Big Coal Wins Latest Battle to Blast Historic Blair Mountain
By Matt Wasson
Is nothing sacred to coal companies in Appalachia?
In a jaw-dropping display of contempt and disregard for the communities and landscapes where they mine coal, three coal companies back in 2009 challenged the listing of West Virginia’s Blair Mountain on the National Register of Historic Places. The companies, including mining behemoths Alpha Natural Resources and Arch Coal, opposed the listing of Blair Mountain as a historic site because it could interfere with their plans to conduct mountaintop removal mining operations on the Spruce Fork Ridge battlefield, site of the “largest organized armed uprising in American labor history,” and the most important historic landmark in Central Appalachia.
The 1921 Battle of Blair Mountain was the culmination of a three-year struggle to unionize the coal mines of southern West Virginia and ended only when federal troops intervened on behalf of anti-union coal companies. There are few sites as significant as Blair Mountain that commemorate the brave men and women who laid down their lives for a movement that has brought Americans everything from the weekend to child labor laws to the largest and most prosperous middle class the world has ever seen.
The battlefield on Blair Mountain was listed as a national historic landmark in 2009, but under pressure from coal companies, the West Virginia Historic Preservation Officer reversed that decision several months later. Last Week, a federal judge threw out an appeal by a coalition of environmental and historic preservation organizations led by the Sierra Club that sought to restore the historic designation.
Given the national importance of the Blair Mountain battlefield, why did the judge side with the coal companies? It turns out, the ruling had nothing to do with whether or not Blair Mountain deserves designation as a historic landmark. Even though the “factual background” of the case raised big questions about the evidence used to justify the de-listing of Blair Mountain, the judge denied the plaintiffs legal standing to sue on the grounds that any injury (i.e., destruction of the battlefield) resulting from that decision was “purely conjectural.” Heck, who could predict whether Alpha Natural Resources and Arch Coal will actually decide to seek new permits or make use of their existing ones to blast Blair Mountain into smithereens in order to make a few million bucks for their shareholders?
While there’s little value in non-lawyers critiquing a judge’s decision, the important thing for the rest of us is to ensure that Blair Mountain does not get blasted off the map—a goal that could be accomplished by a number of other means. Given the assertion of the judge that Arch Coal and Alpha Natural Resources could choose not to use their permits to blast away the mountain, one solution might be to convince those companies to do the right thing. I would encourage anyone who thinks they have leverage to convince the CEOs of these companies to preserve Blair Mountain to give it a shot, and do it soon.
But for my part, I hold out little hope for that solution. While blasting apart Blair Mountain for a few million tons of coal might be the moral equivalent of developing the battlefield at Gettysburg into a massive toxic waste dump, this episode demonstrates once again that big coal companies value the moral high ground about as much as they value the high peaks, ridges and headwater valleys of Appalachia. Which is to say, their “values” appear to go no further than the numbers after the dollar signs in their quarterly profit-and-loss statements.
The other, more likely scenario would be for Americans to convince President Obama and his administration to definitively protect the Blair Mountain battlefield through one of a number of tools at their disposal. Those tools include using the Antiquities Act to designate Blair Mountain as a national monument, directing the National Park Service to revisit its questionable decision to de-list the the site as a historic landmark, designate the mountain as “Lands Unsuitable for Mining” under the Surface Mine Control and Reclamation Act… there are any number of routes the Administration might take to prevent the destruction of Blair Mountain if it feels compelled to do so.
That’s where you come in. The bottom line is that protecting this invaluable and irreplaceable landmark is well within the administration’s power, and the President is accountable to you. So take this opportunity to tell the President how important it is to you that Blair Mountain be protected and demand his agencies use every means at their disposal to ensure it is not blasted off the map.
Visit EcoWatch’s MOUNTAINTOP REMOVAL page for more related news on this topic.
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By Jacob L. Steenwyk and Antonis Rokas
From the mythical minotaur to the mule, creatures created from merging two or more distinct organisms – hybrids – have played defining roles in human history and culture. However, not all hybrids are as fantastic as the minotaur or as dependable as the mule; in fact, some of them cause human diseases.
