In June, hundreds of men and women in mining stripes faced off against mountaintop removal protesters at Marsh Fork Elementary.
In July, mining supporters showed up uninvited to an environmental festival, disrupting participants and threatening violence.
And those protests continued into August, with people chaining themselves to the entrance of the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection.
Despite the flurry of activity, in the scheme of things it’s not new.
Paul Rakes is a professor of history at WVU Tech and a former coal miner. He says the debate over the delicate balance between progress and the environment has been going on for centuries.
“It’s not just that these things are unsightly,” he said. “It’s that we have a vested interest in our environment.
The problem because, at what point do we say, all right, we have to limit what we refer to as progress in order to maintain a certain living standard.”
But in this particular battle, both sides say the other is impeding progress.
Environmentalists say the “jobs vs. the environment” debate is false and misleading. They define progress as moving away from fossil fuels to sustainable sources of energy and say green jobs could plug up the holes left by the coal industry.
Mine supporters flip this argument on its head. They say wind and solar can’t replace coal anytime soon – and they say they can mine coal without doing permanent harm to the environment.
Jess Baldwin of Kanawha County has mined coal for 32 years, working on both underground and surface mines. Now he’s a foreman with Pritchard Mining on a mountaintop removal mine.
He says signs of pollution – such as the coal dust that rains down on his community – are the price you pay for progress.
“I live across from Alkene Metals,” Baldwin said. “I wipe dust off my car all the time. The vice president of our company, he lives in Kanawha City, he wipes dust off his car. We live in an industrial area.
“And for some reason these people want to take our country and our state backwards 20 years. Windmills are for Holland. They won’t produce enough power.”
Chuck Nelson is a retired miner who’s become involved with Coal River Mountain Watch and the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition.
For him, coal mining is the opposite of progress. He says miners have to look at the bigger picture.
“I don’t know how to convince them that they have to look beyond their next payday,” he said. “They have to look at their kids’ future and their kids’ future. What are they going to be left with? If we don’t change over to some type of renewable energy, the entire civilization is threatened by it.”
But both men agree that things are heating up in the coalfields. Nelson has been attending and organizing mountaintop removal protests for several years, but he hasn’t seen a lot of coal miner opposition till recently.
“But it just seems like every rally we have or every protest we have, they’re showing up in larger numbers and they’re a lot more aggressive and trying to be a lot more intimidating to us,” Nelson said.
But Baldwin says he thinks the real problem is the “outsiders” who come to the state to organize and protest against mountaintop removal.
Of course Baldwin recognizes that some of the protest leaders live in the community, such as Goldman Environmental Prize winners Maria Gunnoe and Judy Bonds. But he thinks they’re being swayed by outsiders.
“I respect your right to protest,” Baldwin said. “That’s what I was in the army for. I was in there to protect our rights. We’ve done everything that we can to make sure that Ms. Gunnoe and Ms. Bonds and everybody has their right to protest.
“All I want them to do is understand what they’re protesting about. I think that the cause that they’re taking up … they’re being influenced from outside. Where do we directly affect one of them?”
Rakes says this suspicion of outsiders resurfaces often in the state, and is often a method of combating change.
He says this stems from exploitation in the nineteenth century, when people from other states started coming into West Virginia and buying land cheaply, often by dishonest means.
Also, in the second half of the nineteenth century, American writers “discovered” Appalachia, and began basing books and articles there.
Known as the “color writers,” their accounts painted Appalachians as backwards, stupid and in need of salvation.
“And so lots of folks were cheated out of the land, they were mis-portrayed in the national media at the time,” Rakes said. “And it increased the mistrust of people who came from the outside. ‘I don’t need saved, I’m fine, thank you, leave me alone!’ And so that gets built into the culture.”
Nelson says his family has been living on the Coal River for generations, but he welcomes the non-West Virginians who come to protest.
“They’re appalled at what they see too,” he said. “I mean you can go anywhere in the United States and let people see what mountaintop removal does to communities and to people. Everybody’s against it when there’s another way that you can do it. But why do you have to do it this way? Because it’s the cheapest way.”
Nelson says he loves living in the Coal River Valley, and it’s this love of the land that makes his fight against mountaintop removal more personal.
This, Rakes says, is common among southern West Virginians.
“Southern West Virginians especially have what’s referred to as a sense of place,” he said. “Well, within that sense of place is a respect for that place. And if one is emotionally tied to an area, then there are going to be those who do not want to see that area destroyed.
“In other words, in their thinking, if you change that land, if you remove the tops of the mountains, if you fill the valleys, in their thinking, then you have altered it and it’s no longer the land I love.”
For coal miners, Rakes says that same sense of place manifests itself in a slightly different way.
“That miner, is first and foremost going to say, ‘what enables me to stay in this place? The fact that I have this mining job,” he said.
Rakes says people on both sides are scared and frustrated. Coal miners watch their friends get laid off, and worry about new environmental regulations.
Meanwhile, some coalfields residents are frustrated that after years of fighting President Bush’s environmental policies, the Obama administration hasn’t changed things as much as they hoped.
And neither Nelson or Baldwin are getting what they feel is an appropriate response out of Gov. Joe Manchin.
Baldwin says he’s frustrated that he couldn’t reach anyone in Manchin’s office to express his displeasure that the documentary “Coal Country” was screened at the state Culture Center.
“Joe don’t get my vote. I called his office on a Friday prior to that movie, and the only person I could get a hold of was somebody in the press corps,” he said. “When other governors was in there, I could call and I could get a hold of an assistant that would speak with you.
“Now we’ve got a governor’s office that can’t answer when someone gives them a call, or at least even lie about it, then we’ve got a problem with communications.”
Nelson says what the state really needs is leadership from Manchin. He went to the governor’s office hoping Manchin would make a call for peace in the coalfields.
“And so this lady came in and took a statement from me, and I was telling her that it’s really escalating on the river,” he said. “And Gov. Manchin needs to step up and say it will not be tolerated for people to do violence to environmentalists or vice versa.
“We’re not going to put up with this, we need to work this out. But he was gone, so I left a statement there.”
Rakes says when people don’t think they can get their issues resolved through normal channels, fear and frustration is more likely to erupt in protests.
Baldwin and Nelson may disagree about mountaintop removal, but they both predict violence in the coalfields.
“The men are going to start to stand up,” Baldwin said. “It’s going to come to a brutal end. It is, it’s going to come to a physical thing.”
“I, well, I mean it’s a wonder somebody hasn’t really got hurt bad already,” he said.