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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Coal and Oil Shape Cultural Stereotypes

Air Date: Week of

This month marks one year since disasters of historic proportion struck the country’s coal and oil industries — a mine explosion in West Virginia and BP’s oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Living on Earth’s Jeff Young talks to two writers from those regions who explain how oil and coal have shaped the popular view of the places and people that bring the country its energy.


GELLERMAN: One year after BP’s Deep Water Horizon well exploded in the Gulf of Mexico comes news that BP will pump a billion dollars into restoration projects. The money will be used to rebuild marshes and barrier islands along the Gulf Coast and protect wildlife habitat. Residents along the coast have just marked the anniversary of the oil disaster that killed 11 workers. Just two weeks earlier, West Virginians paused to remember the worst coal mining disaster in 40 years - the explosion at the Upper Big Branch Mine claimed 29 lives.

The two disasters, just 15 days apart, give us a vivid glimpse of the true costs those regions pay to provide us with the energy we use. Living on Earth’s Jeff Young spoke with two writers - one from West Virginia, the other Louisiana - who have chronicled the ways coal and oil have shaped our sense of these places and the people who live there.

YOUNG: BP’s oil spill was the biggest, but far from the first. So as Louisiana officials sought fines of a million dollars a day from BP, Bloomberg reporter Ken Wells investigated what the state had done to punish other oil spillers.

WELLS: Louisiana gets four thousand spill alerts in the coast guard a year, so it’s the ‘oil spilling-est’ state in the union. And yet, fewer than one in a hundred oil spills are penalized in any way and the average fine for an oil spiller in Louisiana, even a serial spiller, was about three thousand dollars. They have created a culture in which it actually pays for them to pollute.

Ken Wells catching (and releasing) a redfish in Louisiana. Wetlands like this are eroding at an alarming rate. “It’s hard to imagine the Cajuns without their marshes and bayous,” Wells says. (Photo: Ken Wells)

YOUNG: Wells is a Louisiana native. His articles and books explore the complex interaction of oil, environment, and culture in his home state. There are oil jobs, of course, and state revenue. But there are also the spills and toxic air emissions from refineries. Wells says the industry’s greatest mark may be on the land itself - miles of canals for oil and gas pipelines that cut through the delta’s great marsh.

WELLS: So vast stretches of marsh that were once robust and healthy are dead and underwater, and there’ve been some very smart scientists down there who’ve actually done studies and put the estimate that can be traced to oil development at about 36% of all the wetland loss.

YOUNG: With the land melting away and fishing at risk, what does that mean for people who are so closely tied to the land and to fishing?

WELLS: Well, you know, I think this has set off an existentialist crisis there in a way. You know, it’s hard to think of very many places in America where the fate of the ecology and the fate of a culture are so inextricably intertwined. I mean, it’s hard to imagine the Cajuns without their marshes and their bayous.

YOUNG: Wells speaks with some authority on this, as he grew up on a bayou - Bayou Black, in Terrebonne Parish.

WELLS: We lived in a little farm right across from the bayou, and you know, learned to swim there amidst the cottonmouths and alligators.

YOUNG: But Wells did not learn the language that defined Cajun culture and community.

Ken Wells’ mother, Henrietta "Bonnie" Wells. When oil workers arrived in Cajun country, she was made to feel so ashamed of her culture that she did not teach her children French. (Photo: Ken Wells)

WELLS: My mother, who was a Cajun French speaker, was born in 1926, and she remembers well - late 30s and 40s - this influx of people from Texas and Louisiana coming to work the oil fields. And there was this huge denigration of the culture, you know. They found these people who - many of them didn’t speak English very well - if they spoke English they spoke with an accent, and they began to ridicule them. You know, the term ‘coonass’ became sort of the chief pejorative that rednecks used against Cajuns. And my mother, in the middle of this denigration, begins to feel bad about herself and her culture and does not teach me the language.

YOUNG: From the 1920s, Louisiana law prohibited children from speaking French on school grounds. Just as the growing oil industry straightened the bending bayous into linear canals, the dominant culture sought to mainstream the Cajuns. This was even reflected on the silver screen.


YOUNG: In the 1953 film “Thunder Bay,” Jimmy Stewart plays the first offshore driller on Louisiana’s Coast.

[FROM THE MOVIE; Stewart: “Look down there. All you can see is water. But if you dream real hard, you can smell the oil.” SNIFF; “There, can’t you smell it?”]

YOUNG: Stewart’s nemesis is a rowdy Cajun who fears the drilling will kill his shrimp. In the movie’s climax, Stewart confronts a Cajun mob.

[FROM THE MOVIE; Stewart: “Alright, now you may put me out of business, all of you. But that isn’t important. The important thing is that there’s oil under this gulf. And we need it. Everybody needs it - you need it. Without oil, this country of ours would stop and start to die. You can’t stop progress - nobody can.”]

WELLS: (Chuckles). Well, you know, I’m kind of shocked that the Louisiana Oil and Gas Association hasn’t dusted off and sort of use as the promotional message. You know, their message…they’re always-on message: we’re here on a holy mission to get out the oil and gas - we need this, you need it, you know, we’re going to give you jobs, and just stand aside and let us do our thing. And you know, unfortunately, that tends to be some of the attitude that’s still there today.

