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The lessons of Blair Mountain and Big Coal

In a typical year, more than one-half of the electricity generated within Maryland comes from coal-fired plants. Most of these plants burn coal shipped from West Virginia and Pennsylvania. In communities all throughout the Appalachian Mountains, the coal industry has dominated political, social and economic life for the past 120 years. Practices such as strip mining and, more recently, mountain top removal, have been used by coal companies for more than 60 years to break the once-powerful labor unions and cut jobs. These practices involve using explosives to blow the tops off mountains to extract the coal below. They lead to the destruction of beautiful mountains, biodiversity, and the pollution of air and water.

Today, Alpha Natural Resources (formerly Massey Energy) and Arch Coal are attempting to begin extraction on the site of the most important labor struggle in U.S. history, Blair Mountain in West Virginia. In 1921, 10,000 workers rose in arms for the right to organize in a labor union, the right to be paid in cash instead of company script, the 40-hour workweek, and other basic working rights. They marched from Marmet to Blair Mountain, where they battled against company thugs and police. Though they lost the battle of Blair Mountain, this struggle was the basis for some of the most important labor legislation in U.S. history as well as widespread membership in the United Mine Workers of America.

Hundreds of activists, including myself, and community leaders retraced the steps of the original coal miners earlier this month to stop the exploitation of Appalachian communities and mountains and save Blair Mountain. As consumers of coal, we have a moral obligation to demand a moratorium on mountain top removal.

In our backyard, we may find similar pollution and health risks stemming from irresponsible and profit-hungry extractive industries. Parts of Western Maryland rest along the Marcellus Shale, an area stretching up the eastern seaboard abundant with natural gas, and may be exploited through hydraulic fracturing, a process which pollutes water and air to the point that one can light their tap water on fire. It is common struggle from West Virginia to Maryland to demand that business respect our environments and communities. Now is the time to take a stand against extractive industries.

Ezekiel Perkins, Upper Marlboro

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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