Mountaintop removal protest: Finding a path forward?

June 24, 2009 by Ken Ward Jr.

protestoverview.jpg

Hundreds of people on both sides of the mountaintop removal issue gather along W.Va. 3 Tuesday outside Massey Energy’s Goals Coal Co. processing and shipping plant.  Gazette photo by Chris Dorst.

SUNDIAL, W.Va. — It was quite a scene outside Massey Energy’s Goals Coal Co. operation Tuesday.

First, there were the protesters — a mix of West Virginia residents and those darned out-of-state agitators — playing some hillbilly music, doing some speechifying, and then marching down W.Va. 3 in the hopes of being carted off by State Police troopers, joining the ranks of those who have been arrested in the growing civil disobedience campaign against mountaintop removal.

minersprotest.jpg Then, there were the miners and their families. They revved up motorcycle engines, honked air horns and did one heck of a lot of yelling, all trying to drown out the protesters. Then, of course, they massed together, blocking the entrance to the mine site, thwarting any hopes the other side had of trespassing on Massey property.

And oh yeah, Daryl Hannah was there — and she smiled and waved as she got hauled off in a nice, blue-and-gold trooper cruiser. There was also some guy named James Hansen, who happens to be one of the world’s top climate scientists. He got arrested, too.

darylhannah.jpg

siloprotest.jpg

Both sides are pretty pleased with themselves and can in some ways reasonably claim the day as a victory.  My buddy Jeff Biggers, the unofficial blogger of the anti-mountaintop removal movement, described the day’s events as an “historic direct action” by citizens.  But judging from their chants of “Massey! Massey!” miners and families were pretty pleased with their successful defense of the company’s property line.

(More photos from the day’s events, courtesy of my friend Antrim Caskey, are here. We’ve got Gazette video here, and there’s more video here and video from West Virginia Public Broadcasting here).

So what next? Where does this leave us, or take us?

Protesters have promised a summer-long campaign of civil disobedience to both directly shut down mining operations and get more media coverage of the issue. But the miners’ defense at Marsh Fork, combined with the efforts of Massey miners to keep protesters off a dragline at a Boone County mine, suggests coal industry folks aren’t going to take this lying down.

Updated, 11 a.m. Wednesday: Given the emotions involved, State Police told me they thought both sides behaved pretty well. The worst incident that occurred was the arrest of one Massey supporter, who was charged with battery when she slapped anti-mountaintop removal protester Judy Bonds, according to State Police.

There’s a long history in Appalachia (and across our nation) of the use of peaceful civil disobedience to achieve all sorts of social goals — from the right to vote to the right to join a union.  But it’s looking like it could be a long few months for the good men and women of the West Virginia State Police.

You have to wonder if the general public doesn’t have enough empathy to go around here. Public opinion polls show pretty clearly that a majority of Americans and a majority of West Virginians oppose mountaintop removal. But what about the miners? Who can argue that they don’t have a right to stand up for their jobs and their families?

Some of the speakers at the anti-mountaintop removal rally threw around a little bit of talk about how they understand the jobs issue.

Daryl Hannah thanked the miners for their hard work powering America, but told them there wasn’t any need to “destroy our planet” to power the future. And Michael Brune, executive director of the Rainforest Action Network, one of the event’s organizers, said he understood “how terrifying it would be for my family to face losing its livelihood.”

But the talk of alternative energy and green jobs was all pretty optimistic, too optimistic, I’m afraid. It reminded me of Paul Krugman’s warning in The New York Times that he cringes when environmentalists make moving to a more climate-friendly energy system sound like all gain and no pain.

The coal industry in West Virginia and across Appalachia is not the economic force it once was. A new and growing body of research by academics not only points out the huge public health costs, but questions the long-held conventional wisdom that coal is good for the region’s economy. But in isolated pockets of our region, coal remains the big thing — the only thing, really.

The science also shows, though, that mountaintop removal is a very destructive practice. Forests are mowed down. Hilltops are blown up. Miles and miles of streams are buried. EPA reports and independent studies show there’s just no denying the damage.

Will mountaintop removal eventually be banned? Perhaps. But even if that happens, it probably won’t occur overnight. And in the meantime, where is the real plan for green jobs for the coalfields? Who among the leaders of environmental groups, labor and business are really even sitting down and trying to start such a plan?

Maybe West Virginia’s political leadership wants this to be fought out in the streets — or, rather, along narrow, two-lane roads that wind through Boone, Logan and Raleigh counties.  Given that the issue has been on the front burner for more than a decade, with little movement toward resolution,  it’s probably understandable that both sides have reached this point.

