Coal protest: Was this really so radical?

July 31, 2012 by Ken Ward Jr.

The follow-up story in today’s paper about Saturday’s big anti-mountaintop removal protest at Hobet Mining was certainly discouraging. As the Gazette’s Travis Crum reported:

Matthew Louis-Rosenberg, a Sandstone resident and the group’s spokesman, alleges that State Police cooperated with coal supporters and miners who showed up to intimidate them. State Police spokesman Sgt. Michael Baylous said police support an individual’s right to protest and showed no preferential treatment in enforcing the law.

Among the troubling reports:

He alleges that one member, Dustin Steele, 21, of Matewan, was assaulted by law enforcement while in custody. Louis-Rosenberg was unsure which agency allegedly carried out the assault and hoped to learn more by speaking to Steele.

And:

An independent journalist also was arrested before Saturday’s protest.  Babette Hogan, 52, of San Francisco, told the Sunday Gazette-Mail she was taking photos from the passenger seat of a vehicle on Kanawha State Forest Drive when a trooper demanded her camera. When she refused, Hogan was arrested and charged with obstruction, she said.

Now. all of the facts aren’t in yet. And there is no question that being a police officer is made more difficult when citizens decide to break the law to make a political point — especially when in doing so they potentially put their safety and the safety of hard-working coal miners at risk.

But the West Virginia State Police have plenty of other things to worry about, and given the State Police’s formation a century ago to essentially help put down the unionization efforts in our state’s coalfields, it’s vitally important that the agency not only neutrally enforce the law, but also ensure that everyone walks away from these sorts of potential confrontations without getting hurt.

Perhaps Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin will call in his State Police leadership and investigate what happened here, to ensure the agency is truly out to protect everyone’s right and safety, and ensure that the media’s ability to gather the news is also protected, even from troopers who might not like having their picture taken.

It’s interesting that citizen activists picked the Hobet 45 Mine as the target of this particular protest action. Readers may recall that this was one permit approved by the allegedly anti-coal Obama administration Environmental Protection Agency and Army Corps of Engineers and not challenged in court by environmental groups (see here, here and here). Patriot Coal, the mine’s owner, is in bankruptcy. And while Patriot has complained that environmental restrictions — like it’s huge liability for treating selenium water pollution — are among the reasons for its financial troubles, Patriot also made it clear three years ago it could deal with tougher strip-mining regulations by mining more coal with underground methods.

Not for nothing, but folks in the environmental community who question why the United Mine Workers union, given the small number of unionized mines that do mountaintop removal, won’t just come out against the practice might want to read some of Patriot’s bankruptcy filings.  As we made clear in a recent Gazette story, the UMW has grave concerns about pensions and health-care for the many retirees whose benefits are supported by this dwindling number of active union miners:

Last year, Patriot produced 22 million tons of coal in Appalachia. The company operates large surface and underground mines in West Virginia. UMW officials say Patriot has 2,000 active union members in West Virginia and Kentucky, along with more than 10,000 retirees and an additional 10,000 dependents, most of them in West Virginia, Indiana, Illinois, Kentucky and Ohio.

In the company’s bankruptcy filings, chief Patriot financial officer Mark Schroeder noted that the company is responsible for benefits to more than three times the number of retirees as Patriot currently employs as active miners.

Most of those retirees came from Peabody Coal, from which Patriot was formed in a corporate spin-off transaction in 2007, or from Magnum Coal, an Arch Coal spin-off company that Patriot bought in 2008.

“Especially in an era of declining demand and price for coal, there is a mismatch between the cost of [Patriot’s] legacy obligations and [its] ongoing ability to generate revenue,” Schroeder said in a sworn statement. “[Patriot’s] return to long-term viability depends on [its] ability to achieve savings with respect to these liabilities.”

Patriot noted that while only 11 percent of the nation’s coal miners currently work under UMW contracts, 42 percent of Patriot’s miners work under such agreements.

