobacco, and took to the streets of coal country to protest the indictment of the Don of one of the nation's largest coal companies, who has been charged with endangering the safety of the rioters.

That just shows you how times have changed. No older than I am, I can remember a time when miners were distrustful of coal barons, but that has all been changed by the Friends of Coal movement, an ingenious marketing strategy which lumps lumps and people together, and gets miners to vote for their enemies.

Nowadays, to be a friend of a coal miner, you must be a friend not only of lumps of coal, but of the New York speculators who control mineral development, the bosses who promote production over mine safety, the politicians coal operators have paid for, and all else blackened by coal.

Thus coal miners and their families voted in droves for politicians who would deny the existence of climate change, who would deny black lung benefits to miners and their widows and who would take away their water and blow their mountain homeland plumb to hell.

I don't mind seeing people indicted for wrongdoing, but I don't like to see people charged with crimes for doing things that have been done for generations without sanction. They are now putting people in prison for rooster fighting, which is not only a time-honored sport in the hills, it is behind only coal as economic activity.

So, I am not saying that 29 dead at Upper Big Branch should be ignored, but I hope that, if Don Blankenship is convicted, it would be on evidence more directly tied to their demise than a generalized emphasis on production.

Back in the days of the United Mine Workers union, workers could refuse to work in unsafe conditions and the union would protect them. That union went out of style because it also protected the rights of workers to not work at all. The union mines in my region became noteworthy for protecting the lazy.

It is hard to escape Mingo County, W. Va. There is a giant concrete floodwall around it, which I first thought was a brilliant idea for that state — instead of building a new prison, just put a concrete wall around Williamson. But if you do escape Almost Heaven and cross the Tug River into Pike County, soon you will look up and see atop a mountain a citadel-house, a grand palace, which looks like it can only be accessed from the sky. Some say Blankenship lives there, or lives there some of the time. He got that place by turning out coal from the ground better than anybody else.

He may one day wish he had settled for a double-wide and a few less tons in railroad cars. If he goes away, his castle can be turned into a school for friends of coal, and they could call it Hogwash Academy.

Reach Larry Webster, a Pikeville attorney, at websterlawrencer@bellsouth.net.

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