On the other hand, maybe Sen. Robert C. Byrd still has another trick up his sleeve. If not, like I said, it’s going to be a long few months for those troopers.

UPDATED, noon, Wednesday: West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin offered some reactions to the protest. Read about it on the Gazette’s Squawk Box blog.

30 Responses to “Mountaintop removal protest: Finding a path forward?”

  1. […] top mining supporters were also there. Ken Ward Jr., in a Coal Tattoo post, reports: …there were the miners and their families. They revved up motorcycle engines, […]

  2. watcher says:

    A wave of green meets a orange wall of impenetrable solidarity.

  3. Billybong says:

    Maybe when someone can offer real alternative I’ll think about giving up $75K a year, 100% medical and a retirment with medical. Those same mountains that they are trying to protect have been the very thing that has kept out anything other than mining industry in southern WV. There is a middle ground on this. But someone has to invest. The protests will only drive us deeper than what we are. I’ll not just sit by and let someone take away my way of living.

  4. Steven McCloud says:

    While maintaining their protest, why don’t the various organizations that are wanting to stop mountain top removal begin outlining the details of a plan for greening WV?

    Such a plan should both offer alternative energy sources of a practical nature, and also job replacement plans for the miners who lose their jobs.

    If all that is said is “we need to do this” and no details are offered as a discussion point no discussion will ever take place.

  5. Frank says:

    If coal is so good for West Virginia, then why do the counties with the most coal mining history have the least amounts of public water systems, of sanitary sewer systems and other infrastructures, the poorest performing schools, and are among the counties with the lowest standards of living in this state?

  6. […] people from taking advantage of West Virginia to make a name for themselves – but you can. Go here and leave a comment. Tell the paper, its readers and these has-beens that we don’t want them here […]

  7. Brandon says:

    Wow, looks like the miners are finally gearing up for the “go green” terrorism. Here are some facts I would like everyone to look at referring to everyone saying “we should be like california” and be greener. I would just like people to know the facts about West Virginia compared to California:
    -Unemployment Rate: California 11.5%
    http://www.edd.ca.gov/About_EDD/pdf/urate200906.pdf

    West Virginia 7.5%
    http://www.nemw.org/unemp.htm

    – Government Deficit/Budgetting
    California $42,000,000,000.00(billion) deficit
    http://www.usatoday.com/news/nation/2009-01-15-schwarzenegger-california-deficit_N.htm

    West Virginia No Predicted Deficit
    http://cofcc.org/?p=3611

    -Electricity Rate
    California 12.45 cents per kilowatt hour
    http://www.neo.ne.gov/statshtml/115.htm
    West Virginia 6.62 cents per kw hour
    http://www.neo.ne.gov/statshtml/115.htm
    Kentucky 6.63 cents per kw hour
    http://www.neo.ne.gov/statshtml/115.htm

    -Amount of electricity produced by coal
    California 1%

    West Virginia 99%

    -Jobless rate
    West Virginia 4.9%
    http://www.wowktv.com/story.cfm?func=viewstory&storyid=50965

    California 11.2%
    http://articles.latimes.com/2009/apr/18/business/fi-caljobs18

    So, the facts are there. Where coal is mined and burned, electricity is cheaper, unemployment rates are lower, and jobless rates are lower. These are facts. Yes, the movie stars and so called “important people” are coming to protest coal in West Virginia. I am so glad to see the real people of West Virginia stand up for themselves. Don Blankenship, although I don’t believe in the way he runs business is standing up also. I am happy to see someone finally go public. More coal leaders need to do this. This is one time I am glad to see the coverage of the protests, because you can see the miners and families far outnumber the protestors and will continue to do so. I hear there are several bus loads of people going to Washington tomorrow to meet with political leaders to discuss coal. I don’t see any coverage of that on here. No doubt this is a bias media, but I feel we are going to be hearing more of the miners. I kinda feel like the Iranian’s, being that the majority being the miners are speaking out and no one is listening or covering in this country. This paper always covers the minority voice. The miners far outnumber the so called “civil disobedient” protestors. Thanks for letting me speak my minority voice.

  8. Daniel says:

    Frank, the reason those counties are this way is the same reason there’s no other industry around. Too many mountains to deal with. We all don’t live in the city where everything is relatively flat and running a pipeline is a straight shot from here to there. To touch on the schools subject, how would you recruit new better teachers to live out in the woods in the middle of nowhere where there isn’t room for regular business around?

    Offer suggestions to fix the problem instead of just pointing out negatives.

  9. Michael says:

    Frank is on to the right track, and so is Billybong.

