On the ground in West Virginia’s Coal Country

posted by Branden Ran

After a series of challenges yesterday (the pilot tapping futilely on the little “check battery” light and the cancelled flight to Google’s outdated belief that there is no mine where that road used to be) we finally found ourselves in Rock Creek, West Virginia, Ground Zero for Mountain Top Removal coal mining. This is a place like no other I’ve been. In fact, this whole area has been one surprise after another, and we haven’t even visited any actual MTR sites as yet.

The Appalachian Mountains are incredibly lush and beautiful

For starters, West Virginia is GREEN in the lushest, brightest, shadiest kind of way. There are myriad wildflowers and over 150 different kinds of trees. The hills surround you everywhere you are – except, of course where the hills have been removed, where the mountain tops have been stripped of their coal and then dumped into the adjacent valleys, the hollows; where a river’s headwaters begin and where numerous plants and animals and insects make a remarkable, complex, beautiful environment. Frogs and lightning bugs, lizards and squirrels, bears and deer and rabbits and racoons and you name it – this place is the real deal and has even been identified as the oldest deciduous forest in North America. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Emma_Lucy_Braun)

Here there is beauty as well as strife. The number of houses that are uninhabitable or in need of repair is surprising and disconcerting. More businesses seem to have closed than to be open in the many small towns you pass through; towns like Masseyville, Whiteville (just after Whitesville), Marsh Fork, Arnett, Pettry Bottom and here, Rock Creek.

There is a notable absence of commerce – (very) few restaurants, few small stores, a couple of nondescript chain groceries…and more tanning services than one could ever hope for. We counted 7 between Rock Creek and the highway to Charleston – but little else other than gas stations and random, small general stores.

And as you pass through it King Coal’s presence dominates. There are several mines you pass by – and these are just the ones by the road. They all have an ominous, dedicated “ambulance entrance”, and they all seem to find ways of passing coal across the road on various conveyors. Trucks, trucks and more trucks. Near Marsh Fork there is a coal processing area (more on that later) that was (mercifully) forced to erect a large dome over it to reduce the amount of coal dust raining down on the local community.  But those kinds of respites are rare in a country that sees more explosives blasted in one week than were dropped in total on Hiroshima on that terrible day. Here it happens all week long. And those who oppose it face strong, increasingly aggressive opposition from Coal and its employees.

A recent protest saw many community members come out for the first time, thanks in part to the presence of celebrity activist, Darryl Hannah and NASA’s Dr. James Hansen. According to some their willingness to forfeit the freedom to help raise the awareness of this tragic issue meant much to many locals, many of whom felt safe for the first time thanks to them and the others who joined in.

Today two tree-sitters, (see this earlier story) were finally removed by authorities supported by Massey Energy employees and contracted security. Aparently even Big Don Blankenship even made a dramatic appearance in his personal helicopter, swooping low over activists supporting the sitters, uncovering their hiding place and drawing unwanted attention.

For the last two days the miners had taken to making so much noise with their air horns and with drums and with chainsaws – finally threatening to cut the trees down under the sitters, starting the saw up and grinding it against the trees in an effort to unnerve the activists, that the folks decided they had to come down for their safety.

Nick Stocks, 25, and Laura Steepleton, 24 finally came down after constantly being kept from sleep and after suffering often explicitly rude verbal and physically  threatening abuse.

An unexpected ray of sunshine, one security guard is rumoured to have walked off the job in disgust at the way the tree-sitters were being treated.

According to folks at Climate Ground Zero (http://www.climategroundzero.org) they are both being held on an outrageous $25,000 bail – each – for charges such as obstructing an officer of the law and littering. Seems more than a little excessive – seems to support the notion that the laws that govern the rest of the company are somehow interpreted and used differently here.

The playing field here is not level. The law does not function as one expects it to as guaranteed by the constitution and the Bill of Rights. $25,000 bail each for obstructing destruction-as-usual – was there a felony committed here? No. But there seems to be enough influence in favor of King Coal that punitive measures such as these are possible, as unlikely as that may seem.
Apparently, this whole area is in Massey Energy’s deep pockets, and they mean to have it all. They keep up a constant battle to keep locals scared to speak out and go to great lengths to intimidate those that do. When you see the towns with failed businesses you wonder, if coal is so important to the wellbeing of these communities, where is the prosperity? I see only stolen dreams and a polluted river (apparently just downstream locals are told not to consume more than 6 ounces of fish per month if they choose to eat what they catch.)

Now Massey is taking it another step up, sponsoring the mega event, “Friends of America” rally – sponsored mostly by the “Friends of Coal”. They are giving away thousands – tens of thousands – of free tickets to a Labor Day out that includes performances by Ted Nugent and Hank Williams, Jr., and an appearance by none other than Sean Hannity.

No doubt the tickets are free but there will be plenty of vendors charging whatever they can to feed the throngs expected to take Massey CEO, Don Blankenship’s FREE TICKETS offer. I won’t be there.

But tonight I was fortunate enough to spend some time with the activists who are fighting to save these beautiful mountains, to save their communities and their homes, to protect the forests and ultimately something that in truth belongs to all of us, and yet should belong to no one.  Who speaks for them? People like Nick and Laura, and the many others at Climate Ground Zero (http://climategroundzero.org), Coal River Mountain Watch (http://www.crmw.net ), Appalachian Voices (http://www.appvoices.org), Keepers of the Mountains (http://mountainkeeper.org), Ohio Valley Educational Cooperative (http://ovec.org), Southwings Aviation (http://www.southwings.org) the Sierra Club (http://sierraclub.org), RAN (http://www.ran.org) and many others, who are helping establish a powerful force for resistance and change.

The folks here on the ground in West Virginia need our support and we owe it to them to give them every chance for success. These mountains are unbearably beautiful, and their loss is a tragedy too terrible to allow.

How many mountains must we lose before Obama’s EPA says enough is enough? (Take Action)

How many miles of streams must be buried forever under millions of tons of rock and mining debris before JP Morgan Chase takes a stand and stops funding these operations for their own profit, and our loss? (Take Action)

If we don’t help these brave people and these beleaguered communities, who will? Massey and King Coal have a lot of resources. We must ensure that these folks get the support they need. Together we are powerful, and if ever there was a need for us to join together around a common goal, a common threat, a common future, now is the time.

Stay tuned for more as tomorrow we see this issue from the sky, and spend some time with some of the local activists who have made this campaign their life’s focus.