The thread that ties these interviews together and reaches beyond each person’s expertise is one of reflection on the Wyoming Valley’s Anthracite heritage. The interviews in this video are from the early days of the project when we were first learning about the the Huber: Robert Wolensky — sociology professor, Andrew Hart — architect, Bill Best — engineer and president of the Huber Breaker Preservation Society, Sue Hand — artist, John Kish — former Ashley barber and Phil Voystock — former miner. Their thoughts drove us deeper into exploration and the realization that this story, one that resonates not just in coal towns, is told best by creating a film. It’s not a proper trailer yet, but it’s the spark that started our crew on a journey to explore communities that have faced industrial decline and their hope for a better future.
Latest news is our project has evolved and we have a Title! We thank John Kish, former Ashley town barber, for the quote: “When I sit in my living room and look out the windows, I see Beyond The Breaker.” John was one of our first interviews back in summer of 2012 the title was hiding in plain sight.
The summer exited seamlessly into the fall and it’s been a busy few months collaborating, exploring and figuring else what else the breaker will tell us and guessing where this story will end. That process will be unfolding and a lot more information will follow, some on this site and the rest on film’s site – which now has a name! Until then, here are two takes on experiences while visiting the breaker.
From Erica’s piece:
“At the end of our exploration of the crumbling Huber Breaker, the filmmakers asked me to reflect on its future. I found myself saying that while I’m generally sentimental, my thinking about the preservation of these spaces is more pragmatic. I said something about how I feel they are best preserved in art and historiography, rather than in actuality…that it would be too costly to restore…they are public safety hazards…yadda yadda yadda.”
“The work people did in the Breaker could be dangerous; it could be soul-crushing, but it was also a source of pride, for families, for the community and for a culture. That one suffers while toiling in thankless labor that most people will ultimately never know about is, in itself, a kind of noble sacrifice. That it takes one’s life, or many years that could have been, or so much that could have been otherwise, only makes the giving more grave and worthy.”
Read the full posts below:
The Haunting, Illuminating Huber Breaker, by Joseph Robertson.
I’ve been sitting here for the past four hours trying to find the words to explain today’s proceedings that ended in the sale of the Huber Breaker. It would be easy to transcribe / summarize my 12 pages of notes – legal terminology and name misspellings not withstanding – but that only tells a part of the story.
Let me cut to the chase – rip off the bandage so we can figure out where to go from here. Judge John Thomas approved the sale of the Huber Breaker to Angelo Franco, owner of Paselo Logistics, LLC / Green Earth Recycling / Toppoint Recycling, all which appear to be housed at the same address in Philadelphia. The ruling came down just before 1 p.m. on Aug. 22 in U.S. Bankruptcy Court, Wilkes-Barre.
While not unexpected, the decision is nevertheless disheartening, especially since the proceedings seemed to drag out – not just in the four hours spent in the courtroom today, but over the last several years.
I’ll save the history lesson for another time. For now, I’ll do my best to recap today’s proceedings. A great big THANK YOU to Citizen’s Voice correspondent Paul Golias for helping me navigate some of the courtroom lingo during a 20-minute break. Here it goes…
Franco placed the only viable bid in the amount of $1.275 million for the 26 acres of land and assets, which include the breaker. The property, formerly owned by Al Roman of No. 1 Contracting, has been in bankruptcy court since March 2010, first as a chapter 11 filing, and now as chapter 7. The state-appointed trustee, attorney Michael Oleyar, and his lawyer found the bid acceptable after reviewing bank statements and other supporting materials.
Through his attorney, Roman objected to the bid, primarily on the grounds that the buyer’s estimate for environmental remediation was not sufficient. While this estimate was part of Franco’s bid submission, the file was deemed confidential. However, a cross examination of Oleyar by Roman’s attorney revealed that the buyer’s estimate is significantly less than the million dollar figure cited in the report attached to Roman’s objection. Oleyar also revealed that he does not have a dollar figure in writing from BATTA, the environmental firm hired by the buyer.
Interestingly, the judge himself expressed surprise that the EPA or DEP were not involved. He stated, “Once an environmental red flag is raised, state agencies will have the first shot to file an environmental claim against the property.” Hmmmmm…..
