Parts of West Virginia are, as the old John Denver song goes, “almost heaven.” The Gauley and New rivers in Fayette County provide world-class whitewater rafting and several nearby lakes offer sparkling water for boating and swimming. Other parts—the moonscapes left behind from mountaintop removal mining (MTR)—are hell. MTR involves dynamiting mountain ridges to get at the coal seams beneath, with the resulting rocks and soil dumped in valleys below. So far more than 500 ridges have been destroyed and more than 2,000 miles of streams have been buried
In late July a group of mostly young and mostly out-of-state activists, along with some locals, organized the first “mass walk-on” to a mountaintop removal site in an effort to disrupt the process and build awareness about MTR’s destructiveness. Several peer-reviewed studies show a significant increase in both cancer and birth defects among residents of communities near MTR sites as compared to similar communities not near such sites, although no direct connection has yet been proven.
RAMPS—Radical Action for Mountain People’s Survival—is committed to ending all forms of strip mining in Appalachia. Organizers ran a three-day training camp in nonviolent direct action for 100 activists on a sheep farm in Nicholas County leading up to the action. Glen Collins, one of the trainers, presented the last scenario. “Let’s say you’re part of a sustained direct action campaign to shut down a surface mine and you permanently shut down one of these mines, and it closes, and everybody who works there doesn’t work there anymore. You’re in an area that’s already poverty-stricken, and you’ve created this vacuum of jobs.”
One of the activists, Ryan, said, “My heart goes out to the families in losing their income…but the violence against the land and against the communities balances that loss, and I would hope there’d be awareness and hopefully advocacy for those families so they could replace that lost income.”
The RAMPS organizers arrived in West Virginia to support a small band of local residents who, over the past decade, have worked to end mountaintop removal mining in their communities. Some of the locals want to see a conversion from MTR to more deep mining, which employs more workers and reduces air pollution caused by exploding millions of pounds of dynamite aboveground, reduces water contamination and stops the wholesale destruction of mountains in the Mountain State
The setting of the sit-in was the Hobet 45 surface mine in Lincoln County—the largest MTR site in Appalachia, owned by Patriot Coal. Forty-five people ran from a caravan of cars and scattered over the site, overseen by one unarmed security guard, dropping banners, climbing trees and locking down equipment. It was the largest action on an MTR site to date. Twenty were arrested. The rest walked some four hours past a gauntlet of angry miners to reach their vehicles, which were not allowed near the site. The locals yelled and revved their vehicles close to the line of activists, one of whom described the encounter as the most hostility he’d experienced in 40 years of activism
There were also repercussions back at the sheep farm, where the night of the action some neighbors felled trees across the long, winding dirt road leading to the property and fired gun shots. The next day several armed men breached the property line and police had to be called to escort several carloads of activists to the highway.
Hobet 45 received a highly contested permit from the Obama administration in 2010. Mine owner Patriot Coal recently filed for bankruptcy, and the future of the United Mine Workers-affiliated workforce is unclear.
Arrested activists were charged with trespassing and interfering—both misdemeanors—and initially slapped with bail of $25,000 each. After a few days in jail, all 20 took a plea deal of a $500 fine and a year of unsupervised probation. With the help of video and still photos shot by participants on site and rushed to RAMPS’ media central in Charleston for distribution to outlets from local TV stations to the blogosphere, the action took on heightened importance in the struggle to shut down surface coal mining.
Even though coal workers and their families face the same health consequences from MTR as other members of the community, they say opponents of mountaintop removal mining are just trying to take away their jobs. But the amount of economically recoverable coal in Appalachia is declining and demand for coal in the U.S. is falling, too, as its share of electricity generation drops, mostly due to the rise of natural gas from hydraulic fracturing. Six months before he died in office in 2010, the Senate’s longest-serving member, Robert Byrd of West Virginia, urged his constituents to consider alternatives to coal, which he himself had championed during his long career—and especially alternatives to mountaintop removal. The state’s current senior senator, Jay Rockefeller, has more recently issued statements along the same lines. In a stirring Senate speech in June countering opposition to mercury limits on coal plants, Sen. Rockefeller said: “It’s not too late for the coal industry to step up and lead by embracing the realities of today and creating a sustainable future. Discard the scare tactics. Stop denying science. Listen to what markets are saying about greenhouse gases and other environmental concerns, to what West Virginians are saying about their water and air, their health and the cost of caring for seniors and children who are most susceptible to pollution.”