(Courtesy of Laura W.)
Fighting for mountain justice in Appalachia
Revolution By the Book
Before dawn on Thursday, Jan. 21, a dozen heavily laden activists headed for the edge of a strip mine site on Coal River Mountain, in southern West Virginia. The hikers approached three trees, oak and poplar, previously selected by scouts as suitable in several ways: The trees were not far apart, about 50 or 60 feet between them. Each tree was suitable for installing a person on a platform high enough up to make removal difficult. They were in undeveloped terrain where it would be hard for mine workers to bring in heavy equipment. And they were close enough to mining activities to prevent blasting if the trees were occupied.
Working quickly, the three prospective tree sitters and their supporters hoisted plywood platforms, tarps, food, water, radios, batteries, and other essentials up into the trees. Finally, the sitters—Eric Blevins, Amber Nitchman, David Aaron Smith (also known as Planet)—settled on their platforms and pulled up their ropes.
Setting up traverse lines—ropes that would enable the sitters to move themselves and their supplies from one tree to another—was about the only thing that did not go as intended. Too many branches were in the way for lines to be set between the trees, especially in the dark, so they would have to do without. The sitters had planned to share certain supplies: They had only two cellphones and one battery-to-phone charger between them, for example. If one sitter came down early, he or she wouldn’t be able to pass unused supplies to the others. Still, each of the sitters had at least a communications radio, spare batteries, and enough food and water for a week or more. Eric, who had the cellphone charger, would be the primary contact with the outside world. Amber would minimize use of her cellphone, and the three of them would communicate as needed by radio. They would make do.
Two supporters remained on the ground by the trees. Several others would hide in the woods, too far away to see the sitters but close enough for radio contact: If the sitters said they were in danger, these off-site supporters would run to their aid. Others who helped set up the sit left and began a long hike back toward base camp, several miles away, at the headquarters for Climate Ground Zero (CGZ).
CGZ supports the use of nonviolent civil disobedience by activists seeking to end mountaintop removal (MTR) coal mining and similar sorts of large-scale strip mining in Appalachia. In 2009, anti-MTR activists affiliated with the CGZ and Mountain Justice campaigns launched 18 civil-disobedience actions in West Virginia’s coalfields, incurring more than 130 arrests. Some of those actions, like this tree sit, were on mine sites; others took place at the front gates of mine facilities or in the offices of government officials. Most took place in or near the Coal River valley, and many focused on Coal River Mountain.
Coal River Mountain is the last intact mountain bordering the valley, with thousands of acres of continuous forest and healthy streams. It has excellent potential for a large-scale wind farm that would produce more jobs and higher local earnings and tax revenues than would strip-mining the site. In addition, a wind farm would leave nearly all of the mountain’s forest intact, allowing local people to continue to hunt and forage there, as they have done for generations. All those benefits could be sustained as long as the wind blows. MTR operations would end on the mountain in 15 years or so, leaving a flattened, treeless landscape with much-reduced wind potential and insufficient stability for installing large turbines.
Massey Energy, whose subsidiaries run most of the strip mines near Coal River valley, has long planned to strip-mine some 6,600 acres of this mountain, divided into four contiguous permit areas with a total of 18 proposed “valley fills,” where miners would dump rubble from mining nearby. Massey has not yet obtained permits for any of those valley fills. Instead, Massey’s subsidiary Marfork has permission to dump rubble from the Bee Tree permit area around the edge of the adjacent Brushy Fork sludge pond.
Such mining at the Bee Tree site would require blasting quite close to the huge pond, first for building a haul road then for the mining itself. The pond covers hundreds of acres, is held back by an earthen dam 900 feet high, is permitted to hold up to 9 billion of gallons of sludge (liquid waste from processing coal), and is located above a honeycomb of old underground mines. Blasting nearby thus runs the risk of causing a catastrophic flood by cracking the pond’s floor. That is exactly what happened a decade ago at another Massey site, in Inez, KY, where more than 300 million gallons of sludge spilled into tributaries of the Ohio River—30 times more waste than the Exxon Valdez oil spill. But Brushy Fork is a much bigger pond than the one at Inez, and its failure could result in a much bigger catastrophe: Massey’s own disaster contingency plan, required of it after the Inez spill, supposes a wall of sludge 40 feet high moving down the Coal River valley, mile after mile after mile.
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