Another part of Oleyar’s cross examination introduced an additional buyer, one who had previously sent a check in the amount of $375,000 to the estate to “abandon assets” back to No. 1 Contracting. In return, this buyer, a Mr. Ciuccio, would receive first consideration on salvaging assets found on the property (i.e. the breaker). Roman’s attorney argued that the $375,000 is a higher bid because of the trustee’s “carve out agreement,” which means that, given the number of liens on the property, the estate would get $200,000 from the $1.275 million purchase price.
Does your head hurt yet?
The judge stated that, since he already approved the bid prior to the hearing, the only reason he can reject a sale is if he deems it to be unfair. So after four hours (which did include some other cases – the proceedings of which I found fascinating), the judge ruled the bid to be fair and viable, made in good faith with due diligence – thus overruling Roman’s objection and approving the sale as presented.
And just like that, it was over. The attorneys enclosed themselves in a side room to draft terms, and the people who poured their hearts and souls into preserving the breaker exited the courtroom visibly deflated.
I had the privilege of sitting next to Ray Clark, chairman of the Huber Breaker Preservation Society Board of Directors, during today’s proceedings. His passion for the breaker’s preservation fueled the phase I completion of the Miners’ Memorial Park earlier this year. The park, which sits on 3.1 acres of land owned by the Huber Breaker Preservation Society, is home to a stone monument and benches. But Ray has grand plans and a vision for that park – a vision that he hopes will still incorporate some fashion of preservation.
At the judge’s ruling, Ray’s reaction – shaken, yet stoic – left me feeling like someone punched me in the gut. It made it all too real, and, quite frankly, nearly impossible for me to put on the façade of a journalist getting a story. Over the past 15 months, Ray and dozens of others – Bill, Robert, Bob, Sue, and Phil among them – have become our friends, our Ashley family. Their fight is more than a story.
As Ray walked down the courtroom steps today, he turned to us and, after a pause, said, “I guess I’ll be in the park.” I’ve replayed that moment a hundred times in my head, and I truly think it’s one of those memories that will stay with me for the rest of my life.
Yet – before I get too sappy – the fight isn’t quite over. The sale takes 25 days to be finalized. People are already getting mobilized, and we’ll be there – continuing to tell the story, wherever it may lead us.
Color palettes are nothing new especially in the age of Photoshop and web design. Though I don’t know if gray, green and a some varied shades of tan/brown would be a designer’s first choice when working on a corporate website or annual report. But these colors are ones I’ve grown accustom to when I arm chair surf various web-based maps for new locations to photograph/film. These patches, ones that lack life, illustrate What’s Left Behind.
These swatches of gray cut a path in the surrounding fields, mountains and farmland and show how much waste still remains from the time the coal giants cut, ran and left behind scars across Pennsylvania. They clearly give perspective regarding the mission of organizations like EPCAMR and The Center for Coalfield Justice as they provide aid in land recovery from wasteful and irresponsible practices that continue today.
Our plan is to capture (on a micro budget) the extent of bleakness that’s found within or just outside of a long list of small towns in Northeastern PA. These plans also have taken us into the booming trend of aerial remote control photography and video (which comes with its own learning curve, mainly learning how to NOT crash). Exploring the colorless terrain will be this summer’s challenge especially since it’s a rookie flying/piloting effort on our end.
Over the past few months, people have been asking us about the Ashley’s Breaker project — many in concern that we’ve moved on. A key challenge with a project of this magnitude is certainly momentum. But, rest assured, Ashley’s Breaker has become such an integral part of our lives that it can’t — and won’t — be shelved.
The Ashley’s Breaker project is a labor of love. It’s something we think about every day, even when life and work take over. This winter, we’ve been consumed with our respective commitments (like earning a pay check), but the project has, indeed, progressed.
In December, we interviewed architect Andrew Hart, who did his undergrad thesis project on the Huber Breaker while he was a student at Temple University. Then, in January, we traveled to Scranton area to participate in some of the activities surrounding the anniversary of the Knox Mine Disaster, including a memorial service at the actual site along the Susquehanna River in Port Griffith (blog post coming soon).
Locally, we’ve met numerous times at what has become our favorite brainstorming spot — the Centre Square Diner — to map out the project’s story arc, a process that has led us to personify the breaker as a sick patient (yes, we went there; it’s fascinating).