Wells’ father, William “Rex” Wells, on Bayou Black sometime in the late ‘40s. “We learned to swim there among the cottonmouths and gators.” (Photo: Ken Wells)

YOUNG: The end of “Thunder Bay” has Jimmy Stewart and progress triumphant, as a gusher of oil showers onto the Gulf waters.

[SOUND OF GUSHER; Stewart: “Ah, Ha ha ha! There she is! Ah, Ha ha ha!”…FADES]

YOUNG: Nearly a thousand miles away from Wells’s Bayou Black, writer Denise Giardina grew up in Black Wolf, a coal camp in West Virginia’s McDowell County.

GIARDINA: We lived in a house that was owned by the coal company. The coal company controlled the local political machines, the local school systems, built the churches, owned the company stores. And…it was a totalitarian system in many ways.

YOUNG: Giardina left the coal camp and discovered that there was much more to Appalachia than just coal. She studied history and found, to her surprise, that the region had a rich culture and deep roots.

Black Wolf coal camp in West Virginia, where Denise Giardina grew up. (Photo: Denise Giardina)

GIARDINA: If you had asked me when I was 12 years old what was my history, I would have said we have no history. Those cultural historical references were destroyed piecemeal, over a hundred years ago. And what took their place was, again, this totally controlled system run by the coal industry with little emphasis on connection to the land or connection to the past. I really, you know, as I grew up, learned that there were structural reasons for the problems that we had and I just wanted to tell that story.

YOUNG: Her novels, “Storming Heaven” and “The Unquiet Earth,” trace generations of families through the turmoil of the coal industry and the fierce battles to organize miners.
And Giardina explores the ways outsiders eager to exploit the region’s mineral wealth depicted the Appalachian culture and determined its fate.

GIARDINA: The Appalachian stereotype of the, you know, toothless, barefoot, ignorant and violent hillbilly actually can be dated precisely back to the time the coal industry came in. You know, the national media took a murder and turned it in - you know, fabricated it into this very large Hatfield and McCoy feud, which was then used to justify coming in and taking over Appalachian land.

Giardina’s novels explore how coal has affected Appalachian people. “I learned there are structural reasons for the problems we had and I wanted to tell that story.”

And this has been documented by scholars. The New York Times in 1890 noted that land was being taken over in the mountains by the coal industry and said, ‘that’s fine - these strange people can go live their squalid, unambitious lives somewhere else.’ That’s where the Appalachian stereotype came from and it’s been used down through the decades then to denigrate Appalachian people.

[AUDIO MONTAGE: Ringing bell; Announcer: “The Real McCoys”; FADES TO music of dueling banjos; “Deliverance” excerpt - Ned Beatty character: “Talk about genetic deficiencies. Isn’t that pitiful?”; “Beverly Hillbillies” excerpt - Ellie May: “Happy Possum Day!”, and theme music - “Y’all come back, y’hear?]

GIARDINA: And the only sin people committed was living on top of coal. I mean, the things that people put up with here in the coalfields wouldn’t be allowed anyplace else. Those counties are among the poorest, least educated counties in the United States of America - and in fact, in terms of health indicators, you’re talking more like a third world country.

YOUNG: If you had to sum up, how would you describe this relationship between coal and the place where you grew up?

GIARDINA: Well it’s sort of like the relationship between a drug addict and the drug. (Laughs). People know how harmful it is, they know it’s been bad, but after, you know, 120 years, 130 years of dependence, it’s hard to break the habit.

YOUNG: Giardina’s metaphor of addiction also comes up as Ken Wells describes Louisiana’s relationship with oil. In fact, as you listen to these two writers, Bayou Black and Black Wolf coal camp don’t seem so far apart. They’re linked by a common experience with the black minerals beneath them. And now they're linked by the timing of two tragedies. Giardina and Wells see little evidence that what happened to the Upper Big Branch Mine and Deepwater Horizon rig has resulted in much change.

Denise Giardina: “The things people put up with here in the coalfields wouldn’t be allowed anywhere else.”(Photo: Page Hamrick III)

WELLS: I think it genuinely shocked people and I think this, you know, changed a number of minds and attitudes. The real question - the real test, I think - is whether what can be done is affordable or whether it really is…you know, time is sort of running out and it’s too little too late.

GIARDINA: You know, what’s been done in the year since it occurred? Nothing. What’s Congress done? Nothing. You know, if 29 people had been killed in an upper class community, that would have gotten some attention. But whether it’s the Louisiana oil fields or coalfields in West Virginia, anyplace where you have a major extractive industry and that’s the dominant industry in a place, then you’re going to have the same situation. We’re the cannon fodder for the energy war. So that’s basically it.

YOUNG: Authors Denise Giardina and Ken Wells. There’s more about them and the places they’re from at our website, L-O-E dot org. For Living on Earth, I’m Jeff Young.



About Ken Wells

About Denise Giardina

More about wetlands loss in Louisiana

Hear part 1 of Jeff Young’s report from last week:

Look at photos of life in a coal camp in the 1950’s.


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