This Sunday at 8 p,m. EDT*, CNN will present The Battle for Blair Mountain: Working in America, a special, one-hour documentary on the heated controversy over the mountaintop removal method of coal mining at Spruce No. 1 in West Virginia.
Hosted by Soledad O’Brien, the program explores the conflicts between economic and environmental concerns, and among private, public and corporate interests.
To call this a battle is hardly an exaggeration.
Coal mining in West Virginia is a way of life that stretches through generations. For many, mining represents the highest paying — if not only — way to make a living. And if that’s not enough to stir passions, there’s a palpable us-vs-them quality to it all that pits fiercely independent locals against outsiders and the federal government.
On one side are the workers and families whose livelihoods depend upon mining, the politicians interested in preserving jobs and keeping revenues flowing, and the coal companies eager to exploit the region’s rich resources for the sake of profit.
On the other side are conservationists, artists, environmentalists, health officials, a majority of the American public and, for the moment, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Concerns range from revulsion at the sight of flattened mountaintops, to broader issues of ground, water and air pollution, deforestation, health effects due to toxic exposure, and coal’s role as a major source of greenhouse gases.
Even the location of Spruce No. 1 adds to the tension. In 1921, nearby Blair Mountain was the site of the largest armed insurrection since the American Civil War, where nearly 15,000 striking coal miners battled an army of police and strikebreakers brought in by the coal operators. During the course of the legendary five-day battle, approximately 1 million rounds were fired, resulting in several hundred casualties and more than 100 dead. Today’s alliances may be different, but Blair Mountain is once again where two sides intend to take their stands.
It’s easy to sit back and from a distance call for sweeping environmental initiatives, such as a reduction in our use of coal or a halt to the practice of mountaintop removal. It’s quite another to be among those whose lives would be upended. If the short clips we’ve seen are any indication, The Battle for Blair Mountain: Working in America should lead us all to a better understanding of how complex such issues are.
For those who can’t watch Sunday’s premier, the program will be rebroadcast at 8 p.m. EDT on Saturday, August 20.