And even now, as we’re making plans to travel to Ashley to record soundtrack music with cellist Sheila Hershey, I find myself anxiously awaiting summer, when we can, once again, immerse ourselves in PA’s coal culture and spend time with our new friends.
Ok, country music and me, well, we’re strangers. But a gem from Merle Travis (who DOESN”T know this song?) is a worthy choice to kick off 2013 and what we are exploring as the documentary progresses – the idea of The Company, and how they owned EVERYTHING.
The images are surreal – creeks so orange they appear to be flowing with diluted lava rather than water – like something you would expect to find on the movie set of a b-list Mars invasion flick. And the smell – it’s like a thousand rotten eggs were puréed and added to the rusty mix.
But this isn’t Hollywood’s cliché construction of life on Mars. Rather, it’s a scene that residents of the Wyoming Valley live with every day – a not-so-subtle reminder of the industry that continues to define their communities.
We learned about Abandoned Mine Drainage – or AMD – early into the Ashley’s Breaker project, when we first connected with Bob Hughes, executive director of the Eastern Pennsylvania Coalition for Abandoned Mine Reclamation (EPCAMR). Simply stated, AMD is polluted water that flows out of abandoned mines. And EPCAMR is working to reclaim abandoned mine lands and remediate streams and rivers impacted by AMD in Northeastern and North Center Pa.
It’s impressive – though seemingly overwhelming – work. But the work is also pretty awe-inspiring, especially looking at it through an artistic lens. So, what’s artistic about an orange, smelly creek? How about shoveling iron oxide sludge out of the water, baking it in a solar kiln, sifting it into fine powder, and selling it to artists.
The transformation of polluted mine sludge into art continues to mesmerize. And after watching a group of college students refine the art pigments during a service project with EPCAMR, we wanted in.
Bob graciously took us to some of the sites so that we could get up close and personal with AMD, and none was more spectacular than Solomon’s Creek in South Wilkes-Barre. There, we donned wading boots and ventured out into the sea of orange to stand beside one of three borehole-fountains as they gushed icy cold deep mine water. The experience was exhilarating, and, of course, prompted me to purchase packets of pigment when we returned to EPCAMR’s headquarters.
While I have yet to find time to experiment with the pigment myself, we did have the opportunity to interview Sue Hand, an artist who uses it regularly in her work (and the subject of a future post). In fact, Sue painted the very borehole that so intrigued and inspired us during our tour!
A favorite moment from an interview with Phil Voystock when he talks about his time working at the Huber Breaker.
At this point in our project, we have been through the breaker at least a dozen times and have interviewed at least as many people. Heck, we even rambled around inside another old breaker near Mahanoy City for comparison.
We thought we had seen it all — almost veterans of coal breaker exploration. Except, it’s pretty challenging to envision how, exactly, the breaker operated in its heyday from looking at three decades of ruin.
So when Huber Breaker Preservation Society President Bill Best — who has been an invaluable resource throughout our exploration and research — offered to give us his “tour” of the breaker, we jumped at the opportunity.
And, yes, there was some literal jumping involved, as well as climbing, straddling, crouching, balancing, and holding one’s breath as the floor moved beneath our feet. You see, Bill took us inside the breaker — not just inside the walls that serve as a shell for the machine, but inside the machine itself.
And, we realized how little we had previously understood.
The four-hour tour took us along the same path traveled daily by close to 7,000 tons of coal during the breaker’s peak operation. We started at an outdoor station where mine cars were unloaded, traveled up the main conveyor to the very top of breaker, and then back down again through a series of screens, grinders and other equipment that sized, sorted, and prepared the coal for retail.
We even saw the finishing station where anthracite was “transformed” into Blue Coal, evidenced by the paint still found on the support beams and surrounding areas.
As we toured the guts of the breaker, Bill painted a vivid picture of what occurred in each area: how the machines worked, what the workers did, and where the coal went next, along with the sights, sounds and smells most likely experienced by employees. His explanations made the breaker come alive for us in ways we previously didn’t think possible.
For the first time, we were able to see past the ruins and neglect to truly appreciate the industrial genius of the machine.