Coal Tattoo

Mountaintop removal protesters take to the trees

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Opponents of mountaintop removal coal mining today took to the trees near a Massey Energy operation in Raleigh County, W.Va., in their continuing protest campaign to halt the controversial mining practice.

Climate Ground Zero and Mountain Justice announced the action and distributed photos, including the one above. According to the groups:

Two people are occupying two treetops at the edge of Massey Energy’s Edwight mountaintop removal site above Pettry Bottom and Peachtree in Raleigh County, West Virginia. At 6:30 a.m., concerned citizens unrolled two banners reading “Stop Mountain Top Removal” and “DEP – Don’t Expect Protection” from their treetop platforms. They are perched 80 feet above the ground, within 30 feet of the mine, and within the 300 feet of blasting. Blasting is prohibited when people are within such proximity.

Nick Stocks, 25, and Laura Steepleton, 24, of Rock Creek, West Virginia, are in the trees. Kim Ellis, of New Orleans, Louisiana and Zoe Beavers, of Hurricane, West Virginia are on the ground below. All protesters are associated with Climate Ground Zero and Mountain Justice.

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As my buddy Paul Nyden reports in this morning’s Gazette, 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 dropped.

Hechler told Paul:

The videotape showed very clearly that I neither impeded traffic nor in any way obstructed justice. The State Police arrested me very politely and motioned for me to get into the front seat of the police cruiser. There was no pressure or contact during my arrest.

The 94-year-old former congressman was prepared to fight the charges,  and he wrote a Gazette commentary last month looking back on his transformation into what he called a “hell-raiser” over coal industry abuses.

Here’s some video of Hechler’s involvement in the big protest:

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This just in from the folks at United Mountain Defense in Tennessee:

In the wake of the TVA coal ash disaster in Kingston, Tennessee, which released over 1 billion gallons of toxic coal waste into the Clinch and Emory Rivers, citizens group United Mountain Defense (UMD) has offered an official invitation to Mr. [Jeremy] Starks to come to Kingston to see the disaster with his own eyes.
 

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Mountaintop removal protester Mike Roselle has an interesting proposal for responding to the coal industry’s efforts to boycott trips to Tennessee to protect Sen. Lamar Alexander’s sponsorship of a bill to stop mountaintop removal.

Writing for the great journal Counterpunch, Roselle responds to the campaign by the Sierra Club to encourage tourism to the state to show support for the legislation. Roselle’s idea?

How about visiting the coal fields of West Virginia as an eco tourist? What better way to show your support for the mountains is there then to visit them before they are blown up? This would be better than a boycott of West Virginia tourism, and after all, it’s not the tourists who are blowing up the mountains.

… I’m serious about this. Once you see mountain top removal up close and personal I’ll guarantee you that you’ll never see West Virginia, electricity or coal in the same way again. I’d even wager that you will do what most people do when confronting this horror for the first time: you shake your fist at those machines that are destroying the future of West Virginia, and any hope of addressing the climate change crisis. Coal state senators are dooming any chance of addressing climate change because the coal industry will never let a bill pass that does not satisfy their insatiable appetite for more coal and bigger profits.

Friends of Coal alert: Go tell Obama

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Just in last evening from the fine folks at the Friends of Coal:

Greetings all:
 
foc_logo_download.jpgTomorrow, Wednesday, July 29th, President Obama will be in Bristol, VA to meet with Kroger employees in a closed-door meeting around 4:p.m. to discuss health care.  We need as much support for the coal industry as possible.
 
We, members of the coal industry, MUST have hundreds of people on Kroger’s parking lot (31 Midway Street, Bristol, VA) or nearby to show the President our concerns and fears regarding Cap & Trade Legislation and the divesting impact it will have on the coal industry, its service companies, local counties and communities, and our citizens.

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About that cap-and-trade rally …

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I wanted to make sure that Coal Tattoo readers saw the Gazette’s coverage of Saturday’s rally against the cap-and-trade bill down at the Capitol.

My buddy Paul Nyden covered it, and the Gazette’s Kenny Kemp took photographs (including the one above). They’re all available here. The quote of the day probably came from retired WVU football coach Don Nehlen:

I am a friend of coal. I am not an expert on the environment. I am not an expert on global warming. But I am a friend of coal …  This bill is bad for West Virginia. It is bad for the coal industry. And it is bad for America.

