RIta Coal Camp Residents Told to Move: Can This Story Please Go Viral?

This photo of a mobile home in Rita, WV,  owned by Russell Spear after being purchased for $200 in 1978, accompanied Martha Sparks's August 31 story in the Logan Banner, which has 29140 views,  according to the paper's website. I first published this post on September 5, 2012 at 8:28 p.m. and updated it mostrecently on September 7 at 11:02 a.m.


It's bad enough when Logan County has its mountains blown up

Economic development touted  in Logan County and surrounding areas after mountaintop removal includes the so-called  Hatfield-McCoy Trails for ATVs, dirt bikes, and utility vehicles.  It's bad enough that West Virginia memorializes a mythic feud as our heritage and allows strip mining on the site of the Battle of Blair Mountain, our own civil war over unionization for the coal fields.

It's worse when that development contributes to another act of depopulation of the former coal camps.  An absentee landlord hopes to displace more than more than 30 families in Rita, WV in Logan County  and build a motel and convenience store to cater to tourists of the trail. At the end of August, DB Land LLC, reportedly of Topeka,   gave notice that residents should make plans to remove themselves and their belongings from property by October 1.  Trailers and modular homes or trailers left on the property--many of which replace the original coal camp structures--would be destroyed.

Thankfully a local journalist is more than a stenographer for economic development

 Martha Sparks (email)--who   still uses the quaint title of Society Editor--is writing about more than the lifestyles of the rich and famous.  She explains,
the lease termination notice sent to residents...stated that...[DB Land] had decided to use the property for commercial development purposes. Most of the residents were born and raised in the camp. Many of them are elderly or disabled and with low income.
Sparks took the time to interview resident Russell Spears, who told her, 
As long as the coal was going, we were okay....Nobody ever did any maintenance or anything, but they made us sign a contract in order to stay in our houses that we would pay $200 a month and do all maintenance. We signed a paper that we were responsible if anybody got hurt or anything. They gave us an option to tear down the houses and put in a trailer with our own sewage and everything.
Friends of Mountains (FOM) says there is organized opposition

James Blunt (email) of Rita is trying to organize opposition, according to a letter to the FOM  email list.   Someone wrote the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition to say that Blunt is

 asking that folks call  Rahall's  office  to at least ask for an injunction on the eviction process until the community members can find other places to live.

Rahall's numbers are: Logan 304.752.4934; DC 202.225.3452...
If you feel moved enough to call Rahall, and to perhaps pass this info on to others who may call, perhaps this eviction can be either avoided or made easier with help in finding places to relocate, and with financial assistance for the moves.

Sparks doesn't mention the opposition, but she did a good job of letting Spears tell Rita's story

He recounted,
As long as the coal was going, we were okay....Nobody ever did any maintenance or anything, but they made us sign a contract in order to stay in our houses that we would pay $200 a month and do all maintenance. We signed a paper that we were responsible if anybody got hurt or anything. They gave us an option to tear down the houses and put in a trailer with our own sewage and everything.
Spears added that the former owners son collected the rent:
He was giving out lifetime leases and telling some that they were buying their property and all they had was their rent receipt....He really pulled that off. It went like for five years and we never heard from them. Then their coal ran out and it was sold to this bunch. [DB Land LLC]  Well they found out that the coal wasn’t there and what was there was underground and it would cost them too much to mine....That’s when they noticed this little piece of property. When they bought this land, they didn’t even know they owned this community. They thought they only bought the coal.
Spears told Sparks that Mike Cline, representative for DB Land initially told residents that they would be able to purchase their lots. 
Well, the main man was supposed to come in and talk to us. He drives up in his Cadillac with his surveyor and they sit behind the church for a few minutes and then he left....I got a hold of Mike Cline and he tells me that they have changed their mind and they are not going to sell to us and they are going to make us all leave.... They told me that if I wasn’t out of here in three months they would take equipment and move our stuff....My trailer was purchased by the Red Cross for $200 for me when my house burnt in 1978.  If I move it there won’t be anything left of it....There’s no where to rent to put a trailer.
It seems a first priority to find folks in Rita a pro bono lawyer

A lawyer could outline legal rights and how to document  them for a fight. Do folks have copies of the lifetime rights agreements.  Are they legally binding? Since Appalmad complains about absentee landlords, I'm wondering if that public interest law firm can help or at least suggest someone?

Will members of Congress help?

Senator Rockefeller has recently stood up to the coal industry.  Can he do anything for his constituents in Rita?  Will coal aficionados congressman Nick Rahall and Senator Joe Manchin show they at least "care" about their constituents. It seems to me that the campaign to call Rahall and ask for more time doesn't give folks their do.

How about the professionals doing pr on Appalachia--can they make this story go viral?

A lot of money meant to fight the conditions in Appalachia goes to outsiders.  I once had someone in DC tell me he had fought mtr because he had obeyed Woody Harrelson and sent money to a national environmental group.

In August, the Alliance for Appalachia hired Sue Lomenzo of Small World Strategies of Ashville, NC  to do a media workshop on how to get the message out on the destruction of Appalachia by the effects of the coal industry.  I'm wondering if she is offering any help past the workshop.  Trayvon Martin's parents got his story out through a professional organizer, while Marissa Alexander languished for standing her ground against her abuser.  The low-wage school bus aide who was bullied now has lots of options after a cell-phone video posted to You-Tube got 2 million views June 21 and folks donated over $700,000.   AP is still reporting months later with WSJ picking up the story on on September 2.