    1) We can’t ignore the awful state of affairs in which coal counties find themselves, in terms of economy, education, infrastructure, health.

    2) We can’t ignore the fact that many miners cannot just go farm and actually rely on a mining income in order to keep living in a place that they love.

    I am against mountaintop removal for a number of reasons. However, I think it will be difficult to find a consensus among the anti-MTR crowd as time passes. The video posted up last night shows Dr. Hansen vilifying coal for its unsavory carbon footprint and generally how “dirty” it is. However, I sense that many in-state MTR opponents merely desire a switch from MTR mining to deep mining, on account of the increase in jobs. I can’t think of anything Dr. Hansen would want LESS than more U.S. citizens’ being employed by the coal industry. I just wonder how this is going to play out.

    Also, does the typical Massey employee discriminate between political affronts to MTR and affronts to coal (mining) in general? This does not seem to be the case to me, but I’m a bit north of Raleigh County and haven’t been able to check out any of the protests in person.

  10. The mountains are not what’s keeping Businesses from locating in southern WV.

    People in general love the mountains.

    The coal industry and their control of the local political structure is.

    The coal and related industries are more powerful than the state government.

    (and in many cases actually control who is elected)

    The only way any relief for those suffering abuse from these corporate bullies is from above. – the federal gvt.

    The companies have too much control of state gvt. no matter what the people want.

    Also Ken I am glad you opened the comments back up. Thanks.

  11. Michael says:

    Brandon —

    1) What happens when (not if) the coal runs out?

    2) Do you mind running the numbers within West Virginia or Kentucky counties — or running West Virginia’s numbers against states that are similar? Also, are energy prices the kind of stuff that we value and base quality of life on? I think this is only a small piece of the pie.

  12. Mary says:

    The arrests are largely symbolic and not meant to actually shut a mine down, so I’m not sure how you can say that keeping the protesters from being arrested for trespassing, and instead making them being arrested for obstructing traffic, is a ‘victory’ for supporters of mountain removal mining.

    The arrests are meant to generate publicity, raise awareness, and rally support – something a controversial protest and the assault of a protester by a MTR mining supporter achieve nicely.

    As of this comment, there have been at least 476 news articles published about the protest, according to Google News. That’s more than the current coverage of the climate bill about to be voted on in the House (395 articles).

    Had Daryl Hannah and Jim Hansen not been there yesterday, the protest would have gotten hardly a blip. Thanks guys!

  13. Mary says:

    I’d also like to point out to those who keep saying that those who oppose MTR offer no meaningful alternatives:

    An economic study of the Coal River Mountain, commissioned by supporters of a wind energy project, found that a wind project generates $1.7 million more in taxes for the county than the proposed MTR mine, creates 1700 *permanent* jobs, and produces energy, to boot.

    http://www.coalriverwind.org/

    The fact that you don’t know about it, just highlights the importance of publicity generating protests like the one at Marsh Fork yesterday.

  14. Daniel says:

    shermangeneral

    You may love the mountains, and people that don’t live here to see them may say they love them. If they love the mountains here so much, why don’t they live here, or at least have a home here? I’m sure if they have the money to fly here to protest, they can buy a place here. Mountains make everything more difficult to build.

    What politicians do the coal companies control? Certainly not Rockefeller.

    Michael

    When coal runs out, and nobody say it will last forever, new technology will come to replace it. Necessity is the mother of invention. Fortunately for everyone who works in the coal industry, we’ll never run out in our lifetime :).

    The environmentalists are playing with fire when the workers get involved. Nothing angers a man worse then trying to take the way he provides for his family. Maybe they should think about that. :)

  15. roselle says:

    There would be plenty of good paying jobs if real reclamation of the abandoned mine sites and sludge impoundments were undertaken. Money for this should be made available to ease the transition from coal to alternatives, and could be generated by a carbon tax that would both provide new sources of funding and reduce the overall demand for coal and other fossil fuels. This would provide good paying jobs using much of the same equipment. The entire country has benefited from the extraction of West Virginia coal, and a debt is owed for the damage to both the people and the land. If we can spend billions to help rebuild the economies of Iraq and Afghanistan, we can and should do this here.

    To accomplish this, however, the coal industry will have to admit that there is a climate crisis, that it is caused by CO2 loading in the atmosphere, and that coal is chiefly responsible for this. Until that happens, nothing can be resolved.

  16. Matt Wasson says:

    Nobody is saying that the economic transition to clean and renewable energy is going to be all gain and no pain – as with every major economic transition, there is going to be plenty of both to go around. There are going to be winners and losers.