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Coal vs. Dollywood

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Well, the good folks at The Associated Press have discovered the story brought to us first 10 days ago by Jessica Lilly over at West Virginia Public Broadcasting … here’s the lead:

Angry Appalachian coal miners are refusing to vacation in Tennessee because they say one of that state’s political leaders wants to eliminate needed jobs by banning mountaintop removal.

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Massey gets injunction against protesters

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The folks from Climate Ground Zero reported on their Web site yesterday that a Boone County judge had granted an order sought by Massey Energy to prohibit further protests by 14 anti-mountaintop removal activists who took part in last month’s takeover of a dragline at the company’s Twilight Mine.

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The latest YouTube video to emerge from West Virginia’s coalfields isn’t worthy of being embedded in Coal Tattoo. Click here to watch it if you must. But beware it’s full of F-bombs and other language not appropriate for a family blog.

Apparently, a group of folks dressed as coal miners showed up Saturday afternoon on Kayford Mountain,  where mountaintop removal opponent Larry Gibson was hosting his annual 4th of July festival. They appeared to have had a little too much to drink, and decided to mark Independence Day by celebrating their freedom to look like idiots — cursing, threatening and flipping off the environmentalists who were trying to enjoy a little fellowship.

Luckily, it looks like it didn’t get any worse. I haven’t heard of any physical violence or of anyone getting hurt.  I put a call in to the West Virginia State Police, who apparently responded to a complaint about the incident. I haven’t heard back from the State Police, but I’m told things were pretty much over by the time they got there, and no arrests were made.

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Bloggers to Obama: Visit mountaintop removal site

Over the weekend, a movement began among bloggers to urge President Obama to visit a mountaintop removal site, and talk with residents who live nearby…

As best I can tell, it started on Daily Kos,  with a post that started out:

You don’t have to travel to the far side of the world to see protesters being arrested as they attempt to save their families, communities, and future. You don’t have to travel to the far side of the world to find a place where the powerful oppress the poor, and where corruption breeds poverty. You don’t have to travel to the far side of the world to find tragedy being written in people’s lives and in the land. You can get in your car and drive there in less than six hours.

Jeff Biggers has added his own take on The Huffington Post, and West Virginia Blue has joined in the effort with a typically thoughtful post.

Bloggers are certainly doing much to spread the word about important issues like mountaintop removal. And watching many of them essentially taking over the work that those of us in the mainstream media were neglecting, is one of the reasons I started Coal Tattoo back in February.

But frankly, some of the blog coverage of this — like the environmental group-speak on climate change and “green jobs” — greatly oversimplifies the issues involved and the challenges faced.

For example, at Daily Kos, “devilstower” writes:

Some may find it audacious, if not outrageous, to compare what is happening in West Virginia to what is going on in places where people are dying in the streets. It’s true that the recent arrests have been, with a few exceptions, as close to peaceful as such events can be. But while there have been no tragic images recorded on camera phones in West Virginia this past week, people have died because of mountaintop removal. Miners have died, but we take that as a matter of course. We accept that flipping on the light switch comes at the price of blood. However, mountaintop removal mining has killed far more than miners. Dozens of people in surrounding communities have died when walls of black sludge plunged down on their homes. Whole families have died, Mr. President, whole towns… so that other Americans can buy their electricity some fraction of a cent more cheaply. And that’s not even considering the lives cut short from contaminated water and fouled air.

OK … what are we talking about here? Buffalo Creek? Aberfan? Both were long before mountaintop removal really started. Maybe Jeremy Davidson, the three-year-old boy killed by a runaway rock from a strip-mine site five years ago in southwestern Virginia? That wasn’t a whole family, and it wasn’t a slurry impoundment.

There are absolutely adverse health costsand deaths — associated with coal mining. But I don’t understand that need the environmental community and its bloggers have to exaggerate. It seems to me that the science about coal’s damage sounds bad enough, without inflating it.

I enjoy Jeff Biggers’ work, and I thank him very much for frequently citing Coal Tattoo, and taking my work to a broader audience through The Huffington Post. And I am frequently pleased to see Jeff dig into our region’s history in explaining the context for today’s debates. The media doesn’t do enough of that.

But take this weekend’s post urging Obama to visit the region and take a closer look at mountaintop removal … he wrote:

Mountaintop Removal Operators Are NOT Coal Miners, But Mostly Heavy Equipment Operators (Bulldozer and Truck Drivers) Who Could Easily Be Used on Infrastructure Projects, Waterworks, Highway Projects, Genuine Reclamation and Reforestation Projects, and a Lot of Green Jobs Initiatives and Manufacturing Plants (Building Wind Turbines, Solar Panels).

