The Battle for Coal River Mountain

On Thursday, July 14, right after the regular 4:30 PM shift change, Katie Huszcza, Colin Flood, Jimmy Tobias, and Sophie Kern, four Climate Ground Zero activists, and all in their early twenties, locked down to a high wall miner engaged in mountain top removal coal mining on Coal River Mountain. A high wall miner is a very large machine designed to bore holes into the hillside with giant grinders that pulverize the coal. From time to time, the grinder has to pull out of the coal seam and shut down to add another extension to the augers that cut into the mountain. It was at that moment that Colin and Katie went into action. Before the giant three story engine could be moved back into position the activists climbed underneath and locked down to it. Not only was the machine was idled for three and one half hours, it sat disabled in the middle of the main haul road stopping all other traffic. This was the first time that concerned citizens had ever shut down one of these machines using their own bodies.

Colin and Katie are charged with trespass asked to leave, conspiracy to commit a misdemeanor and obstruction, and are being held at $2,500 bail each. Sophie and Jimmy have an additional charge of littering, ironically enough for leaving the banner after they were arrested, and are being held on $3,500 bail each. All four have so far refused to pay the bail.

During the last 18 months, many actions like this one have occurred in West Virginia in the campaign to end mountain top removal. In one action an even larger dragline was idled for over four hours, and two treesitters, Nick and Laura Steepelton, halted blasting on Coal River Mountain for two whole weeks by occupying the trees last Janurary during one of the fiercest winters West Virginia has ever seen.

Last summer NASA scientist James Hanson and Darryl Hannah became one of the hundred and fifty people who have been arrested here trying to stop the blasting of the mountains and the destruction of the communities that make up Appalachia. This is the longest and largest sustained campaign of non violent civil disobedience in the US today. It is an uprising!

Appalachian communities are speaking out in greater numbers and with more urgency, and a national movement is growing that demands and immediate end to mountain top removal. There has, in fact, been so much momentum building up that some are suggesting that the campaign has already been won. The US Environmental Protection Agency has called the impacts devastating and irreversible and the Army Corps of Engineers has held up issuing new permits, and before his untimely death, Senator Robert Byrd had said that West Virginia must embrace the future, and that meant protecting the mountains and streams from the impacts of strip mining. You’d think there had been some kind of energy revolution going on here in southern West Virginia.

But you wouldn’t believe that if you lived here. Mountain top removal happens each and every day, and no matter what happens with the permits that the EPA is holding up now, or all the jaw boning by politicians and regulators, nothing is going to change the fact that there are plenty of active permits that can keep companies like Massey Energy busy blasting the tops off mountains for five to ten more years. The machine that the Climate Ground Zero activists locked down to was drilling into the side of Coal Rive Mountain, the iconic peak where local communities had long ago drawn a line in the sand.

And technically this operation targeted by the protestors is classified as contour mining, not mountain top removal, because they are removing the mountain’s shoulders and leaving the top. The difference is very hard to tell when you look at it with your own eyes. Since beginning our campaign almost two years ago we have watched as these machines tear into one ridge after another along this stretch the Coal River, and they are still dumping the exploded rubble and toxic coal slurry into the hollows and covering the creeks and streams of this community.

The tragedy in the Gulf of Mexico has rightly drawn our ire and attention, but as we all know, the problems are much the same in both cases. The Obama administration has failed to reform federal agencies that had suffered from decades of corruption, neglect and incompetence. The cost was not only the lives of the 29 underground coal miners who died in the methane and coal dust explosion at Massey’s Upper Big Branch Mine a few short miles down the road from here, and the 11 people who died on the Deepwater Horizon, but the release of millions of tons and gallons of oil, methane and other toxic chemicals into our air and water. While the oil can kill everything it touches almost instantly, the coal does its work quietly and more slowly. Both are killing the Gulf, and the planet. This we know.

Few Americans knew that the not only that Gulf of Mexico was to remain a National Sacrifice Area in Obama’s new energy policy, but that new drilling would actually increase, and that there were for all practical purposes there would be no environmental or safety regulation in effect. Certainly Appalachia is the largest and oldest National Sacrifice Area in the USA and this is where the Industrial Revolution made its first imprint. Indeed it’s hard to think of and industrial America without Appalachian coal. Yet rarely do we consider the costs. Here on the Coal River, you are reminded of that cost every moment of your life.

I am like many others here in the campaign to end strip mining; an outsider. I was born in Louisville Kentucky. Some of my relatives came from the coal mining regions, but I never heard them talk much about it when I was growing up. The men had fought in the Second World War and didn’t talk about that either, and like most people I thought that we had passed many good mining laws in the 1970’s and that the kind of strip mining that John Prine sang about no longer was allowed in our county. I never thought about it much because I never had to. I just flipped on the switch, expected the light to come on and never gave it another thought. After two years here I can no longer do that. The light switch feels more like the trigger of a gun, and the gun is pointed at my neighbors. It’s terrifying.

When I first came down here the idea of a sustained campaign of non violent civil disobedience was dismissed by some as foolish and even dangerous. I was convinced that the Climate Movement needed to focus on coal, if Al Gore or Bill McKibben were not going to organize it we just had to go it alone. I was looking to the coal fields for our Montgomery or even Birmingham moment. I hope you don’t have to Google those two words, and if you don’t then you know what I mean. We have to fight this not only in the halls of government; we have to confront it where it is happening. This is how we ended nuclear testing and ocean dumping of nuclear waste; this is how we fought old growth logging and even the mighty oil and gas industry in the American West. We didn’t do it because we saw it as a media strategy. We did it because we had run out of options, and because we still intended to win. Loosing was never an option that we could accept.

