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West Virginia, “Identity Decline” and Why Democrats Must Not Look Away From the Rural Poor

Labor Disaster: Remembering America’s Worst Industrial Accident

By Mark Hand - CounterPunch, September 7, 2015

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are not the official position of the IWW (or even the IWW’s EUC) and do not necessarily represent the views of anyone but the author’s.

The Hawk’s Nest Tunnel disaster killed more than 750 workers in West Virginia in the early 1930s. It’s the worst industrial accident in U.S. history. And it’s an atrocity few Americans know about.

Union Carbide Corp., the same company responsible for the death of thousands of people in Bhopal, India, was at the center of the Hawk’s Nest disaster. The 1984 toxic gas release in Bhopal, the world’s worst industrial accident, has justifiably received a large amount of attention over the past 30 years, while the Hawk’s Nest disaster is largely forgotten.

Industry officials, politicians and the news media successfully downplayed the deaths and injuries at Hawk’s Nest. When corporations cause mass carnage, it often gets swept under the rug or is justified as the price of progress. Mix in the fact that more than half the workers killed at Hawk’s Nest were poor African Americans and you have the perfect recipe for a nonevent.

Many labor historians and native West Virginians are familiar with the Hawk’s Nest disaster. A few books have been written on the topic, most notably Martin Cherniack’s The Hawk’s Nest Incident: America’s Worst Industrial Disaster, published in 1986 by Yale University Press. Sheldon Rampton and John Stauber dedicated a portion of Trust Us, We’re Experts: How Industry Manipulates Science and Gambles with Your Future, a book on corporate public relations efforts published in spring 2001, to Hawk’s Nest. The disaster also was the subject of a novel called Hawk’s Nest, written by West Virginia author Hubert Skidmore and published in 1941.

What is the Hawk’s Nest disaster? Union Carbide wanted to build a 3.8-mile tunnel through Gauley Mountain in Fayette County, W.Va. The tunnel would divert water from the New River and allow it to drop down about 160 feet. The force of the water would then power turbines to create electricity that would be distributed to a nearby Union Carbide metallurgical plant. The name Hawk’s Nest is derived from the many fish hawks that inhabited the cliffs on Gauley Mountain.

Union Carbide awarded a two-year construction and engineering contract to Rinehart & Dennis Co., based in Charlottesville, Va. Construction of the tunnel began in spring 1930. Rinehart & Dennis worked under Union Carbide engineers, giving Union Carbide tight control over the project. In an effort to save time and money — and to avoid penalties for late completion — Rinehart & Dennis cut many corners.

To build the tunnel, workers moved forward through the mountain at a rate of about 300 feet per week. But here’s the problem: Workers were forced to break through 99.4% pure silica. At the time, experts knew that miners who inhaled silica dust would contract silicosis, an often deadly lung ailment. Inhalation of silica dust had been identified 15 years earlier as the cause of silicosis.

Aware of the dangers, Rinehart & Dennis still ordered the workers to use a dry drilling technique that would create more dust. Dry drilling is faster than wet drilling, in which dust raised by drilling is washed out of the air by spraying water at the drill tip. In addition, Rinehart & Dennis provided inadequate ventilation, failed to issue protective respirators, and imposed poor living conditions upon the workers.

EcoUnionist News #34 (Special Red Signal Edition)

Compiled by x344543 - IWW Environmental Unionism Caucus, February 18, 2015

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are not the official position of the IWW (or even the IWW’s EUC) and do not necessarily represent the views of anyone but the author’s.

Within the last several days there have been two crude-by-rail accidents: one in Ontario, the other in West Virgina. Meanwhile, one of the unions representing the railroad workers at Canada Pacific almost went on strike (until the Canadian government, acting clearly on behalf of the employing class and the latter's need to continue profiting off of crude-by-rail, threatened to intervene). CN was prepared to use untrained managers as "replacement workers" (scabs), not unlike the fossil fuel corporations have likewise threatened to use scabs in the oil refineries--for example Chevron in Richmond--during the current Steelworkers' strike.

Given the circumstances it's more urgent than ever that eco-activists, front-line communities, unionists (and those that are combinations of them or all of them) register to participate in the upcoming Future of Railroads: Safety, Workers, Community & the Environment Conferences: Richmond, California (March 14, 2015) and Olympia, Washington (March 21, 2015) - railroadconference.org, or organize one of your own.