In fact, every mountaintop removal operator job has taken away 2-3 jobs from underground coal miners.

First of all, I know guys who work on mountaintop removal mines. And it is skilled work. And they do mine coal. I don’t understand the need the environmental community has to ridicule them by saying they’re not coal miners. Where does that get anybody?

Second, I don’t know that anyone can really prove that every mountaintop removal operator job has taken away 2-3 jobs from underground miners. The industry is too complex to boil it down to that comparison — not all coal that is mined via large, multiple-seam strip mines would be mined by underground methods. Are surface mines very efficient? Yes. In some cases more efficient that underground mining? Of course. But it’s a bit of a jump from there to what Jeff writes.

Finally, sure, guys who run heavy equipment on a strip mine could also run heavy equipment cleaning up abandoned mines or doing a variety of other projects. In fact, strip-mining got its start when highway contractors were looking for easy ways to make some extra money with their equipment and workforce.

But this idea that a transition for communities in Appalachia that rely on mountaintop removal to “green energy” is going to be easy is wrong and not helpful to the debate.  Don’t believe me? Read Paul Krugman, “An affordable salvation” —

Yes, limiting emissions would have its costs. As a card-carrying economist, I cringe when “green economy” enthusiasts insist that protecting the environment would be all gain, no pain.

If West Virginia and Appalachia are going to get aboard this green-energy revolution President Obama and the environmental community keep talking about, it’s going to be hard work. Somebody’s got to start coming up with a concrete and broad-reaching plan.

It doesn’t help do that when our political leaders just so no to change and yes to the same old stuff. But I’m not sure it helps for the other side to overstate their case or make change sound easier than it’s likely to be.

A better approach is the one taken today by Clem Guttata at West Virginia Blue, in a post about Virginia’s efforts at economic diversification. Citing a story by Debra McCown in the Bristol Herald-Courier, Guttato outlines some key points:

1. Diversification provides news jobs as coal mining jobs inevitable disappear.

2. Political independence is necessary for good longer-term planning.

3. Coal mining and other industry can co-exist when resources are specifically allocated and the right structure put in place to make it happen.

But also some key problems, quoting from McCown’s story, he explains:

Kathy Selvage, vice-president of Southern Appalachian Mountain Stewards, a nonprofit group based in Big Stone Gap, Va., said VCEDA’s work is not truly diversifying the region’s economy; instead, she argues, it is building up the region’s dependence on coal.

“Severance money should not be used to promote coal, and that’s what they’re doing with building a power plant; they’re not promoting diversification,” Selvage said. “When you’re creating a bigger demand for coal, that’s not diversifying your economy.”

Steve Fisher, a retired professor who lives in Emory, Va., and has taught and written extensively about the region, said VCEDA should be encouraging a model different from traditional economic development. He said severance tax revenue should be used to address the overall needs of the community and develop a locally based, sustainable economy.

The $1.8 billion coal-fired power plant under construction in Wise County is touted as a crowning achievement of VCEDA’s work.

And then comments:

Okay, that’s definitely a problem. We don’t need any more coal-fired power plants in this area. That’s not diversification I can believe in. The rest of their projects sound a lot better: call centers, R&D centers, and other office space.

More, quoting again from McCown’s story:

“The cap and trade and climate change issue is vindication for why this group is here,” said Tommy Hudson, president of the Virginia Coal Association and vice-chairman of VCEDA’s executive advisory board.

“We all knew coal would be here for a finite time and we’d have to have the industries to replace it,” Hudson said. “Coal might be here for less time because of climate change, and that makes our work and the work of VCEDA more important.”

OK, I don’t know about the call center part … I can hear coal miners and their families cringing at the thought — those jobs aren’t going to replace $65,000-year-year positions mining coal. They’re just not.

But West Virginia Blue is still hitting at the heart of the problem, and doing so without calling names or making it all sound too easy. That’s the kind of discussion West Virginia and other Appalachian coalfield communities need.

As Jeff Biggers likes to say, onward …

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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.

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About that big debate …

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NASA climate scientist James Hansen was among those arrested Tuesday protesting mountaintop removal outside a Massey Energy operation in Raleigh County, W.Va. Gazette photo by Christ Dorst.

