Ground Zero is No Joke – impressions from Appalachia’s struggle against King Coal

posted by Branden Ran

Finding your way to Climate Ground Zero is easy if you know where you’re going.  Well, even then I’ve learned that Google will lead me astray from time to time. But in terms of what CGZ is, well, I thought I knew.

I didn’t have a clue.

Well, maybe that’s unfair.

I knew what was going on in the mountains of Appalachia, I knew that people were fighting a powerful company that is extracting coal and destroying mountains and communities, and I knew that Climate Ground Zero refers to where the main battle for our global climate is going on – here in the heart of Coal Country, in the US where we produce the lion’s share, per capita, of the world’s greenhouse gases and half of that comes from coal. I knew that this battle is seriously heating up. But I didn’t know how serious.

From Google Earth
From Google Earth

Of course it’s serious that a company is mining coal with machines bigger than office buildings and tremendous amounts of explosives, carried daily in tankers that rip along these narrow two lane highways.

And of course it’s serious when people’s families are endangered, their homes destroyed by floods caused by the mining, and the mountains that sustain so much life, so much diversity, are being wiped out for corporate profit. In this area that is stunningly beautiful, terrible things are indeed happening.

Since 1991 Massey Energy has led the pack in the race to take all the coal available from the once-hallowed mountains of Appalachia. They have systematically led the charge and taken the lion’s share of profit in the most efficient form of coal mining available, Mountaintop Removal.

The EPA continues to grant the permits that allow this company to employ far fewer workers than ever before in the history of coal mining. An underground mine used to employ as many as 500 workers. Now these operations can employ as few as 19.

The West Va Department of Environmental Protection, the DEP or “Don’t Expect Protection” as they are known euphamistically, continues to allow this company to clearcut the forests in this incredibly rich biome, an area that has been identified as the oldest deciduous forest in North America and the literal source of the great diversity of forests North America once supported. The EPA continues to grant permits that allow the mountaintops to be pulverized with explosives, the coal seams gouged out and processed, and the remaining rubble to be pushed into the valleys, or “hollers”, which has so far led to the utter annihilation of 2000 miles of streams and waterways and countless plants and animals. Of the estimated 900 mountaintops in Appalachia, over half of them have been “dropped” and destroyed for the “cheap” coal that lies beneath.

Massive MTR Operation
Massive MTR Operation - thanks to Southwings for taking us up

It has also led to the deaths of residents through uncontrollable flooding as well as the tragic death of 3-year old Jeremy Davidson when a massive boulder dislodged during operations and crushed him to death when it rolled though his bed while he slept.

As a parent this tragedy has extra meaning for me. As a citizen, one would expect greater accountability and protection. Not here and not now at least. Business continues as usual, although there is a case filed by the parents who hope their son’s tragic loss may amount to something more that will provide protection for residents.

Why is mining allowed so near residents? Because state and federal laws allow it. Laws prohibit surface mining within 300 feet of an occupied dwelling and within 100 feet of a public road. Otherwise, go for it.

Opposition has been growing, slowly over time, but that’s often how it goes with wars. And make no mistake, there is a war brewing in Appalachia’s mountains, and so far those who are stepping up do so to defend their homes, their families and the mountains that in many cases have been home to many generations of their families. This is a war that has the classic elements of a deeply oppressed people and a powerful overlord that has outright contempt for the people who have every right to continue making their homes here. And that contempt shows itself in many ways.

Clean, carbon neutral coal?
Clean, carbon neutral coal?

Depopulation, common here, is a practice that promotes an exodus of residents from an area by making life so hard, so dangerous, and so frightening, that they simply have no choice but to accept whatever offers they can manage on their properties, pack up and make way for the fences and the gates that follow them, constantly expanding the area under control of King Coal.

The “mining” operations bear the names of the communities that they displace: Twilight, Lindytown, Marsh Fork and others. Once the people are out of the way there is less threat of opposition, less risk of damage that could lead to lawsuits or other troubles, however unlikely. And once the people are gone there is no one to witness the filling of the “hollers”, the blackening of the streams, the absolute removal of mountains – no one to stand in the way or risk liability.

