Arrested in West Virginia: A First-Person Account

Written by Brune

Topics: Climate

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The horn blasted right outside the window where we slept early this morning.

“Wake up, losers!” two miners yelled from their pickup truck, gunning the engine. “Wake up! Time to get a job! Better yet, time to get the f*** out of town!”

Ah, yes. Mornings in the coal fields of West Virginia. For wake-up calls, I generally prefer morning crickets, birds chirping, perhaps the smell of coffee – I’ll even take a few kicks to the ribs in bed from my little ones. Oddly enough, however, I must say I find taunts from belligerent coal miners to be highly motivational.

I’ve been in West Virginia the past few days to help bring an end to mountaintop removal. We’ve made it a top priority at Rainforest Action Network. Last week, 14 citizens were arrested in a high-altitude protest against leading mountaintop removal mining company Massey Energy. On Saturday, the New York Times stepped in with an editorial, “More than Stopgaps for Appalachia,” saying that recent steps from the Obama Administration, while a sign of progress, don’t solve the problem, because

“…it leaves in place the destructive Bush rules that essentially legalized the practice of dumping harmful waste in valleys and streams. The Obama administration has pledged to restore the old buffer zone restriction. But it has said nothing at all about redefining mining waste as an illegal pollutant, which it was before the Bush people came along. A bill before the House would do exactly that. The administration should do it first.”

Yesterday, a reported 800 people – including a hundred or so coal miners gathered in opposition – rallied at Marsh Fork Elementary School in West Virginia’s Coal River Valley. Following the rally, I joined Dr. James Hansen, Goldman Prize winner Judy Bonds, Daryl Hannah, local organizer Bo Webb and more than two dozen other residents in a peaceful civil disobedience at the Massey coal processing facility adjacent to the school.

There’s been high tension leading to yesterday’s demonstration. Last Friday, upon learning that Dr. Hansen would be joining the protest this week, Massey CEO Don Blankenship challenged the NASA scientist to a debate on climate change. Goading Dr. Hansen and others, Blankenship stated in a press release,

“While I don’t recall anyone inviting out-of-state environmental protesters from San Francisco and a Hollywood actress to Massey’s property on June 23, I’m more than willing to invite Dr. Hansen to have a factual discussion about coal mining in West Virginia…”

Blankenship upped the ante at yesterday’s event, giving time off to some of his loudest and most bellicose workers to come intimidate their neighbors. During the rally, miners tirelessly taunted each speaker, even shouting down local Reverend Jim Lewis while he gave a short prayer.

I can’t remember a more charged atmosphere. The majority of people surrounded one-half of the stage, supporting each speaker calling for an end to mountain blasting.
Separated by police, the remainder crowded around the rest of the stage, wearing Massey t-shirts and shouting their disapproval.

I spoke shortly after Ken Hechler, the 94-year-old former Congressional Representative who has decried the effects of mountaintop removal in his region for more than three decades. “I want to thank Don Blankenship for inviting me to this rally,” I began, to a mixture of catcalls and applause. I told the crowd that mountaintop removal isn’t just a local issue, it’s an American problem – brought to us by Massey Energy and other coal companies.

When utility companies wanted to dam the Grand Canyon, people across the country, not just in Arizona, rallied to protect an American treasure. And when loggers were liquidating ancient redwoods in California’s Headwaters Forest, Americans from every state exercised their right to preserve part of our natural legacy. Whether it was to end segregation or to honor women’s right to vote, Americans have always exercised their voice. And the tragedy of destroying mountains and burying streams for relatively small amounts of coal can’t be ignored by people in any state.

Then I turned to the miners. “I understand why you’re here,” I said. “I have two young children myself, and know the pressures of needing to feed your family.” Personally, I think its criminal the way workers in West Virginia are being treated by coal companies and government officials. Mountaintop removal is an abomination, and all bluster aside, it can’t feel good to be blowing up your own backyard.

Let’s be clear: this is a test of the Obama Administration’s resolve to stimulate a clean energy economy. High wind speeds throughout much of central Appalachia present an excellent opportunity for investments in clean and renewable wind power. The Coal River Valley, slated to be blasted by Massey Energy, could support a 328-megawatt wind farm. It’s one of the few places in the country where both the cause of climate change and its solution can be found in the exact same location. Will we make a deep commitment to clean energy and green jobs in the U.S.? Or will Big Coal continue to intimidate Americans from the coal fields to the Beltway?

It’s time to end mountaintop removal. We need your help. Check out this short video by James Hansen, and please get involved.
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16 Comments For This Post I'd Love to Hear Yours!

  1. Pat says:

    I am heartbroken that the Obama administration is acting blind and deaf to so many abuses put into place by the Bush administration- not least of which is mountaintop blasting by the coal companies. How can one turn a blind eye to the destruction of this precious land of mountains, forests, and streams?
    Let us all take up this fight!

  2. Cee says:

    Obama Admin is acting blind and deaf because they are phonies following in the footsteps of the Bush Admin!

  3. Roger says:

    Kudos to RAN, Dr Hansen, and the others who selflessly put their bodies on the line to help preserve a livable climate for future generations. WDC on March 2nd changed the game.

    Only ‘Homo Stupidious’ would blow up God’s great mountains, ruining perfectly good, sustainable, potential wind farms, to dig out limited, cheap coal with which to speed the destruction of the climate–burning the coal to release CO2, then recapturing the CO2 to put it back in the earth.

    Folks, this is about science, not politics or beliefs. You may not understand all the details–just like you may not understand exactly how your cell phone works–but one’s lack of understanding doesn’t hamper what happens.

    Our tax dollars have paid for ~$20,000,000,000 worth of research on climate change over the course of many years.
    The findings are available free at http://www.climatescience.gov.
    Go and look: The (paraphrased) conclusions are that climate change is happening, that it is going to have mostly bad consequences, that it is going to get worse, that the longer we take to ‘repair’ the damage we’re doing, the greater the cost of any possible repair options–and the greater the chance that we will be unable to stop the changes that could eliminate life on earth as we know it.

  4. Peter Warner says:

    Does anyone know how much a 10-yard dump truck load of coal costs? How much does it cost to rent a 10-yard truck and drive it from W. Virginia to Washington, DC? If we got 100 drivers at 10 cubic yards a truck, that could be a pile of 1000 cubic yards of coal parked on the White House lawn. Yes, we’d have to break laws, gates, and a few cops’ legs, and risk long prison sentences, but it could be rather exciting. What’s my life in exchange for the future of the earth, anyway? If anyone organizes this, sign me up as a driver.

  5. Bonnie Alicia Berkeley says:

    I was there with Judy Barry at Headwaters forest facing similar people ….the loggers heading in and revving their chain saws at us saying, “what do you
    use for toilet paper?” Well, it certainly isn’t the ancient redwood that has been
    on earth for 2000 years and they wanted to decimate. They are America’s cathedrals, the oldest living things on this planet…unless you count our mountains and streams as living…which I would…and we must rise up and make a huge protest…to bring more and more public attention to these short term thinkers…I mean idiots.

  6. elaine says:

    I am not at all surprised that Obama’s Administration is not doing anything to help. Arrogance is the problem, and until we pick a president that doesn’t think of him or herself before others we’re going to have to keep protesting, loud and clear, about obvious atrocities. We have to be the ones to make a difference, and not depend on a patriarchy to come running to us with all the answers.

  7. Dinkar Kasbekar says:

    Insane greed and destructive capitalism is an America-based pandemic that infects many politicians and corporate CEOs worldwide. They firmly believe that profits and wealth accumulation at the cost of human life and environment will be their ultimate salvation! Until we find a cure for tate pandemic, the infection will continue to persist and hurt many.