We’ve had more questions from readers about whether the debate between climate scientist James Hansen and Massey Energy President Don Blankenship is on or off … I wish I could say for sure.

The best information available right now probably comes from my friend Scott Finn over at West Virginia Public Broadcasting, who was working pretty hard to try to pull this one off. According to this post from the public broadcasting Web site, it doesn’t look good:

Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship and NASA climatologist James Hansen have agreed to debate one another – just in two different places at two different times.

Hansen says he will stay an extra day in West Virginia after today’s protest for a debate. He accepted an offer to attend an event at Mountain State University at 1 p.m., moderated by West Virginia Public Broadcasting.

But …

In a statement today, Blankenship said he would debate Hansen at a live televised event at WOWK-TV, part of West Virginia Media.

“This televised debate will enable the most West Virginians to participate in the discussion involving these important issues for the state,” said Mr. Blankenship. “I look forward to a productive dialogue about the future of Appalachia and the economic vitality of the West Virginia.”

When  I talked to Hansen today before his arrest at the Marsh Fork protest, he sounded like he wasn’t planning to stay beyond Wednesday, after already extending his visit for a day to try to work something out with Blankenship.

But we’ll see …

Updated, noon Wednesday: Blankenship issued the following statement regarding the protests:

“Today, more than ever, America needs jobs, affordable energy and energy independence.  I am confident that coal can help us meet these needs, and I believe that we should have a meaningful dialogue about the role coal must play in our energy and economic policies.

“The protests and pointless arrests by Dr. Hansen, a Hollywood actress and their friends do nothing to move such a conversation forward.

“It is my desire that a meaningful discussion of the issues will end these pointless protests that waste the taxpayers’ money and put our miners and law enforcement personnel at risk.

“In an effort to have real discussion about the real issues that affect real working families I have accepted an offer by  West Virginia Media television stations on Thursday, June 25 at 7:00 PM to debate Dr. Hansen.  I hope we have this opportunity to debate these important issues.”

M.K. McFarland, the Gazette’s multimedia director, was on hand today at the big mountaintop removal protest down at Marsh Fork Elementary School.  Here’s some of her work:

And we also have more photos by the Gazette’s Chris Dorst, available here.

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Actress Daryl Hannah is arrested by West Virginia State Police Tuesday, June 23, 2009 following a mountaintop removal mining protest in Naoma, W.Va. She was among several hundred protesters who held a rally outside Marsh Fork Elementary school that sits about 300 feet away from a Massey Energy coal processing plant. (AP Photo/Jeff Gentner)

Hey, Coal Tattoo readers … Sorry to not have provided any news yet today on the big protest down in Raleigh County, W.Va. We’ve just posted a brief story here, and we’ll have more soon.

Protest update: More on last week’s action

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The folks at Climate Ground Zero have put together a slicker version of the video from last week’s anti-Massey Energy protest (slicker than the one I previously posted here on Coal Tattoo).

It’s posted on YouTube, so it’s a little easier to watch. But it also includes more narrative and some editorial commentary. Climate Ground Zero Director Mike Roselle said:

By releasing this footage we can clearly demonstrate that protesters were not involved in any violence, did not assault anyone and were even allowed by the operator to climb the stairway leading up the boom. People can look at this footage and judge for themselves, but we think it proves that Massey’s claims that the protestors were violent are not supported by the facts. It was a non violent demonstration, and like the other peaceful protest that have been held to stop mountain top removal since early February no one was threatened or harmed in any way.

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Yesterday’s anti-mountaintop removal protest in Boone County clearly didn’t turn out exactly the way its organizers hoped. As of earlier this afternoon, four or the activists were still in jail, after being charged with battery for allegedly shoving their way onto a Massey Energy dragline.

As I wrote previously, what happened in the early morning hours at the Twilight Mine will be sorted out in criminal court. But surely both sides of this debate could agree to avoid any more of this nonsense on Tuesday, when the anti-mountaintop removal groups have planned a huge protest — scheduled to be headlined by actress Daryl Hannah (above, from the 1984 Ron Howard film, Splash) and renowned NASA climate scientist James Hansen (below), and longtime West Virginia political leader and strip-mining opponent Ken Hechler.

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I’m told that the event will focus on Marsh Fork Elementary school, which sits below a huge Massey slurry impoundment, and that after a few speeches:

… The crowd will march a short distance to Massey Energy’s office of operations. Standing in defiance at the Massey Energy property line of a mountaintop removal mining operation Dr. Hansen, Representative Hechler and dozens of Coal River Valley residents will risk arrest in a line crossing civil disobedience, the next big step in stopping mountaintop removal where it starts.

