By Clare Hanrahan
It was a dramatic scene Saturday, July 28, near the now abandoned community of Hagertown in a remote area of Lincoln County in southern West Virginia. Just after 1 p.m. a fifteen vehicle caravan pulled up at the entrance of Patriot Coal's Hobet Mine No. 45. Fifty mountain defenders quickly exited the cars, taking by surprise the lone woman worker standing outside the guard shack at one of the largest mountain-top removal coal mining operations in Appalachia.
The nonviolent intervention action was coordinated by the grassroots organization R.A.M.P.S.--Radical Action for Mountain People's Survival.
As caravan vehicles pulled away, we scrambled into a most desolate scene. Scraped and sterile earth, piles of rocky rubble as far as the eyes could see, and slurries of slate grey slippery mud beneath our feet.
"It's just horrible. It's sacrilegious. It's like the end of the world," said Professor Steve Norris, a peace studies teacher at Warren Wilson college in Swannanoa, North Carolina. Miles and miles of rocks and mud are all that remains where ancient mountains and valleys once supported a richly biodiverse ecosphere. "We were in a sacrifice zone," Norris later said, tearfully recalling the experience.
On distant barren high ridges massive machines dumped pulverized mountain rock to fill once lush valleys in an ecological assault recently authorized by Obama's EPA for the Corridor G mining complex, of which the Hobet mine is a part. Cloudy contaminated mine drainage water, perhaps displaced from a woodland creek, snaked through piles of rubble devoid of life, seemingly seeking its now-buried stream bed. Such mining operations contaminate surface water for hundreds of years.
A Google Earth search for Spurlocksville, West Virginia will reveal the scene of destruction, but until one stands in the midst of the devastation, the horror of the massive crime cannot be fully realized.
As we moved further into the dead zone we crossed the paths of coal miners operating the mountain demolishing Caterpillar- made machines. They revved up the motors and blared their horns. Disciplined and determined, the well-prepared direct action groups dispersed over the acres of devastation. I and two other colleagues, Steve Norris and Coleman Smith, who traveled from Asheville, North Carolina, accompanied the action groups on site to observe and record.
Halting Mountain-Top Removal in West Va. by Mountain Justice Photos
As mine site security vehicles alerted to our presence rushed to the scene, ten men and women climbed onto one of the huge mountain destroying rock machines and locked down, some encasing their arms in pipes to hinder their removal. They affixed banners, one declaring: "Restore our Mountains. Reemploy our Miners."
"Coal companies must employ their surface mine workers in reclaiming all disturbed land to the highest standards," said R.A.M.P.S. spokesperson Mathew Louis-Rosenberg. "Instead of arguing about the "war on coal,' political leaders should immediately allocate funds to retrain and re-employ laid off miners to secure a healthy future for the families of this region."
Another banner, "Coal Leaves, Cancer Stays," warned of the toxic legacy of this extractive industry for generations to come in the lives and homeland of the workers and their families.
The rock machine operator watched the scene from his high cab as several mine officials arrived in white Cherokee Sport 4x4 vehicles. One filmed with a video camera, while others used radios, presumably to alert police. Later a truck arrived with wheel chucks to keep the massive machine from rolling forward on the activists who stood nearby. Interactions between these workers and the occupying mountain defenders were civil and calm. "Ya'll should just turn back," one worker advised. "Once you're under arrest you will be moved."
Street Medics, many from The Katuah Medics team were on site, and photographers and reporters were present in addition to trained legal observers.
UNCA student Ryan Halas, serving as a runner took film and video off the scene before police arrived and others waited to serve as police liaisons and to provide on the ground support for locked down mountain defenders.
Several activists standing near the machines held aloft a banner with the simple message: STOP! Another group linked arms and stretched themselves across a wide and flat expanse between an earthen wall, where multiple layers of narrow coal seams were visible, and on the other side the rubble of boulders and slurry mud. Meanwhile, young men and women, faces masked by bandanas, began lifting or rolling heavy boulders across the path of coal extraction machines and other official vehicles parked further up the road in the vast wasteland.
Back near the mine entrance, where a small stand of young trees remained, Asheville resident Bryan Garcia, geared up with safety equipment, climbed a tree and released a banner while supporters kept watch at the base of the trunk.