Climate Ground Zero is a name that has been given to a resistance movement of people who may not be displaced, for many of them aren’t from here, but they don’t have as much to lose as the locals and can operate more freely. People have come from local areas, yes, but also from all over the country in response to the pleas for assistance from some of the locals who have chosen to stay and fight for what is right, what is theirs, and what should be inviolate. Some have just come because they see the injustice and they feel they must do something. And so they come.

And it’s a good thing they have. Those who grow up in this area know that laws that apply in the rest of the country don’t apply here. Justice in the Appalachian sense implies that the company will get what it wants, and that those who resist will be made to suffer, and that eventually fighting will only hurt them and those they love. And when the economies that once supported thriving communities that bore the names of the operations I mentioned above have dried up because of lack of work, poor wages, ill health, and the stress of living with constant explosions and continual heavy machinery traffic, then there really is no reason to stick around.

I wish I could convey how very real this difference is between these beautiful mountains and the rest of the country, but honestly, you need to see it for yourself.

This helps: Check out the reality of MTR with this handy layer in Google Earth.

But there is every reason for those of us with the means and the passion for justice to come from without to help those who remain, and to stand up for the mountains and the voiceless life they support.

Under the direction, however casual but always effective, of RAN co-founder Mike Roselle, a staging area has been created that has seen a series of actions executed against the tyranny of King Coal’s reign. Non-Violent Direct Action has driven tyrants out all over the world; bringing peace and self-determination, gaining women the right to vote, saving species from commercial hunting, and so on. We have great leaders upon whose shoulders we stand; Ghandi, Martin Luther King, Jr., Mother Theresa and others.

James McGuinness and Mike Roselle of Climate Ground Zero were arrested today, February 25, 2009, on Performance Coals Edwight Mountaintop Removal site in southern West Virginia. The protesters chose to focus on the active mountaintop removal site above Marsh Fork Elementary School in Sundial, WV on the eve of the 37th year annivesary of the Buffalo Creek Disaster. photograph by Antrim Caskey
James McGuinness and Mike Roselle of Climate Ground Zero were arrested on February 25, 2009, at Performance Coal's Edwight Mountaintop Removal site in southern West Virginia. The protesters chose to focus on the active mountaintop removal site above Marsh Fork Elementary School in Sundial, WV on the eve of the 37th year anniversary of the Buffalo Creek Disaster. photograph by Antrim Caskey

And it will save these mountains and these communities. An action in Wise County on September 7th drew attention to the construction of an unnecessary coal-fired power plant with 11 arrests and led to the revocation of that building permit. A subsequent action that stopped work at the Twilight Mine saw 14 activists arrested and made national headlines. Following that a rally – unheard of in this area and bolstered by the participation of celebrities and scientists and saw dozens arrested and gained national attention for an elementary school that lies directly under a massive removal operation.

And most recently a couple of tree-sitters kept a mountain safe from Massey Energy for six days, increasing awareness of this issue. They endured significant abuse by mining company employees – sleep deprivation, threatened with chainsaws, verbally abused, etc. And when they came down, finally, for fear for their safety, they were arrested and held on $25,000 bail – a ludicrous amount for a non-federal charge that amounted to trespassing and littering. Here where the media is 95% controlled by King Coal, as is 98% of the law this is what one begins to expect – though I’ll never get used to it. Fortunately those figures were adjusted down to a rational $1000 each – a small blessing in a sea of darkness.

The treatment of the activists by Massey was so abusive that two security guards walked off the job, unwilling to be a party to such inhuman, criminal behavior. Check out this video of the guards talking about their experience.

And when the actions are over, the activists gather again to share knowledge gained and plan for the next peaceful salvo that will help grow this resistance until finally the mountains are safe, the communities can get back to living again, and King Coal fades into a past that should have been history long ago.

We are witnessing the death of a dinosaur and the birth of a new era, and it’s happening at Climate Ground Zero. Be a part of it – and do so with your support of the folks at CGZ and with your support of RAN. Strength in numbers, creativity and courage.

Activists shut down a dragline at the Twilight Mine, Boone County, West Virginia
Activists shut down a dragline at the Twilight Mine, Boone County, West Virginia