In Appalachia, often the wrong stories  get attention

The History Channel distorts the reasons for the Hatfield McCoy feud.  CBS covers the drug scourge.  Testimony about the lack Congressional legislation to protect clean water morphs into a coal porn story after an an award-winning art photo goes viral and few other than Jeff Goodell report it in context of the war on Appalachians by Big Coal.

How do we get the AP to make the story of Rita go national?  I'm not even sure who the best person is to report this for WV Public Broadcasting now that Erica Peterson is gone.  I was underwhelmed with the Derecho coverage and I'm not the only one.

Peterson, to her credit, is still reporting on WV from Kentucky, witness the superior job she did reporting on Murray Energy's attack on environmental journalist Ken Ward.  Tim Thornton, who reports on Appalachian issues, such as coal ash in Giles and strip mining may have some ideas, too.  As may Beth Macy, who is attending the inaugural annual poverty journalism conference at Washington and Lee, hosted by Knight.  Or Sue Sturgis at the Institute for Southern Studies, who  has reported on WV, despite its limited resources.

We are in a war zone

 Some would  think that's hyperbole, but I have to agree with native Appalachians such as Maria Gunnoe and Bo Webb who make this complaint.

I've known about strip mining for years.  Some of my friends were abolitionists in the fight against strip mining that resulted in the Surface Mining and Safety Act.  And in Chris Green, who had published my poems, invited me to join the Ohio Valley Environmental Coaltions Mountaiintop Moval Writer's Tour.   Gunnoe, Judy Bonds and Larry Gibson and others asked writers to help them tell their stories.

 In "Looking Out Over an Abyss in Boone County" for Larry Gibson, I wrote,

Big Coal has its way
they will blow up Blair Mountain.
Permits are pending.


Eighty years ago
10,000 miners rose up
ten days at Spruce Run

while federal troops
fired: civil war to keep
us company slaves.

Blow up Blair Mountain?
Feature Vicksburg, Bull Run gone
for thirty year's coal.

Mountains should abide
but Massey plays God
scattering our peaks.

How can we be the
Mountain State without mountains,
our home, a war zone?

That war continues

As in the Civil War and at Blair Mountains, Americans are pitted against their fellow citizens.  Witness the most recent example of the harsh treatment of mtr protesters by the WV State Police who seemingly helped miners stirred up by their employers to surround and threaten them.   Remember how Massey employees shouted down retired Congressman Ken Hechler--who had fought for their safety--when he said there needed to be a new school for Marsh Fork elementary school.  Remember how they jeered when filmmaker Mari-Lyn Evans thanked Hechler at the premiere screening of Coal Country.  As photographer Antrim Caskey wrote,

Talk-back to the screen came mostly from coal proponents who comprised about one third of the film’s audience. And when Evans thanked Ken Hechler in her pre-screening address, this vocal group errupted in jeers, catcalls and insults; in response, those who honor Hechler’s decades of service to the state of West Virginia, rose to their feet to give the 94-year-old a standing ovation. This was the tensest moment of the night.
The Goldman Prize, the Purpose Prize and The Martin Luther King Award  have recognized Gunnoe, Webb, Bonds and Hechler  for their bravery in fighting mountaintop removal.

At Gettysburg, Lincoln knew our nation had not yet measured up 

For the Lincoln bicentennial,Virginia Tech Library is hosting an exhibit from the National Constitution Center:  Abraham Lincoln:  The Constitution and the Civil War. The brochure states:
...at Gettysburg,  he challenged Americans to take up the 'unfinished work"...  Lincoln's words have echoed down the decaudes, speaking to what he termed on another occassion 'the better angels of our nature."

 Civil war scholar Bud Robertson gave the inaugural talk on Tech's Lincoln exhibit

I missed the lecture to post the first draft of this commentary.  I even missed any question and answer session.I ran into friends as they were leaving and was able to get there in time to say hello to Dr. Robertson.  On his way out the door, he kindly stopped to answer this question.

 "As a civil war historian, can you explain why Civil War battlefields are preserved even to the extent of fighting a Wal-Mart near Manassas, but in the meantime mountaintop removal is allowed on the site of The Battle of Blair Mountain."

Dr. Robertson told me that Blair Mountain had, for some reason, attracted no attention

Robertson seemed surprised  that I had been asked to write an article by  The Guardian and, in fact, the same paper had commissioned a second article by another author to write a second piece a year later.  He said he read that paper and he'd check out my writing.

I didn't even mention that filmmaker and MacArthur "genius grant" winner John Sayles has talked about Blair Mountain. That Soledad O'Brien had won a CINE award for her documentary on CNN.  That Pulitzer Prize winner Chris Hedges--who spent nearly two decades as a foreign correspondent-- had  included West Virginia in his new book about sacrifice zones and wrote again about Blair Mountain in July.

The eviction of the residents of Rita, WV is just the latest  skirmish

The Battle for Blair Mountain was a fight for decent living conditions the parts of our region impacted by coal-mining. The forced ouster of families, many elderly and handicapped is just the latest skirmish in that fight.

Washington and Lee's poverty reporting conference that Beth Macy  and I will be attending hopes "to build competence and community among people who report on the underside of the American dream." The keynote speaker  will be Barbara Ehrenreich on “Poverty reporting: Investigating the manufacture of misery.”

And so I ask, when will the misery of Rita and elsewhere in Appalachia affected by Big Coal be reported?  When  will we attract enough national attention to sustain outrage and stop this war  on our people by the coal industry, its politicians and its employees?

Mr. Lincoln,  Appalachia could sure use some better angels.