Coal Tattoo

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Protesters shut down for several hours a dragline similar to this one.

Fourteen protesters have been arrested — and allegations are flying — following an aborted effort by anti-mountaintop removal activists to scale a Massey Energy dragline and unfurl a huge banner that read, “Stop Mountaintop Removal.”

The banner apparently never got entirely unfurled, but the protest shut down the dragline at Massey’s Twilight Mine for several hours.

One Massey worker apparently was taken to the hospital as a precaution, after he reported concerns about blood pressure or heart problems following a run-in with the protesters. Rainforest Action Network, a group supporting the protesters and handling their media relations, said the protest effort is committed to non-violent actions. But four of the 14 have been charged with battery as a result of this incident.

We published an initial report on this earlier today,  and there’s additional news coverage from the Huntington Herald-Dispatch, the State Journal and from The Associated Press, for folks who want another take on the story. The activists are telling their side of the story on the Mountain Action site.

We’ve also had some back-and-forth on Coal Tattoo’s comments section on this, but since then I’ve been trying to report out the story. Now, I’ll try to tell you what I’ve learned.

The day started this way, according to a statement from the protesters:

At 5:00AM this morning 14 concerned citizens entered onto Massey Energy’s mountaintop removal mine site near Twilight WV. Four of them scaled a 150-foot dragline and unfurled a 15×150 foot banner that said, “Stop Mountaintop Removal Mining”.  The climbers were on the enormous dragline, a massive piece of equipment that removes house-sized chunks of blasted rock and earth to expose coal, and remained there for over three hours. Meanwhile nine others deployed a 20×40 foot banner on the ground at the site which read, “Stop Mountaintop Removal:  Clean Energy Now”.

Once police arrived at the scene, some Massey workers and sheriff’s deputies apparently scaled the dragline boom and escorted the protesters down. Protesters said that this effort by police and workers shook the boom’s cables, making the situation unsafe for everyone, so the protesters came down to end the incident.

But, according to police, all did not go so smoothly when the protesters tried to enter the dragline. The four protesters who scaled the dragline boom allegedly shoved Massey employees in the process of getting onto the machine.

“They roughed up some employees of Massey,” said Boone County Sheriff Rodney Miller.  “They pushed them out of the way. They shoved them to get where they wanted to go.”

One of the workers who was shoved apparently did go to the hospital afterward. But Miller said his health problems were “not altercation related.” Miller said the worker had some pre-existing medical conditions — blood pressure or heart problems — that were aggravated by the stress of the protest.

That version of the story — that the worker had health problems that were aggravated by this experience, and was not beat up by protesters or something like that — backs up the version of events offered by Nell Greenberg, a spokeswoman for the Rainforest Action Network.

But, backing up the  allegations by police is the version of the story provided (though indirectly) by a state mine safety inspector. The inspector happened to be on the site when the commotion occurred and reported back to his agency what happened. Still, the agency declined to identify the inspector or make him available for interviews, and part of his story also changed during the course of the day.

Initially, Jama Jarrett, spokeswoman for the West Virginia Office of Miners’ Health, Safety and Training, told me this in an e-mail message:

According to our office, which was just notified about 5-10 minutes ago, protestors “rushed” a dragline operator. He was sent to the hospital but I do not know the extent of his injuries.

We do not have a written report or additional details at this time. Our inspector just happened to be there during this commotion and reported what had happened.

Later, though, Jarrett told me over the phone:

The guy was not rushed … the worker was climbing up onto the dragline, and as he was stepping up onto it, one of the protesters pulled him off so he could get into the equipment.

I asked to at least get the inspector’s name, and Jarrett refused:

At this time, MHST is not involved in the investigation; therefore, we do not wish to bring our inspector into the situation unnecessarily.

Miller, the Boone County Sheriff, told me that all 14 protesters were charged with conspiracy and with criminal trespassing. Four of them who were involved in the alleged shoving incident (the four who scaled the dragline boom) were also charged with battery, fleeing police, and littering.

Initially, Greenberg, the RAN spokeswoman, insisted that the protesters were not involved in any violence. “Nobody on our team touched that Massey worker,” she said.

But later, as more information came out, Greenberg told me, “We haven’t been able to sort it out, because all of our people are in custody.” But, she added, “We are committed to non-violence and there is no intent to interact with or harm workers.”

This will all end up being sorted out in criminal court. (And it’s probably worth clarifying that the circuit court order Massey obtained blocking future protests at its operations is confined to Raleigh County — so today’s events apparently don’t violate it).

Folks on both sides offered me pretty strong reactions to today’s events …

One source in the coal industry attacked me for my earlier blog post, saying that, “…In lieu of fawning over [the protesters], you may wish to call them what they are—people who have engaged in what can only and indisputably be referred to as a reckless, dangerous and criminal act. “

On the other hand, a source in the environmental community said he was skeptical of the police reports of what happened, and described the way that environmental groups are planning these protests to avoid just this type of incident:

… Before any action, there are always non-violent trainings, and it is strongly stressed that even if confronted and even in the event that physical violence comes from a miner or officer, those taking part in the actions are not to respond with violence.  It is a pact that the whole movement against MTR has taken, and while I can’t say anything about what really happened since I wasn’t there, I am strongly inclined to believe that none of the activists taking part in today’s event did anything to injure the miner.

Massey Energy hasn’t responded to my inquiries for more information about the incident, but company spokesman Troy Andes did issue a “personal statement” on behalf of Massey President Don Blankenship:

“It is my understanding that all but one of the fourteen protesters who were arrested for scaling a dragline at Massey Energy’s Twilight Mine in Southern West Virginia are residents of states other than West Virginia; such as Maine, Oklahoma, Michigan and Florida.  As a native of Appalachia and a resident of West Virginia, I find it hypocritical that these folks come from out of the state to waste West Virginian’s tax dollars and endanger our state troopers and miners.

“When protesters perform dangerous acts such as scaling the boom of a piece of equipment to gain media attention, they not only put themselves at risk, but also put our miners and state troopers in danger.  Every West Virginian should be outraged that these people come from outside our state to shut down mines that are legally permitted to operate.  These media stunts take law enforcement personnel away from essential crime fighting and first response activities and puts all West Virginians at risk.

 

“It is clear that these folks are not concerned with the people, the environment or the economy of West Virginia.  Their efforts are purely about gaining hype and media attention for their out-of-state funders and patrons.  It is time for all West Virginians to stand up and say enough is enough to the protesters.  We know our state and our economy and we won’t be told what to do.”

More than three months ago, I wrote that, in dialing up its legal effort to halt these protests, Massey was giving the protesters exactly what they wanted:  A court battle that would get more media attention and give anti-mountaintop removal forces more of a podium to get their message out.

Regardless of exactly what happened in the early morning hours today at the Twilight Mine, even some folks within the environmental community are telling me that this incident is giving the coal industry what it wants: A way to paint the protests as dangerous acts by a bunch of out-of-state trouble makers who don’t care about West Virginia.

“This plays right into the industry’s hands,” one local citizen activist told me late today.