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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.

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Early this morning,  a group of concerned citizens launched a daring protest in which they scaled the boom of a dragline at Massey Energy’s Twilight Mine in Southern West Virginia, to unfurl a huge banner that says, “Stop Mountaintop Removal.”

[I have edited this post, to remove the use of the word “daring,” because it gave some readers the impression that I was admiring the protesters for doing this. That was not my intent. I was thinking of daring as a word used the way my dictionary defines it: venturesomely bold in action or thought. I’m sure readers from both sides will criticize this editing, but I simply wanted to remove the word because it was being read a way different from what I had intended]

The Web site Mountain Action is providing details, and activists are also tweeting the action via MtnAction.

BUT, there is a report from The Associated Press that Massey Energy spokesman Jeff Gillenwater says  “a worker … [at the mine] has been injured by anti-mining protesters.” The AP report, by business writer Tim Huber, says the miner “was being examined at a hospital after a confrontation” at the Boone County strip mine.

Jeff Biggers at The Huffington Post has a report on the unfolding events, and here’s what a news release from the protest organizers said:

This is the first time a dragline has been scaled on a mountaintop removal site, and marks the latest in a string of increasingly dramatic protests in West Virginia by residents and allies from across the country. This act of protest against mountaintop removal comes just days after the Obama Administration announced a plan to reform, but not abolish, the aggressive strip mining practice.

I checked in with a spokesman for the West Virginia State Police, and he did not yet have any details on the incident. Stay tuned …

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Photo by Antrim Caskey

As expected, a Raleigh County judge has ordered a halt to further protests against several Massey Energy mountaintop removal operations.  Circuit Judge Robert Burnside issued the preliminary injunction after two days of hearings in Beckley.

But activists said today their fight — and their peaceful civil disobedience actions — will continue.

Burnside ruled from the bench, and a written order has not yet been issued. But I talked with Roger Forman, attorney for the protesters, this morning and he filled me in on what Burnside has done.

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Photo by Antrim Caskey.

The preliminary injunction blocks further protests on mine sites of Alex Energy (dba as Edwight Mining Company), Independence Coal Co., and Marfork Coal Co. It does not — as the earlier temporary restraining order did — extend to all Massey Energy affiliate operations. And it does not — as the TRO also did –  extend beyond Burnside’s jurisdiction in Raleigh County.

One important thing for readers to note: This is NOT a criminal case in which protesters have been charged with trespassing. Those are separate proceedings. Burnside is ruling in a civil lawsuit filed by Massey Energy subsidiaries to try to get a judge to block future protests, invoke more serious punishment (civil contempt, with fines or jail time) for future protesters, and require the State Police to handle future protests in specific ways.

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Judge shuts down Massey protesters’ arguments

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Photo by Antrim Caskey

BECKLEY, W.Va. — Anti-mountaintop removal protesters showed up to court ready to put on a show this morning. Many of the protesters and their supporters were sporting red bandanas as they prepared to argue against a long-term court order against their peaceful civil disobedience campaign.

But Raleigh Circuit Judge Robert Burnside shut down many of the legal arguments the protesters hoped to make, and made it clear he doesn’t want his courtroom to be used to debate the pros and cons of mountaintop removal coal mining.

“The question of whether mountaintop removal should continue is not for the judicial branch to decide and is not before this court,” Burnside said.

Protesters had hoped to talk about mountaintop removal and argue, among other things, that the damage being done to the environment was so great that it justified their trespassing on Massey property to call attention the the issue.

“You can’t just look on while some horrible crime occurs,” said Roger Forman, one of the protesters’ lawyers. “What they are intending to do here to the environment is a criminal act.”

But Burnside ruled that, as a matter of law, that defense isn’t allowed in West Virginia courts.

[Oddly, though, Burnside also expressed his views that “Mountaintop removal mining, as controversial as it is … is a legal activity”  and that regulations governing the coal industry “are most restrictive].

Monday’ s hearing was called for Burnside to consider whether to extend two temporary restraining orders (issued in late February and early March). Massey lawyers want the court orders to block any further protests that involved trespassing and interfering with mining operations.

I had to skip out before today’s hearing ended to take care of some other business in Charleston, and I understand the hearing was scheduled to continue tomorrow. I’ll have more on the matter in tomorrow’s Gazette.