Beyond that, it's clear that the capitalist driven profit motive, which encourages the extraction and transport of increasingly volatile fuels, under increasingly unsafe conditions, using as few (overworked, exploited) workers as possible places not only communities along the rail lines, but our entire existence on this planet at risk. These catastrophes cannot be avoided unless we abolish wage slavery and live in harmony with the earth!

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Appalachia Rising

By Grant Mincy - Counterpunch, January 17-19, 2014

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are not the official position of the IWW (or even the IWW’s EUC) and do not necessarily represent the views of anyone but the author’s.

On Thursday, January 9 a dangerous toxin, 4-methylcyclohexane methanol, leaked from a busted tank and into the Elk River in West Virginia. It is believed that nearly 7,500 gallons of the toxin made its way from the 40,000-gallon tank into the river. It’s unclear how much actually entered the public water supply.

The busted tank is owned by Freedom Industries, which uses the chemical for coal processing. Some 300,000 people have been directly impacted by the disaster, forced to wait in long lines at fire stations to receive potable water. There’s been a constant run on stores for the precious resource as well.

This is a story to often told in Appalachia. The Massey Energy coal slurry spill in Martin County, Kentucky (where 306,000,000 gallons of toxic slurry hit the town) and the TVA coal ash disaster in Kingston, Tennessee, are also part of the history of industrial disaster in the region. This history is wrought with class struggle, environmental degradation and corporatism. From the expulsion of Native Americans to the rise of King Coal, the Hawks Nest incident, the labor struggle, the Battle of Blair Mountain and the wholesale destruction of mountain ecosystems via Mountaintop Removal, Appalachia is on the front lines of the war with the politically connected.

The coalfields of Appalachia have long been home to impoverished people, overlooked by the affluent in the United States. Still, the “War on Poverty” has made its way into the Appalachian hills several times. Most famously, US president Lyndon Johnson singled out the region for his “Great Society” programs, and presidents 42, 43 and 44 have all tried to help the region as well. Instead of offering a new way forward, their programs further damage the area.

Much of the “War On Poverty” has been fought via economic engineering, centralizing the economies of West Virginia and Eastern Kentucky (along with parts of Tennessee and Virginia) into the hands of extractive fossil resource industries — notably coal and natural gas. The mechanization of these industries, however, has reduced the labor force. Specialized labor moving to the region has caused short-term booms and long-term busts. Once an extractive resource is exploited and gone,  communities are left to deal with mono economies and irreversible ecological destruction.

They Poisoned the River for a “Clean Coal” Lie

By Trish Kahle - Socialist Worker, January 13, 2014

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are not the official position of the IWW (or even the IWW’s EUC) and do not necessarily represent the views of anyone but the author’s.

IMAGINE YOURSELF in the rugged countryside of the Appalachian Mountains, where you and your neighbors have lived with a history of poverty and lack of economic development–and you learn that the water piped into your home has been poisoned and can’t be used, even after it is boiled, until further notice.

Imagine trying to run a hospital when the city’s water is unusable–even for hand washing. Imagine having to ration drinking water to school-age children in the fourth most water-rich country on earth.

All of these nightmares and more came true in West Virginia on January 9 after residents reported that their tap water tasted like licorice. The contaminant turned out to be 4-methylcyclohexane methanol, or MCMH–a chemical used to produce misleadingly named “clean coal” through a froth flotation process that “scrubs” the coal prior to burning it in power plants.

The chemical spilled into the Elk River from a 48,000-gallon tank owned by Freedom Industries. The full extent of the leak remained unclear over the weekend. West Virginia Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin claimed the spill didn’t exceed 5,000 gallons, but Freedom Industries President Gary Southern could only say for certain that less than 35,000 gallons leaked out.

Tom Aluise of the West Virginia Environmental Protection Association noted that MCMH cannot be removed from the water–and residents will simply have to wait for thousands of miles of pipelines to be flushed before water safety can be reassessed. “This material pretty much floats on the water, and it’s floating downstream, and eventually it will dissipate, but you can’t actually get in there and remove it,” Aluise said.

That begs the question of why a hazardous chemical that is impossible to clean up if spilled was being stored near a river only one mile upstream from a treatment plant providing water to West Virginia’s capital of Charleston and nine counties that span the surrounding area.

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