Jun 05, 2009
"Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere." Martin Luther King, Jr. Letter from Birmingham Jail, 1963
Last month, as protestors from around the country converged in the
Coal River Valley in West Virginia to protest Massey Energy's reckless
mountaintop removal blasting operations within a short distance of a
7-billion gallon coal sludge impoundment, their ranks included
94-year-old former US Representative Ken Hechler.
It was not the legendary West Virginia congressman's first march for
justice: In 1965, Hechler was the only member of the US Congress to
join Martin Luther King, Jr. on his march for civil rights in Selma,
Nearly 45 years after that historic moment, Hechler has a message
for President Barack Obama: It's time for President Obama to have a
Harry S. Truman moment, and issue an executive order to abolish the
destructive practice of mountaintop removal mining in Appalachia.
Standing in defiance at the Massey property line of a mountaintop
removal mining operation that could jeopardize the lives of thousands
of valley residents--Massey's own evacuation plan determined that if
the Brushy Fork coal sludge impoundment broke, nearly 1,000 nearby
residents would have less than 4 minutes to flee--Hechler called on
Washington, DC to recognize the urgent crisis at hand.
On the heels of last December's TVA coal ash pond disaster, Hechler
referred to the Brushy Fork Dam as an example of the "arrogance of
power." Hechler declared: "The freedom of Massey is a clear and present
danger to everybody that lives below Brushy Fork. Their freedom ends
because they have put thousands of people at risk, who would be surely
killed just the way the 125 were killed in 1972 on Buffalo Creek. The
first three words of the constitution are 'We the People,' not 'We the
Hechler said he has great confidence in President Obama's judgment,
though he remains concerned that an obsession with consensus could
yield to pressure from the coal lobby. "It's a pipe dream that you can
achieve progress only through consensus," Hechler told me, "especially
when certain coal companies want to drive loopholes through otherwise
"You've got to be ready to make enemies in order to accomplish something."
Hechler is no stranger to courageous American presidents or the
investigation of enemies. During World War II, serving as a major,
Hechler took part in a five-man team that interrogated Nazi war
criminals, including Hermann Goering and Joachim von Ribbentrop. As a
history professor and author, he assisted Franklin D. Roosevelt with
his 13-volume "Public Papers and Addresses of Franklin D. Roosevelt."
But it was his tenure as a special research assistant for President
Harry Truman that taught Hechler a lesson on a president's imperative
to go against the Washington lobbies and conventional wisdom and make a
historic stand. In Truman's case, risking the backlash of his own
Democratic Party, and with a recent Gallup Poll that 82 percent of
Americans were against his civil rights program, the president issued
two "blockbuster executive orders" on July 26, 1948: Truman integrated
the US military.
For Hechler, it is time for President Obama, who called for an end
to "blowing off the tops of mountains" in his campaign, to make a
historic move for justice in the coalfields.
A hero to coal miners in Appalachia and around the nation, Hechler's
understanding of the complexities of the coalfield economy is unmatched
in the country. Hechler's congressional leadership led to the passing
of The Federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act of 1969, which was the
first legislation to deal with black lung disease from coal dust.
In 1971, Hechler took the lead in dealing with another coal mining
issue: strip-mining and mountaintop removal. He held the first hearings
on mountaintop removal in 1971. Hechler introduced the first federal
bill to abolish strip-mining in the spring of 1971.
As Hechler testified in a House committee in 1971: "Representing the
largest coal-producing state in the nation, I can testify that
strip-mining has ripped the guts out of our mountains, polluted our
streams with acid and silt, uprooted trees and forests, devastated the
land, seriously destroyed wildlife habitat, left miles of ugly
highwalls, ruined the water supply in many areas, and left a trail of
utter despair for many honest and hard-working people."
In 1977, Hechler's long-time crusade against strip-mining was
ultimately betrayed by various compromising forces in Congress,
resulting in the passing of the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation
Act, which provided federal sanctioning of mountaintop removal.
Since then, over 500 mountains in Appalachia have been blown to
bits, over 1.5 million acres of hardwood forests in the most diverse
and ancient mountain range on the continent have been wiped out, and
1,200 miles of streams have been jammed and sullied with mining waste.
And Appalachia's coalfields remain a "trail of utter despair" for many
As three million pounds of ammonium nitrate/fuel oil explosives
continue to rip daily through the Appalachian mountains, and as the EPA
continues to hand out permits for mountaintop removal, whether or not
President Obama heeds Rep. Hechler's call for a courageous Truman
moment remains to be seen.
Standing in the sun at the Massey Energy mountaintop removal
operation last month, the 94-year-old Hechler showed no sign of
retreating on this egregious violation of human rights and the
"It's absolutely necessary that people here today continue to
demonstrate against this highly destructive practice," he called out to
Here's a clip from Russ Barbour and Chip Hitchcock's film documentary on Hechler, "Pursuit of Justice":
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