Mountaintop removal protest:
Finding a path forward?
by Ken Ward Jr.
The Charleston Gazette
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.
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.
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.
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.