Guest Blog Post: The Politics of Temporality in West Virginia Coal Country

Posted by on Oct 25, 2017
Guest Blog Post: The Politics of Temporality in West Virginia Coal Country

Photograph by John Blatzheim.

Editor’s note: Guest blogger John Blatzheim writes about strip mining, vegetative restoration, and temporality in Appalachia.

“They might as well be spray painting the mountain green.” –Junior Walker, Coal River Mountain Watch

On my first day with Coal River Mountain Watch, an anti-strip mining group in Naoma, West Virginia in the heart of central Appalachia, I was taken on a tour of local mining operations. Coal companies are vehemently opposed to being surveilled or monitored by the local community. To keep prying eyes away they rely on security patrols that roam their land looking for intruders. And in West Virginia, where land lease policies have shaped land ownership for over a century, it is all their land.

So, there we stood, staring across a large valley at a mountain top that looked oddly picturesque and green for a former strip mine. Junior looked out and said something that caught me by surprise, “they just spray the place with super miracle grow, they might as well be spray painting the mountain green.”

When I asked what he meant he explained the process of reclamation to me. When a coal operator applies for a permit to conduct mining they are required to develop a reclamation plan, a proposal for turning the land that they want to mine back into usable space after their mining operations have finished. Strip mining, a practice in which the top of a mountain is literally blown off in order to access the coal below, results in severe erosion and sediment run off that negatively effects the water quality of streams and rivers in the area. In order to protect against severe erosion, coal operators are required to reintroduce vegetation into the areas that have been clear cut and gutted by explosives during the mining process.

What Junior was trying to tell me was that the coal industry was essentially planting a lawn over the site of a former strip-mine, a lawn that would almost certainly wash away. That could be a concern for the industry, which is liable for restoring these formerly mined areas, except for the fact that their bureaucratically defined time frame of juridical responsibility only lasts two years. Even that short window of responsibility was about to be shortened by new rule changes proposed by the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection.

There is a clash of temporalities at play here: the temporality of geological and vegetative processes from which emerged a symbiosis that allowed soil and plant life to hold each other in place; the temporality of Appalachian social life, in which community members simultaneously looked to the past and future to ask questions about how their relationship to this place had changed, and how it would change again for the next generation; the temporality of capital, of businesses which form, grow, and eventually dissolve over the course of decades. Locals want to know that the landscape they live with and rely on will be stable for their lifetime, and the lifetimes of generations after them. For the coal industry however, the sooner they can be free of any liability for the restoration of that landscape, the better.

This clash of temporalities raises important political questions. What happens when one social actor can impose their own temporality on all others? How do social and juridical formations – corporations, community groups, and state institutions – respond when the planet’s own temporality forcefully reasserts itself? Who bares the brunt of the consequences and who escapes responsibility?

As both anthropologists and citizens, we ought to pay attention to this politics of temporality. As academics who frequently moonlight as advocates for those who generously allow us into their lives and struggles, how might we bring ethnographic attunements to the variety of temporalities at play in our lives to bear on questions of politics and power that adhere in those temporalities? At the end of the day – or year, or decade, or millennia, or… – the consequences of this temporal friction will come to fruition. How might we leverage our positions of privilege in the struggle to ensure that those consequences are distributed justly?

John Blatzheim is a PhD student in Anthropology at Rice University.