coal mine

Coal is loaded onto a truck at a mine on top of Kayford mountain in West Va. The mountain top was demolished to extract coal.(Photo by: Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images)

Blowing Their Tops

Miners, environmentalists clash over coal.

BY Melinda Tuhus

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CHARLESTON, W. VA.–Tensions in southern West Virginia’s coal country are higher than they’ve been in most residents’ lifetimes, as opposition to mountaintop removal coal mining increases.

On October 14, the US Army Corps of Engineers held a public hearing in Charleston, W. Va., on whether to eliminate a controversial fast-track permit for mountaintop removal (MTR) mining. The “Nationwide 21” permit authorizes discharge of mountaintop mining debris into valleys and streams with virtually no environmental oversight if the Corps has determined that only minimal damage will result.

Every day, 3 million pounds of explosives are used to blow the tops off ancient mountain ridges in southern West Virginia to access thin seams of coal underneath. The EPA estimates that by 2010, MTR will have destroyed more than 2,000 square miles of mountains throughout southern Appalachia. It has already buried 2,000 miles of streams, according to data from the EPA and the Department of Interior’s Office of Surface Mining.

Permit opponents say stream burial is a violation of the Clean Water Act and that the damage is irreversible. If the fast-track permit is eliminated, coal companies would have to undergo a more rigorous environmental review for each mining site. Supporters of the permit believe its elimination would hurt the mining industry and ancillary professions, like trucking.

Charleston’s civic center was filled to capacity for the October hearing, with almost all 740 seats occupied by coal supporters. Only a dozen or so MTR opponents signed up to speak.

Grant Crandall, general counsel of the United Mine Workers (UMW) of America said he supports coal jobs, wherever they might be. One woman received a standing ovation after describing mining jobs as West Virginia’s lifeblood. “Those who don’t agree can leave our state and take the mayflies, frogs and whatever else with you,” she added, referencing studies showing species are disappearing as streams get filled in.

When permit opponents got up to speak, they were booed and shouted down; most were unable to say anything. Retired underground miner Joe Stanley was shouted down as he tried to speak against the permits. “I’m not against mining,” Stanley said after the hearing. “We can do underground mining and do it safely.”

But it wasn’t just shouts and insults that environmentalists and local opponents of MTR had to endure–they were physically harassed by permit supporters.

Stanley said the intimidation is the worst he’s seen in a career that included rough-and-tumble efforts to organize miners into the UMW. “There were miners in the crowd who said they were getting paid to stomp our asses,” he said. If not for two Charleston police officers who intervened, he noted, “death would have occurred to some in our group.” (Some permit opponents’ lives were threatened.)

It looked like the hearing was being run by a group called Friends of Coal, Stanley said, because individuals from that group were pressing everyone who walked through the metal detectors to take their t-shirts or stickers. (Environmentalists maintain the Friends of Coal is an “astro-turf” outfit created by the West Virginia Coal Association.)

Several hundred miners and their families couldn’t get inside the civic center. They were angry and targeted anyone they thought was an opponent of mountaintop removal. Deanna Goblirsch arrived with three fellow activists, and all were immediately surrounded. “We were screamed at, and one of us had his shoes spit on,” Goblirsch said. “Miners were getting shoulder to shoulder, screaming, ‘We’re not letting you out of here.’”

Goblirsch said she had to scream twice before a police officer escorted her to safety. Several MTR opponents were told by the police they had to leave for their own protection.

Two days after the hearing, some of the same MTR opponents who attended the hearing went to Madison, West Va., where Matthew Louis-Rosenberg was the last of eight activists to go on trial. He faced felony charges of trespassing and conspiracy for his participation in a May action at an MTR site, where activists chained themselves to mining equipment for several hours.

Louis-Rosenberg was convicted and received no jail time, but his fines and court fees totaled more than $2,500. Since February of this year, more than 100 people have been arrested in a dozen non-violent direct action protests. Chuck Nelson, a disabled veteran underground miner who is now an anti-MTR activist, said he’s never seen this much tension in the region.

“Men are really scared about their jobs,” Nelson said. “[But] if they ban mountaintop removal, they can still do deep mining.” In fact, Nationwide 21 permits are not currently used in southern West Virginia due to a court ruling, though they are used in other Appalachian states. (Opponents fear they could be resurrected if they are not eliminated altogether.)

But regardless of what the Corps decides, southern West Virginia’s coal won’t be around too much longer. Data from the U.S. Energy Information Admin. indicates that based on current technology and production rates, all of the region’s mineable coal will be gone in a dozen years.

Just before the verdict was announced in Madison, Louis-Rosenberg and about 20 supporters went to eat at a local restaurant. After a waitress took their lunch orders, a young man appeared from the kitchen and asked, “Are y’all the tree huggers? Because if y’all are, my boss said you have to leave now.” 

Melinda Tuhus is an independent journalist with 25 years of experience in print and radio, including In These Times, The New York Times, Free Speech Radio News and public radio stations.

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