    But the groups fighting mountaintop removal are giving everything we’ve got to make sure that most of the communities in Central Appalachian coalfields are economic winners – and our efforts are why Central Appalachia is the top priority for the Obama Administration’s “green jobs czar,” Van Jones.

    I won’t pretend we have anywhere near the power and influence to bring about a seamless economic transition in the coalfields, but working together, advocacy groups, community leaders and elected officials can help create an environment where everyone in Central Appalachia has the opportunity to benefit from the inevitable transition to a new energy future.

    Burying our heads in the sand and pretending that the economically recoverable coal is not rapidly running out is a sure-fire way to make Central Appalachia come out a loser – though it might make a few more billions for coal companies in the mean time.

  17. Ken Ward Jr. says:

    Matt,

    With all due respect, I think that’s exactly what several speakers said yesterday, and it certainly is the impression that most anti-mountaintop removal folks give — “green jobs” has become as much of a mantra to the environmental movement as “protecting coal jobs” has become to miners and the industry.

    A few speakers tried to talk about the issue yesterday, as I mentioned in my post — but then there was the one speaker who decided to make insulting remarks to the workers, telling them that they aren’t really “miners” and that kind of stuff. That was unfortunate for your side, I thought.

    It’s also very easy to talk about “winners and losers” when that’s an abstract idea. When it’s your family or your community that might be a loser, it’s a little more important and real.

    And if the Obama administration and Van Jones have made Central Appalachia’s economy a top priority, they’ve done a pretty good job of hiding that fact …

    As I mentioned in this previous blog post, http://blogs.wvgazette.com/coaltattoo/2009/06/12/green-jobs-for-the-coalfields-did-obama-bury-the-lead/, the Obama administration’s public comments in this regard have been all of one sentence buried in a news release:

    “Federal agencies will work in coordination with appropriate regional, state and local entities to help diversify and strengthen the Appalachian regional economy and promote the health and welfare of Appalachian communities.”

    Roselle makes a great point about cleaning up abandoned coal mines … and that’s something Coal Tattoo has blogged about over and over and over. But I’ve seen little support for increased AML funding — let alone Obama’s now-abandoned plan to divert Wyoming’s AML money to Appalachia — from national or even regional environmental groups, let alone political leaders in the region.

    Roselle has it right:

    “The entire country has benefited from the extraction of West Virginia coal, and a debt is owed for the damage to both the people and the land. If we can spend billions to help rebuild the economies of Iraq and Afghanistan, we can and should do this here.”

    But there’s been little evidence that Obama (or the environmental community) have a plan for doing this.

    Ken.

  18. […] Here are several pictures from the protests. More photos and the Daryl Hannah arrested video and West Virginia mine protest video below. […]

  19. Thomas Rodd says:

    I want to praise all of the above posters for keeping a civil tone, and making reasoned statements.

    I especially appreciate it whenever any poster expresses that they are to any degree conflicted, confused, ignorant, or uncertain, and that they respect and want to hear what others think and feel —

    — because that’s the way I feel and think about these issues a lot of the time, and because my experience is that such expressions are the beginning of wisdom.

  20. Mary says:

    “When it’s your family or your community that might be a loser, it’s a little more important and real.”

    Coal has already turned our families and our communities into losers. As both the Coal River Mountain economic study and the recently released WVU study point out, coal costs us much, much more in health and human life ($42 billion) than the economic benefits it provides ($8 billion).

    But I guess as long as it provides a paycheck today and kills us tomorrow, it’s all good.

  21. Ken Ward Jr. says:

    Mary,

    You made my point for me — the WVU study IS just numbers. Great numbers and a great study (a study that, I believe, the Gazette and Coal Tattoo are the only media outlets to have covered). But still numbers.

    Both sides see things more clearly when it’s their family involved, whether it’s someone who lives in fear of the slurry impoundment up the hollow, someone who is worried about how their kids will go to college when their mine shuts down, or someone who lost a loved one in a mining accident.

    I certainly said it’s all good, and any reader of Coal Tattoo knows that’s not what I’ve written.

    I think my old friend Tom Rodd is onto something … once someone admits to themselves they don’t have all the answers, and the other side might have some too, that’s the beginning of wisdom.

    Ken.

  22. Jericho Johnson says:

    Why no mention of Ken Hechler? He seems like a prominent person to mention. Daily Mail even got a picture of him being arrested.

  23. Ken Ward Jr. says:

    Jericho,

    I’m sorry to say that I failed to mention Congressman Hechler in our first edition story, and that’s the version that ended up on our Web site. At the suggestion of one of our alert copy editors, Joe Saunders, a mention of Hechler was added to our final edition and I’ve now added it to the Web version of the story:
    http://www.wvgazette.com/News/200906230449

    Also, my Coal Tattoo post from last night did include a link to some video of Hechler. Here’s that link again:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=us7jI95R_vc

    Ken.

