The People vs King Coal

Coal the Hard Truth

Written almost 90 years apart, a pair of muckraking books neatly frames the messy debate over the consequences of the `dirty rock’ – and its stubbornly prominent role in our future

Christine Sismondo

The Ontario government recently announced it would not be installing “scrubbers” in the province’s coal-fired power plants, technology that could reduce toxic smog-causing emissions by 60 per cent.

And why not? Because coal plants are supposedly not long for Ontario, their demise in this province promised for 2014 just last week by Premier Dalton McGuinty.

Still, some wonder if reports of their impending death are exaggerated, since the funeral was once set for this year (a promise the current government campaigned on), then initially extended to 2009.

As a shortcut to making cheap electricity, we got seriously hooked on the dirty rock more than a hundred years ago and we’re still trying to wean ourselves off. Although we tend to think of coal as a thing of the past, with a few outmoded plants still lingering around as anachronisms, in fact we burn more coal than ever before.

All signs point to still more coal consumption, with coal now being billed, particularly in the United States, as a homegrown alternative to expensive foreign oil.

Coal has always had its hidden, ugly side. From the very beginning, while we were delighting in the novelty of electric appliances at world’s fairs and the convenience of nighttime lighting, coal was responsible for human misery.

About 100,000 people died in American coal mines in the 20th century, and “black lung” is thought to be responsible for an estimated 200,000 more American deaths over that span. That has been merely one of the hidden costs of keeping the lights on.

Novelist Upton Sinclair investigated the rock’s dark underbelly in his muckraking book King Coal in 1917. The book (currently in print but pictured below in an early edition) is fiction but based on a 1913-14 coal miners’ strike. Despite harsh realities of fighting powerful King Coal, Sinclair remained hopeful. He felt the injustices of men being cheated out of their full pay, and worked to the bone in life-threatening conditions, could be overcome through solidarity. In most of Sinclair’s books, there is only one real hero, socialism as he understood it, and in the end it always prevailed….

Fast forward to the present, where lately the dirty little rock has been examined by New York Times Magazine writer Jeff Goodell, in Big Coal: The Dirty Secret Behind America’s Energy Future.

In Goodell’s story, the modern “King Coal” is the real-life Don Blankenship, president, CEO and chair of Massey Energy, a U.S. company with 19 mining facilities in West Virginia, Virginia, and Kentucky. Blankenship’s a small-town-poor-kid-made-good who pulled himself up by his own bootstraps and is, incidentally, a descendent of those McCoys who kept feuding with the Hatfields.

At times, Blankenship tries to do good work; for instance, he gives out toys to children in Madison, W. Va., location of one of the company’s operations. In the real-life tale Maria Gunnoe plays the “David” role. She’s a vocal resident who has been campaigning against the environmental fallout from Massey’s operations.

By Goodell’s account,Gunnoe’s activism made her unpopular in some quarters – in suspicious incidents her car’s brake lines were slashed and the family dog found dead.

The devastation Gunnoe describes to Goodell is a result of the ways mining has changed (improved to some, much worse to others) over the years. For instance, in an effort to minimize the expense and danger involved in going into underground pits, it’s become common to simply cut the top off the mountain and lift the coal out (“mountain top removal,” in mine-speak).

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