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Protest shuts down mountaintop removal coal mine

By Sarah Simmons |
August 13, 2012
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West Virginia shuts down mountain top removal coal operation.
West Virginia shuts down mountain top removal coal operation. (Photo: Mentat Mark)

Charleston, WV - About 20 anti-coal mine activists were arrested on July 27, when between 80 and 100 protesters entered the Hobet 45 Mine near Charleston, West Virginia. The activists achieved their goal of shutting down operations for several hours and drawing public attention to the country's largest mountaintop removal mine, which was granted a controversial permit under the Obama administration about two years ago. Hobet 45 is owned by Patriot Coal Corporation.

About 75 other protesters attended a rally in a nearby state forest, while many others were prevented from entering the park when state troopers closed the entrance. A group of several hundred people identifying themselves as “Friends of Coal,” cruised area roads both inside and outside the park yelling “We love coal,” and “Go away!” to the environmentalists.

When troopers prevented the shuttles organized by protesters from picking people up at the mine site, many were forced to walk for four hours. At least two activists were assaulted with pepper spray by coal mine supporters, and others were harassed and threatened. One activist, 21-year old Matewan native Dustin Steele, was dragged across asphalt and repeatedly kicked and punched by police, but was subsequently released. Activists from Radical Action for Mountain People's Survival (RAMPS) have called for an investigation. Steele says he is physically doing okay and emotionally even better and that his commitment to stop mountaintop removal mining remains strong. In the past, outspoken opponents of the coal industry have suffered death threats, vandalism, arson, slander and having their pets killed.

27 states have active coal mines. Though coal plants cause more greenhouse gas emissions and contribute more than any other human activity to climate change, coal continues to supply over 50% of North American electricity usage. The most controversial and destructive form of coal mining, called mountaintop removal, is common in the eastern mountains of the U.S., the Appalachian chain. It uses explosive charges and heavy machinery to literally blow the tops off of mountains to get at the coal buried underneath. This method is cheaper than underground mining and uses fewer miners. The Appalachians are some of the oldest mountains in the world, but U.S. coal companies have blown up 500 mountains and buried over 2000 miles of streams since the 1970s in order to retrieve these coal reserves.

Coal is a relatively cheap energy source, if the effects of acid rain, heavy metal contamination of soil, water and air, and effects on human health, are not figured into the costs. Residents in surface mining areas have a rate of fatal cancers that is 50% higher than the national average, and a 42% higher rate of birth defects. Environmental regulations have been weakened under President Obama, and Patriot, one of the largest companies, just filed for bankruptcy. This makes significant cleanup unlikely and threatens the future of workers' pensions.

Former West Virginia Congressman Ken Hechler spoke to the crowd gathered in the state forest: “My fight is to save the mountains and protect the mountains. I’ve been talking about protecting the mountains, but what I really mean is protecting the people. It’s the people who deserve the protections. I may be 97 years old, but I’ve still got a lot of fight left in me. And I fight to win, not to be beaten by money...I’m always fond of quoting the Preamble to the Constitution of the United States. ‘We the people’ - not we the corporations, nor we the polluters, but ‘We the people,’ - ‘in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice’… that’s the inspiration that the framers of our Constitution were talking about.”

Coal miners are worried about retaining their jobs in an industry where average wages for union mineworkers with seniority are $30 an hour. Appalachia is an area that consistently has higher unemployment and poverty rates than the national average. Opponents maintain that miners should be re-employed in reclamation and building up West Virginia's growing tourism industry. The protest banners unfurled at Hobet 45 read, “Restore our mountains, reemploy our miners.”

Dustin Steele and nine other activists have been released from jail, but others remain behind bars, a week after the protest. Steele, in a speech shortly before the protest, said, “Rich man and me don't have very much in common. Coal operator and me don't have very much in common. Me and a coal miner, we've got something in common. We're drinking the same shitty water; we're breathing the same shitty air.” He added, “The people who are blowing up the mountains are the people who are kicking people out of their homes in New Orleans, they are the people who are drilling for gas in Pittsburgh. They are the same people, the same forces of power that cause oppression. Regardless of the background, when you fight oppression anywhere, you fight oppression everywhere.”

Though the action accomplished the stated goals, now the organization which planned the action, Radical Action for Mountain Peoples' Survival, is faced with raising $500,000 in bail money for the activists who have been detained. If you would like to contribute to this effort, make checks or money orders payable to RAMPS and mail to: Michael Bowersox, PO Box 51, Rock Creek, WV 25174

Also, you can view Dustin Steele's moving speech at rampscampaign.org

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