The recent announcement that Don Blankenship is retiring as CEO after over 30 years with Massey Energy is being met with understandable glee, not just by environmentalists and people who live near in the regions where Massey extracts coal, but by Wall Street, the unions and even Massey’s stockholders.
Charleston Gazette reporter Ken Ward, Jr. commented that
“? Blankenship’s departure from Massey ? costs environmentalists and labor unions not only an easy nemesis, but steals from them some rare common ground. Without Blankenship to jointly hate, will coal miners and other coalfield residents fight more amongst themselves or perhaps find ways to more forward together?”
Good question. Blankenship has been compared to Birmingham’s Bull Connor, and even those who support the coal industry often cringed at his tactics and made great efforts to publicly distance themselves from him. On the other hand, there was no question about his ability to “run coal”, fend off regulation, destroy his competition and even to control the judiciary and the legislature in West Virginia and Kentucky. He was, arguably, the most powerful figure in Appalachia, and enjoyed the spotlight perhaps too much.
From the perspective of an environmental campaigner he indeed was, as Ward put it, “from central casting”, but that came at a terrible cost. He was ruthlessly effective. And I don’t expect him to exit the stage anytime soon. Don’t be surprised if he winds up with a talk show on Fox or becomes Sara Palin’s running mate, although I think we can safely rule out seeing him on Dancing With the Stars.
It would, of course, be premature to expect any changes in the way Massey Energy operates, at least until the widely predicted sale of the company takes place. As bad as Massey’s record is when it comes to health, safety and the environment, the other coal companies, including its potential buyers, are not that different, and even if they were it would take some time to change the company’s culture.
I can remember a similar situation with Hooker Chemical, of Love Canal fame. When Hooker was purchased by Occidental Petroleum, one criminal enterprise simply absorbed another, the strong devouring the weak, creating more consolidation, more cash, which of course can be used to control the legal, political and judicial process not just in places like West Virginia, but because the coal industry is the biggest obstacle to passing legislation dealing with climate change here, in Washington, and Cancun.
In many ways, it was Don Blankenship who brought me to West Virginia. Called to action by my own conscience and the desire to assist friends in need, I arrived in Rock Creek, West Virginia over two years ago. Here, where mining companies like Massey Energy set off millions of pounds of high explosives daily in their relentless effort to extract coal by blasting the tops off mountains and putting the toxic spoils in the streams and creeks, I wanted to take a stand. We have called this Ground Zero for a reason, for it is in places like the Coal River Valley where you can see firsthand the effects of the industry that is responsible for much of the carbon emissions that are causing climate change, to witness the impacts it has on the land and the people, to experience with them the kind of opposition we are up against, and to confront it. And in West Virginia that meant going up against Big Don.
Here in the cradle of the union movement, a few miles from Blair Mountain, where modern unionism emerged from the carnage of the Blair Mountain War, residents are not strangers to non violent direct action. Since mountain top removal was first introduced in the early 1970’s, local citizen groups have formed to fight the coal companies and effective leaders have emerged. Sometimes aided by outsiders, sometimes by themselves they have fought, gotten arrested, suffered threats and intimidation but never have they backed down.
As the Climate Ground Zero campaign against mountain top removal enters its third year we face a new set of challenges, not the least of which is that the coal industry has as a result of the recent election made serious new inroads into our government in their effort to avoid any new regulations, especially any that deal with carbon emissions.
So the fight here is about much more then the fate of the Appalachians, of which over a million and a half acres have already been flattened. If our laws are too lax and their enforcement too weak to do anything about what Robert Kennedy, Jr has called the worst environmental crime in America, then what hope do we have in addressing all of the other causes of global warming. If Coal is King, then not only are we are all its slaves, we are also in grave danger.
The rule of law will be critical in addressing the climate crisis, and I would argue that its absence is one of its key causes. If the US cannot enforce its laws in Appalachia, there is little hope that we can create the kind of enforcement regime necessary to compel meaningful compliance across the entire economy. Corruption is so entrenched in our current economic system that usually we barely notice it, but in areas where the big companies are extracting coal, oil or gas its affects are immediate and devastating to communities and long term and irreversible for the planet. We must not only confront it here, we must succeed here.
And we have had some success. Climate Ground Zero, an all volunteer campaign, has helped to organize dozens of high profile protests here in West Virginia and across the country, where more than a hundred and fifty people have been so far arrested, including NASA scientist James Hansen, former West Virginia Congressman Ken Hechler and actor Daryl Hannah, gaining international media attention and spurring the Environmental to take the unprecedented step of vetoing some new MTR permits and pledging to step up enforcement of the Clean Water Act.
In response, Massey has engaged in Strategic Litigation Against Public Participation, also known as SLAPP suits, against Climate Ground Zero protesters, me and others who have systematically practiced nonviolent civil disobedience to promote their goal of ending mountaintop removal mining. SLAPP litigation is a well-documented phenomenon whereby well-resourced corporate plaintiffs use their ability to bring lawsuits as a method of preventing public speech. At least 25 states and the U.S. Territory of Guam have passed laws protecting private citizens from SLAPP suits. Legislation has been proposed at the federal level, but at the moment neither West Virginia nor the Federal government protects individuals from SLAPP suits.
Their primary suit, brought in federal court, aims to generate enormous judgments against us for the sole purpose of deterring future dissent. They are alleging a vast conspiracy and are attempting to intimidate anyone who may wish to assonate with us. In the course of discovery, Massey lawyers are seeking to force us to disclose the names of all individuals with whom they have communicated with in regards to mountaintop removal, as well as the names of persons with whom they have lived with for the past two years, a direct effort to circumvent their constitutionally protected freedom of association.
I firmly believe that Massey engaged in this course of action with the sole goal of chilling constitutionally protected opposition to the practice of mountaintop removal. We are defending ourselves because of our deeply felt conviction that constitutional rights must be protected. Attorneys from around the country have joined us in this fight, but we are few, and our resources pale in comparison to the deep pocketed Massey lawyers at Spillman Thomas and Battle.
With Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship’s recent announcement that he will retire, one wonders whether the new Massey leadership will continue spending hundreds of thousands of dollars financing this frivolous litigation with no hope of financial recovery, whose very purpose is to stifle speech, or whether Mr. Blankenship’s departure signals a true change of course.
If not, we all have reason to be concerned. Civil disobedience is a cornerstone of our democracy, and even US Supreme Court Justice Anthony Scalia has asserted that citizens have the right to organize and engage in acts of civil disobedience without the fear of being held as conspirators. If Massey is successful here, then it sets a very dangerous precedent for everyone.
That is why I am asking for your help. With the help of our pro bono team, we intend to fight this all the way. And while our lawyers receive no compensation, our legal fees are rising and we are forced to raise money for our defense. Please consider donating to the Climate Ground Zero Legal Defense Fund it ensure our continued right to oppose the destruction of our communities, our blasting of mountains, the pollution of our water and the disruption of the global climate.