When Looking Through a Microscope Isn’t Close Enough.<p>For the last few years, <a href="http://www.rokaslab.org/" target="_blank">our team at Vanderbilt University</a>, <a href="https://www.researchgate.net/lab/Gustavo-Goldman-Lab" target="_blank">Gustavo Goldman's team at São Paulo University in Brazil</a> and many other collaborators around the world have been collecting samples of fungi from patients infected with different species of <em>Aspergillus</em> molds. One of the species we are particularly interested in is <a href="https://doi.org/10.1006/rwgn.2001.0082" target="_blank"><em>Aspergillus nidulans</em>, a relatively common and generally harmless fungus</a>. Clinical laboratories typically identify the species of <em>Aspergillus</em> causing the infection by examining cultures of the fungi under the microscope. The problem with this approach is that very closely related species of <em>Aspergillus</em> tend to look very similar in their broad morphology or physical appearance when viewing them through a microscope.</p><p>Interested in examining the varying abilities of different <em>A. nidulans</em> strains to cause disease, we decided to analyze their total genetic content, or genomes. What we saw came as a total surprise. We had not collected <em>A. nidulans</em> but <em>Aspergillus latus</em>, a close relative of <em>A. nidulans</em> and, as we were to soon find out, <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cub.2020.04.071" target="_blank">a hybrid species that evolved through the fusion of the genomes</a> of two other <em>Aspergillus</em> species: <em>Aspergillus spinulosporus</em> and an unknown close relative of <em>Aspergillus quadrilineatus</em>. Thus, we realized not only that these patients harbored infections from an entirely different species than we thought they were, but also that this species was the first ever <em>Aspergillus</em> hybrid known to cause human infections.</p>
Several Different Fungal Hybrids Cause Human Disease.<p>Hybrid fungi that can cause infections in humans are well known to occur in several different lineages of single-celled fungi known as yeasts. Notable examples include multiple different species of <a href="https://doi.org/10.1002/yea.3242" target="_blank">yeast hybrids</a> that cause the human diseases <a href="https://rarediseases.info.nih.gov/diseases/6218/cryptococcosis" target="_blank">cryptococcosis</a> and <a href="https://www.cdc.gov/fungal/diseases/candidiasis/index.html" target="_blank">candidiasis</a>. Although pathogenic yeast hybrids are well known, our discovery that the <em>A. latus</em> pathogen is a hybrid is a first for molds that cause disease in humans.</p>
(Left) Candida yeasts live on parts of the human body. Imbalance of microbes on the body can allow these yeasts, some of which are hybrids, to grow and cause infection. (Right) Cryptococcus yeasts, including ones that are hybrids, can cause life-threatening infections in primarily immunocompromised people. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention<p><a href="https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.ppat.1008315" target="_blank">Why certain <em>Aspergillus</em> species are so deadly</a> while others are harmless remains unknown. This may in part be because <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.fbr.2007.02.007" target="_blank">combinations of traits, rather than individual traits</a>, underlie organisms' ability to cause disease. So why then are hybrids frequently associated with human disease? Hybrids inherit genetic material from both parents, which may result in new combinations of traits. This may make them more similar to one parent in some of their characteristics, reflect both parents in others or may differ from both in the rest. It is precisely this mix and match of traits that hybrids have inherited from their parental species that <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2010/09/14/science/14creatures.html" target="_blank">facilitates their evolutionary success</a>, including their ability to cause disease.</p>
The Evolutionary Origin of an Aspergillus Hybrid.<p>Multiple evolutionary paths can lead to the emergence of hybrids. One path is through mating, just as the horse and donkey mate to create a mule. Another path is through the merging or fusion of genetic material from cells of different species.</p><p>It is this second path that appears to have been taken by our fungus. <em>A. latus</em> appears to have two of almost everything compared to its parental species: twice the genome size, twice the total number of genes and so on. But unlike other hybrids, which are often sterile like the mule, we found that <em>A. latus</em> is capable of reproducing both asexually and sexually.</p><p>But how distinct were the parents of <em>A. latus</em>? By comparing the parts contributed by each parent in the <em>A. latus</em> genome, we estimate that its parents are approximately 93% genetically similar, which is about as related as we humans are with lemurs. In other words, <em>A. latus</em>, an agent of infectious disease, is the fungal equivalent of a human-lemur hybrid.</p>
How A. Latus Differs From its Parents.<p>Elucidating the identity of closely related fungal pathogens and how they differ from each other in infection-relevant characteristics is a key step toward reducing the burden of fungal disease. For example, we found that <em>A. latus</em> was three times more resistant than <em>A. nidulans</em>, the species it was originally identified as using microscopy-based methods, to one of the most common antifungal drugs, <a href="https://www.drugbank.ca/drugs/DB00520" target="_blank">caspofungin</a>. This result provides a clear example of the potential importance of accurate identification of the <em>Aspergillus</em> pathogen causing an infection.</p><p>We also examined how <em>A. latus</em> and <em>A. nidulans</em> interact with cells from our immune system. We found that immune cells were less efficient at combating <em>A. latus</em> compared to <em>A. nidulans</em>, suggesting the hybrid fungus may be trickier for our immune systems to identify and destroy.</p><p>In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, our quest to understand <em>Aspergillus</em> pathogens is becoming more urgent. Growing evidence suggests that <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/myc.13096" target="_blank">a fraction of COVID-19 patients are also infected with <em>Aspergillus</em>.</a> More worrying is that these <a href="https://doi.org/10.3201/eid2607.201603" target="_blank">secondary <em>Aspergillus</em> infections</a> can worsen the clinical outcomes for those infected with the novel coronavirus. That being said, we stress that little is known about <em>Aspergillus</em> infections in COVID-19 patients due to a lack of systematic testing, and none of the infections identified so far appear to have been caused by hybrids.</p><p>So, when it comes to hybrids, some are fantastic (the minotaur), some are helpful (the mule) and some are dangerous (<em>Aspergillus latus</em>). Understanding more about the biology of <em>Aspergillus latus</em> may help in our understanding of how microbial pathogens arise and how to best prevent and combat their infections.</p>
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