Coal Tattoo

25-mile seniors march against MTR ends

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Gazette photo by Lawrence Pierce

Vicki Smith from The Associated Press has the story:

MAMMOTH, W.Va. (AP) — Only a handful of hecklers and angry motorists met a group of gray-haired environmental activists Monday as they finished a five-day, 25-mile march to protest mountaintop removal mining and arrived at a Massey Energy coal complex.

At a roadside press conference with a speaker on the hood of a car, they declared a small victory. If nothing else, they said, they spread awareness of a particularly destructive form of strip mining that they believe is destroying lives and communities across Appalachia.

“It showed a lot of people can do something, even senior citizens,” said Climate Ground Zero activist James McGuinness, 53, of Rock Creek. “A lot of people are over 80 that came out and did this. I think it’s incredible they walked the entire way and stood up for themselves and said, ‘This has got to end.”’

Fifteen senior citizens between 50 and 83 carried signs and banners, some leaning on canes and walking sticks, as they trudged along U.S. 60 with a half-dozen younger supporters toward the Mammoth Coal Co. mine.

“We are the keepers of the mountains,” their shirts read. “Love them or leave them. Just don’t destroy them.”

Though many passing motorists honked and waved in support, hostile messages became more frequent as they neared the mine. One coal truck driver screamed “Get a job!” as he passed, while another laid on the horn and made obscene gestures.

Still, McGuinness said, reaction throughout the journey was generally mild.

“I think that people were very respectful on both sides. We didn’t have a lot of hassle on the walk, and that’s the way it should be,” he said. “Everybody should be able to have the right to say what they believe in.”

Mountain Justice, Intergenerational Justice and Christians for the Mountains also supported the walk. All year long, environmentalists have been staging acts of civil disobedience aimed at stopping mountaintop removal, most targeting Virginia-based Massey.

Massey spokesman Jeff Gillenwater said targeting the Mammoth Coal operation was an interesting choice.

“Massey has not surface mined at Mammoth Coal,” he said in an e-mail. “I am sure there are other companies with surface mines along their route from Charleston to Mammoth that they chose not to protest.”

The marchers’ route did take them past several mountaintop jobs, including the Samples Mine, once the largest in the state. Owner Patriot Coal Co. announced in August it was shutting it down.

Mountaintop removal is a form of strip mining that involves blasting apart ridge tops to expose multiple seams of coal, dumping debris into valleys and flattening what had been peaks.

Massey and other coal companies say it’s the only way to reach some reserves, and they argue they reclaim the land so it can be developed for commercial or other uses.

Critics, however, say the land is ruined forever, and that both people and property suffer from the rock, dust and vibrations that accompany blasting.

The march was organized by 81-year-old Roland Micklem of Savannah, N.Y., and involved 28 people between ages 50 and 88, some of whom Micklem struggled to keep up with.

“We got some serious geezers here,” he said with a laugh. “These guys can truck.”

“We didn’t have any unpleasant surprises,” Micklem said. “We didn’t expect to have flowers strewn in our paths or anything like that. And we’ve got equal responses of negative and positive, I’d say.”

Micklem nodded at a handful of miners who watched from behind a chain link fence and said he wished he could talk with them about the need to transition from coal to cleaner sources of energy.

“I respect those guys,” he said. “They work hard. It’s dangerous.”

Most marchers were from out of state, including 62-year-old Sue Rosenberg of Saugerties, N.Y., who said she was inspired by the beauty that the activists are trying to protect. Her son has been in West Virginia for 18 months to fight mountaintop removal mining.

“He has said, and I share his belief, that if our Catskill Mountains were being blasted away, I would hope that my friends and neighbors would fight against that destruction,” she said. “And I would hope that people from West Virginia would come and help us.”