So this action by the Highwall Four lifts my spirits, to know that there are still those out there who will be bold, who will stand up, who will make a sacrifice, and who will do so with dignity and courage. And I compare that to the professional environmental movement that seems to be doing just the opposite, merely going through the motions without much expectation that anything is going to change anytime soon. Four years ago Dr. Hansen said we had ten years left to drastically reduce our footprint or we would face irreversible and tragic effects from a warming climate. With a combined budget of half a billion dollars and a small army of lobbyists you’d think they would have some impact on the climate bill. Well they don’t. The ones with the most power are the Senators from the coal states, and those from states with oil and gas. So far, nothing the Big Green groups have done has changed or even challenged that.

What has changed the landscape somewhat is the ongoing fight against new and existing coal fired power plants. Many old ones have been shut down and new ones cancelled due to citizen pressure campaigns that were aided by larger groups like the Sierra Club and NRDC. But this is no substitute for a robust national climate policy. The current version of the bill, even if it had passed without further compromises, would not only fail to reduce emissions, it will give big oil, coal and gas huge subsidies and exemptions from current regulations. Hanson is not alone in saying that in it current form environmentalist should oppose it, but most Big Green groups are supporting it. It seems that government and industry are not the only ones who reject science.

Since beginning our campaign almost two years ago we have watched as these gigantic machines tear into one ridge after another along this beautiful stretch the Coal River. We have seen graveyards pushed over the side of high walls and we have seen towns obliterated, and we have seen relocation and depopulation, the kind of things you expect to see in a war, but not in America.

At the moment, I am out on $7,500 bail and facing two and a half years for multiple charges stemming from the six arrests I have so far accumulated. I am also being sued by Massey Energy for damages and enjoined from going on their property. I am not alone. Many of us here are still facing jail time and there are no less than four civil actions in three different venues, including Federal Court, that have been filled by Massey in an attempt to halt the protest on their property. We have a battery of excellent pro bono lawyers but are legal expenses are climbing and our first court appearance is in October.

While we are not afraid of the jail, injunctions and lawsuits, I am afraid that if our campaign here in West Virginia fails to arouse the the US public and sufficiently motivate them to end mountain top removal then we are in big trouble. While I am very proud to be part of the only sustained campaign of civil disobedience underway in the US, this is not a good thing for the Climate Movement in general, which talks a good talk, but so far has failed to harness the power of direct action and non violence. This is unfortunate, because leadership in this area is needed now more than ever.

If we as a movement truly believed that non violence is necessary, then we would be supporting it with training and resources. I can attest that very little funding is going into this part of the campaign. Still, we have managed to train and deploy upwards of a thousand activists here on the Coal River, with over a hundred and fifty arrests in 24 different actions. And while we remain undeterred, we wonder what is up with everyone else? Are we truly in this alone?

There is so much direct action happening in Europe where even Greenpeace is doing it. The same is true for Australia, although Canada may be worse off in this then even we are. This seems unbelievable here in a country that has put so many thousands of people in the streets to fight the war and oppose nuclear weapons and save the old growth. This issue trumps them all.

We don’t want the legacy of non violence to die with us here on the Coal Fields of West Virginia. Hard-won even if thread bare, the institution of non violence has been our last line of defense against plunder and injustice dating from the early days of this nation. Like the blowout preventer on the Deepwater Horizon, it is our last line of defense. How can we say we are making any progress whatsoever on the issue of climate change if we are still blowing up mountains and poisoning and dislocating communities to get at a thin seam of coal?

I have decided that at my trial I will not claim innocence; because of these charges I assure you I am as guilty as a man can be. My only defense will be that Massey Energy, by continually setting off large explosives charges above the Shumate Dam, endangers not only those who live below the impoundment but everyone who depends on water from the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers all the way down the Gulf of Mexico. If you are concerned about the millions of gallons that BP is spilling into the Gulf, then you should also be concerned about the billions of gallons of toxic coal sludge in the Brushy Fork impoundment behind a dam that was not properly constructed and is known to be leaking.

And of course its is the same lase’faire attitude of the US Government agencies like the Mineral Management Service and the EPA that allow the big energy companies to ignore the law while collecting subsidies, a perverse incentive that makes disasters like the BP spill and the Upper Big Branch Mine disaster inevitable.

Many took it as an article of fate that President Obama would move in and take care of these neglected issues. The fact that he didn’t shouldn’t be surprising. Without a citizen uprising, he does not have the power to confront the corruption and greed that is masquerading as governance.

When Gandhi contemplated the fact that a few hundred thousand Englishmen had control over a half a billion Indians his conclusion was that the Indian people must have enslaved themselves. Today, a few hundred thousand wealthy industrialists have control over the world’s 9 billion people. What are we to think? We can no longer blame it on them. No, as Pogo said, the enemy is us. Unless we stand up for ourselves, nobody else will. The people of Appalachia are rising up, and a growing national movement is standing with them. On September 25th through 27, we will assemble in Washington DC and demand justice; justice for the mountains; justice for the communities who are being obliterated; and justice for the Earth. Please join us.

MIKE ROSELLE lives in Rock Creek, West Virginia. He is the author of Tree Spiker. He can be reached

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MIKE ROSELLE is Campaign Director of Climate Ground Zero and author of Tree Spiker!. He can be reached at: