West Virginia Mountain Top Removal Coal Protests Heating Up

  • Published on May 3rd, 2009

Mountain Top Removal Coal River Vally, WV, has become home to a civil disobedience campaign against Massy Energy company in an attempt to halt their destructive mountaintop renewal coal mining practices.

Kay Sexton, with her regular run down of environmental protests, has been examining the “imperatives and complexities” of protests that are unique to the environmentalist movement.  Here’s another data point to add into the discussion.

I’ve mentioned before that I don’t always think that the environmental movement benefits from protests.  Channeling the Greenpeace mentality of chaining people to trees often seems to generate bad press more then it advances a cause.  But, there are times when even my cynical take on the efficacy of protest has to be subverted by out-and-out necessity.

Obama Versus Coalbama

While Obama has been great for many issues near and dear to environmentalists, his stance on coal leaves a lot to be desired.  Consider:

  1. He keeps hitting the idea of “clean” coal, a fact that groups like ACCCE are using to their advantage.   Every time he mentions coal on the list with other Alternative Energy sources, environmentalists wince.  Even coal that burns cleaner then it does now has a tough road to walk to get to “clean” across the board.
  2. His department of justice recently refused further consideration of a lower court ruling that would result in more closely regulated mountaintop removal, effectively negating the positive buzz generated by Ken Salazar’s reversal of a Bush strategy that allowed a particularly destructive type of mountain top removal mining.
  3. While the EPA is set to review 150 to 200 permits for new or expanded surface mines (good news for regulation), legal action is still considered by many to be light years away from actually slowing destructive Mountain Top Removal policies.  Ending it altogether is not on the board.

In short: Obama seems to be rational on the issue of the environment, but he has a blind spot when it comes to coal.  The blind spot may be something that he could get around, but it’s not going to happen soon.

All Protests are not created equal

For those of you not familiar with mountaintop removal, the scale of the mining operations in West Virginia is pretty shocking.  Over 1 Million acres of land have been flattened, but since those acres are at the tops of the Appalachians, the real effect of the damage is an order of magnitude larger.

So here is a situation where I am talking myself into protest by any means necessary.  Public perception is turning against coal, especially the most draconian and damaging removal processes.  A group called Climate Ground Zero has been gumming up the works for months now, and the mining company has now taken out a restraining order against them.  Those already arrested are barred from any interference with Massy’s mining operations, and are being held in contempt of court for violating the temporary restraining order (TRO).  Not content with that, however, the TRO goes one further, limiting anyone who has seen or heard of the order from protesting as well.  (That’s right: as of reading that last sentence, I think you, dear reader, are legally barred from action against Massy.)

My feelings on protest tend to switch 180 degrees when civil disobedience is met with such sweeping legal action against the protesters.  Attempts to silence protesters are, in many ways, playing right into the hands of civil disobedience, giving them the aura of legitimate wrongs.    Massy has given up whatever high ground (mountain top pun intended) they had when they make this into a first amendment thing.

I am still concerned that protests (in general) provide the wrong public perception. Generally, the nature versus man debate comes down on the side of jobs and families for many Americans.  However, when confronted with the harsh reality of peoples homes and lives being destroyed by coal run off, to go along with the complete decimation of entire mountain ranges, it seems more valuable to stop the process first and then hash out the next step.  The debate of how we relate to nature can’t continue in good faith as millions of acres on the tops of watersheds are being knocked off.  Good luck to all the Climate Ground Zero folks as they get bogged down in legalese instead of actual on the ground results.  While they wait for the Obama administration to catch on about the process, I’d urge you to check out (and sign) their open letter here.

I’d also like to hear what people think about the results of protest.  Are the actions that Kay is writing about having tangible results?  I am curious to see how people react to this sort of civil disobedience when compared to something like this:

On 25 April, more than sixty climate campaigners ate their lunch in the check-in hall at Leeds Bradford Airport. Their picnic was a protest at the planned £28 million two-storey extension to the terminal building which they say will increase greenhouse gas emissions. Protesters ate cucumber sandwiches and gingerbread aeroplanes and said theirs was ‘… a very civil way to protest’ In reply, the airport authority claims it will ‘… improve and refine …method[s] of monitoring air quality in line with EU requirements and industry standards’.

Image: from flickr user ddimick

About the Author

Alan Smith is a Freelance Producer in Brooklyn New York who’s been fortunate enough in the past to work on a Peabody award winning radio show (the Brian Lehrer show, WNYC Radio) and an Emmy nominated TV program (Brian Lehrer Live on CUNY TV). Other highlights include PhilanthroMedia, a new media company which works for social change with non-profits and foundations across the globe. In my spare time, I’m interested in the science and politics of the current green movement, and write about those things in and around whatever else crosses my grill at www.livingtheamericangreen.org


  • Robert @14Better under the rug than in the midlde of the dinner partyNot if there’s a prospect of it not staying under the rug for the whole of the party, and if sweeping it under the rug won’t be cdomplete until the party has been going for quite some time and if the only way it can be done involves the guests shelling out for someone to do the work, when the host could have avoided making the mess in the first place.

  • Watcher,

    I am indeed calling for action on mountain top removal, and this does not violate the TRO. Our protests have succeeded where others have failed. We have shut down blasting on Clay Branch for the last two months. This blasting threatened the community of Naoma, West Virginia and it was not until the EPA learned of our repeated interventions did they cite Massey Energy for several serious violations of their mining permit.

    I suspect that those who trivialize non violence have never really studied the Civil Rights Movement nor do they understand our campaign. go to climategroundzero.org to get another perspective.

  • Mr Roselle of climate ground zero continues to violate the terms of the T R O by recruiting protesters on http://www.ruckus society.org Roselle is calling for folks to come and join them to "take action on Massey Coal property" this May and June!

  • I wonder about the media and the effects in has on populations world wide these days.

    Lately, I'm thinking if Gandhi was trying to free India today the world would not respond as it did back in the day.

    Look how long it took to wake up to Dafur.

    I'm still looking for the audacity of hope to outshine the destroyers of the planet.

    Solar powered since '88.

  • I agree Kay. One of the things that I am always struck by at protests (of pretty much any liberal issue) is the feeling of "have sign, will travel" I get from many participants. Protests, unto themselves, are the things people look at: their size, their effectiveness, the number of rubber bullets fired at them etc. What I think they don't look at often is the reason people are there in the first place… and I don't know how to solve that except complain about the media some more.

    Why do you think it contributes to the complexity issue though? Because people aren't talking about the actual environmental issues? Because it needs to bleed (or at least have some compelling perp walks) to lead?

  • Interesting questions. One thing that worries me about environmental protest is that it's increasingly being categorised as 'cute newsworthy' or 'scary newsworthy' by the media – ie the nature of the protest is becoming more notable than the issue being protested. This not only denigrates protest, in all areas, not just environmental, but also contributes to the common myth that 'all that environment stuff' is too complicated for the average voter or citizen to understand, comment on or react to. And that turns protestors into a professional group, rather than a voicebox for a section of society.

  • We couldn't agree more. One thing I'd like to mention is that we have no intention of letting the TRO stop our protests and we are prepared to go to jail if necessary. We also have a decent chance if vacating the TRO on June 1st, our next appearance in court. By all means, go to climategroundzero.org and sign the petition which we will present to the Judge at that time.

    Mike Roselle

    Climate Ground Zero

Comments are closed.