UPDATED: To their credit, the folks at RAMPS included a couple of interesting items in their list of “key messages” for Saturday’s protest:

Patriot Coal, owner of the Hobet mine, the largest surface mine in West Virginia, is currently going through chapter 11 bankruptcy. The bankruptcy was filed through a shell corporation in New York, created only months ago. In bankruptcy court, union contracts and pensions could be on the chopping block.

For each working miner, Patriot has more than four retired miners who have put their bodies on the line with faith that they would be supported in old age. This is a promise Patriot must keep.

And one of the more interesting stories I’ve heard is that some of the UMW members who work at Patriot had some polite conversations with the environmental activists, that the troublemakers mentioned in news reports were pro-coal folks from somewhere else, and that in a few instances, union miners actually helped protesters avoid some problem situations. This is all reflected, at least in part, in our Gazette story this morning:

On Saturday, counterprotesters showed up near the mine site and the two parties began a healthy, civil dialogue about mountaintop removal coal mining, Louis-Rosenberg said. The two groups respected each other even though they disagreed, he said.

But later, he said, counterprotesters more hostile toward the RAMPS members showed up.

In the end, though, I keep coming back to a quick radio report I heard in which the protesters here were labeled “radical environmentalists.” At first, I was a little troubled by that — I mean, that’s quite a label, and it appeared clearly to be meant as a pejorative. But then, I remembered that the group organizing this protest event calls itself Radical Action for Mountain People’s Survival.  (Get it? RAMPS.)

So if they’re going to call themselves “Radical,” then they’ll have to accept being called Radical, right? Well, maybe not. Because in the name, the word “radical” is modifying “action.” So that’s some suggestion that what they’re saying is that they’re willing to take “radical action” to reach their goals, the radical action being trespassing on a strip-mining site.  As we’ve written before on Coal Tattoo , the use of peaceful civil disobedience is hardly a new tactic in this country or in Appalachia, and that history makes such actions anything but radical.

Of course, is it really so radical to be concerned about the serious pollution from mountaintop removal, or to be worried about the growing science indicating living near mountaintop removal puts one at greater risk of serious illnesses? Or for that matter, is it really so radical to want to have a good job that provides for your family, to be able to afford to send your kids to college, or to have health-care benefits when you retire?

4 Responses to “Coal protest: Was this really so radical?”

  1. Bo Webb says:

    Thank you Ken for providing food for thought on the subject of radical. I agree totally with your last paragraph and I would like to add the following question to ponder. What is more radical than taking part in an endeavor that blast entire mountains to toxic rock dust directly above peoples homes, then try to justify your actions because you have to put food on the table, and actually get angry and threaten the people living in your dust because they protest about what you are doing to them? Mountains are supposed to be forever. In a matter of a few years these strip miners take down God’s work that has been standing here in Appalachia for 320 million years. That is about as radical as I can imagine.

  2. Teresa Smith says:

    Yes Ken thank you for another skewed veiw of the anything going on in the mining industry..I think you would support the devil if he was a tree hugger

  3. Jeff Caldwell says:

    Mr. Ward,
    How more radical can you be by protesting something they really have no idea about? They are mostly outsiders who spend a few weeks running around here claiming to be here to save West Virginia, gather 15 minutes of fame by breaking state law and are gone again until next year’s 15 minutes. Really, if they are not mostly out of state, paid protestors going to college, how can they come down here and spend their summer “organizing”? Most of us have to maintain a job 12 months out of the year. They have no soloutions to bring to the table. They can’t answer the hard questions about their cause as we seen Saturday morning in a face to face in Kanawha State Forest. Really, they are just paid protestors doing someone else’s dirty work. Why do we hold these people in higher regard than West Virginia’s own tax paying citizens. They came in here and broke our laws, they should be penalized. They are not answering a higher calling, they are law breakers. Law breakers who are in a great debt to the West Virginia State Police and Boone County Sheriffs Department.

  4. Ken Ward Jr. says:

    Folks,

    Yeah … this was about the way I was afraid this was going to go … so, if readers are intent on just pointing the finger at the other guy, rather than learning from each other — we’ll just shut down the comments on this particular post.

    Ken.