  8. Nancy Bilheimer from Pennsylvania says:

    I campaigned for the first time in my 70 years for a political candidate (Obama)solely on the basis of environmentalism. There are many hot issues for the administration to handle, but I am extremely disappointed in the slow actions of this presidency to deal with climate change and environmental destruction. We must keep up the pressure! What can be more important in the long run?

  9. Dave Cooper says:

    Michael, thanks for coming to West Virginia and standing with us at this very intense protest. Ive been involved in this issue since about 2000 and I cant remember a more charged and volatile atmosphere. Your speech at the rally was effective and powerful. Oh behalf of Mountain Justice and the many other groups involved in this protest, thanks.

  10. Richard Burrill says:

    It is said that President Obama is tiptoeing his way through the early days of his presidency. If he continues this way, he will surely fail. I have seen an ad on TV in which Obama is praising that impossible thing, “Clean Coal.” It is obvious that fascism is alive and well in this country. Remember this: one may define “fascism” as when a government is controlled by forporations. Also remember that “law” is an agent of oppression if we allow it.

  11. Richard Burrill says:

    Oops! Sorry for the typo in my previous message: “forporations” should, of course, read, “corporation.”

  12. rita butler says:

    Blowing the tops off mountians for profit is the equivalent of blowing up a beautiful ancient cathedral in order to put up a parking lot. Catherals were built to glorify God to create awe in human beings by their majesty. These great mountains, the work of God are a relfection of his glory and provide a beautiful and irraplaceable home to people animals, and plants. Only people with no morals and no appreciation for God’s handiwork could destoy them for short term gain.

  13. I’ve been reading the latest government funded report on global warming. The carbon dioxide pollution from coal and other organic hydrocarbon sources has raised the concentration of CO2 in our atmosphere 30+% above any peak value in the last 800,000 years! Frankly about the most useful thing humanity can do to save the planet is to stop having children! They will suffer and many will die regardless of what else is done to deal with this already past many critical thresholds planetary disaster.

  14. As far as mountaintop removal is concerned, I own a small piece of ground in central Pennsylvania near Route 322 running into State College, PA. PENDOT in its uninformed way managed to try mountain top removal as a part of highway expansions north of State College intended to better accomodate Penn State University football weekend commuters. The excavation destroyed local well water sources for a sufficient number of residents that a lawsuit settlement with the state has at least temporarily prevented PENDOT from taking a right of way across our 15 acres to try expanding the highway to the south for the same reason, football weekends. I suspect staying at home and watching on TV would be a lot more environmentally friendly and I don’t want a four lane highway taking the last of the 400 year old white oaks on my property, as well as digging up my brother and parent’s ashes which are scattered there.

  15. If you dig into the archives of Penn State’s local publications, an issue of Town and Gown has a picture on its’ cover showing me as a graduate student back in 1967 sitting in a 150 year old oak close to Route 322 in downtown state college in a last ditch effort to try to save some street trees along the road schedueld to be widened from two lanes to four. Needless to say, the trees are all gone and all the old stately brick homes along the route lost over half of their front yards to the widened roadway. How quickly we forget! There are three times as many humans on the planet now than there were when I was born, the product of fear and tradition in response to Pearl Harbor. Being on the crest of the “baby boomer” wave gives me a unique vantage point, especially since my parents were educated and tried to educate me when it came to environmental issues. Go back and read Harrison Brown’s, The Challenge of Man’s Future published in the early 1960′s or earlier, and then check out current web sites for information on the accuracy of his predictions! We invest over 10 times as much energy to produce a ton of new steel than was required back at the time of World War II when there were still some fairly concentrated deposits of iron ore. It is not just coal that has caused mountain top removal. Look at pictures of what used to be the ore deposits in Minnesota which were shipped across the Great Lakes to Pittsburgh and smelted there for tank bodies and ship plates during that war. That entire range in Minnesota is gone and the holes have been abandoned for years. Is this what people want in West Virginia?

  16. teresa says:

    I’m in total sympathy and grateful for your courage and commitment, but I read through this twice & don’t find an account of your arrest. Change the title, perhaps?

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