  24. offroute says:

    Great post! The other day, a friend of mine asked what sounded like a simple question: ‘What would you do about mountaintop removal if you were king for a day?’ Well, I didn’t have an answer handy, but i think Roselle is on the right track.

    The answer probably is not a flat out ban. The controversy over MTR is about the scale of these operations, i think. That’s hard to legislate away. Hell, i don’t even think there’s a legal definition for mountain top removal (might be wrong about that, but the CFRs and CSRs don’t make it easy to find out.)

    Massey, etal do this stuff because it’s profitable. So, the goal should probably be government policies that make this kind of mining NOT profitable. That’s doubly hard ’cause the coal here is such high quality. So it’s really quite the conundrum until/unless coal is phased out of the energy mix. And that will require tectonic national policy changes the likes of which we haven’t seen since the New Deal.

  25. Jason says:

    In comments from both sides here, I think there’s a real contrast evident in what is valued by each side. While it’s not exclusive, there’s a strong slant towards the individual/monetary by coal allies, and a the community/environment by MTR opponents.

    The struggle will be getting coal industry employees and miners to value the health and safety of others, if not the natural environment as well, at the same level with which they value their family & monetary interests. I’m not optimistic that a change in thinking this fundamental can ever occur. As we all know, MTR puts money in their pockets right now, regardless of the many consequences looming down the road.

  26. Scott 14 says:

    With all the talk of green jobs coming to WV, where are they? If the “green economy” is so profitable where are the jobs. Where are the companys and private investment. Why are no wind companys like Shell Wind not offering Massey Energy millions for the coal river moutain operations. Could the answer be that green energy is not and can not be profitable without goverment help. The goverment is not the anwser to a diversified economy. Private investment and a court and tax system that is not hostile to business seems to me to be the anwser.

  27. […] See original here: Blogs @ The Charleston Gazette – » Mountaintop removal protest … […]

  28. JW says:

    There is a an impression of Surface Mining that Mountain Top Removal mines “flatten” mountain tops and leave a biological desert. If I am not mistaken the vast majority of current MTR jobs are AOC or approximate original contour jobs. Which means overburden is removed, all the coal is mined and the overburden is put back in place at the approximate original contour that existed on the site prior to mining. During the process access roads are usually left in place. Many so called “ephemeral” streams get filled in to restore contours. On closer examination it would be found that many of the so-called ephemeral streams were not originally part of the landscape but resulted from very destructive logging practices when most of the original forests were clear cut. In essence most of the ephemeral streams of such concern are in fact the product of erosion resulting from that clear cutting. Deep mining coal, contour mining and highwall miners can leave up to 40% of the coal unmined. That is a wate of a natural resource. Reclaimed mining propertes are not the biological desert portrayed by some. In close to thirty years of first hand observation, most sites team with wildlife. Eastern Ky has one of the biggest Elk herds east of the Mississippi. This was made possible by the abundance of reclaimed strip mines. The elk could not survive on a biological desert. The density of bears and other wildlife in the coal fields dispel the desert image. As far as wind mills on Coal Mountain, it would make sense to mine the coal; then, put the mountain back in a configuration that would allow the construction of and access to windmills. Proper post-mining layout might make such a project economically viable. However, I hope the proponents of windmills have visited the Thomas and Davis WV area and the site of the Fairfax Stone. They can witness first hand the visual impact of windmills on the scenery. As a nation there seems to be a headlong rush to develop wind power as if it is free and for the taking. We may not know yet the full consequences of the rush to develop wind power. They probably won’t be fully known until development is fully under way. For every action there is a reaction. There will be negative consequences with wind power. We just don’t fully understand what they are yet!

  29. Frank says:

    Daniel, try telling the folks of mountainous Greenbriar County or Hardy County or Morgan County that their county has too many mountains for a diversified economy, for better schools or other better infrastrucrture. It is not an accident of topography that the land of southwestern West Virginia and eastern Kentucky is owned mostly by coal and other land holding companies whose economic goals are in direct conflict with broader human economic and other social diverification.

    Shermangeneral is right about coal controlling many coal county courthouses and the West Virginia statehouse. Election campaign finance reports tell us how West Virginia politicians are bought and sold by and for the coal industry.

  30. […] criminal charges against West Virginia political legend Ken Hechler — stemming from the big June 23 anti-mountaintop removal protest down at Marsh Fork Elementary School — have been […]

Leave a Reply