This mine site occupation is a bold example of a nonviolent intervention designed to bring attention to and hasten the end of mountain-top removal coal mining operations.
Mining Operations were shut down for over 3 hours.
Working at full capability, the Hobet 45 mine complex could extract nearly four million tons of thermal coal each year. Much of it is destined for overseas markets. Patriot Coal controls as much as 1.8 billion tons of coal reserves, and is currently under Chapter 11 bankruptcy procedures with possibility that union contracts and pensions could be jeopardized.
Bryan Garcia up the tree by Mountain Justice Photos
The risks of our mere presence on site were uncertain, but the risks of remaining after the police arrived were greater. And the risks of doing nothing in the face of this corporate crime carry the highest risks for all future generations.
Legal briefings during several days of preparations at the Mountain Mobilization Action Camp had warned of possible consequences. These ranged from a simple cite and release with fine and court costs, to multiple charges including criminal conspiracy, trespass, obstruction, and even domestic terrorism. Earlier interventions by R.A.M.P.S. activists had a wide range of consequences including a sixty-day jail sentence and a civil suit from the St. Louis based Patriot Coal enterprise for interrupting their deadly work.
Larry Gibson and others at rally by Mountain Justice Photos
Excellent trainings in nonviolent action strategies and cultural sensitivity were offered to participants prior to the Saturday events. The Seeds of PeaceCollective mobile kitchen provided nutritious meals and Asheville activist Coleman Smith of the New South Network of War Resisters provided banner and sign making guidance and materials for the messaging at a public rally held Saturday in Kanawha State Forest. That gathering "was swarmed with State Police and protesting miners," according to reporter C.V. Moore, writing in The Register-Herald.
Back in Hagersville near the Hobet mine site, that same reporter interviewed unemployed miner Allen Hager: "Don't come from other states and tell us how to work," he told the reporter. "If the State Police weren't here, we'd be knocking heads. Get the police out of here and we'll take care of it."
Sometime after 2 p.m. fifteen West Virginia State police and local sheriff vehicles drove up into the mine in a slow moving, single file caravan. The time for decision was at hand.
About thirty persons opted to leave when the police moved in to enforce the mine operators' trespass complaint. Twenty others remained on site. We practiced slow compliance as we walked back past the incoming line of police vehicles to the mine entrance road.
Assembled at the un-gated entrance, and kept back by a few West Virginia State Police, a dozen or so nearby residents and off-duty miners stood ready to defend their jobs and coal-mining way of life. In these mountain communities that have endured a century of denigration and exploitation, work is scarce and a hard-scrabble existence is a common struggle. Outsiders are suspect even in the best of circumstances in this clannish culture where many wear t-shirts with the simple word COAL in large print to display their deep allegiance.
As State police cautioned us to "keep moving" we walked through a gauntlet of hostile miners with desperate pleas such as "If you shut the mines, how will I feed my three children?" and shouts of "Where are you from?" and "Go Home!" These were interspersed with epithets and threats to "get out" as we made our way through. There were rumors that some miners revving up a chain saw had threatened our friend Bryan who was still holding his place high up in the tree top as we passed.
One young man in our group endured searing invective, with shouts of "queer" and "fagot" from the locals. He held his head high and with quiet dignity kept walking. "I grew up in a small town," he told me as I moved to walk along side him through the gauntlet. "If we were somewhere else, I might have a different reaction," he said while keeping to the nonviolent discipline as we had all agreed.
Outside the mine site we gathered on a narrow slope on the side of Mud River road, while locals spread the word throughout nearby households that we were there.
With the slate-colored mud of a pulverized mountain still clinging to my shoes, my eyes irritated with gritty dust and the acres and acres of desolation behind us, I walked closely with others in the afternoon heat. We soon recognized the need to stay together, remain calm, set a pace that all could meet, and keep mindful of the dangers we were facing.
Butterfly on Joe Pye Weed by commons
The roadside vegetation was in high-summer beauty. Elderberries offered fruit laden umbels as we passed; butterflies alighted on tall blooming Joe Pye Weed; mullein reached shoulder high with tiny yellow flowers still clinging to the stalks; jewelweed brightened the ditches and Queen Anne's lace graced the fields along with crimson clovers, wild cosmos and magic mugwort. In many places, the road's soft shoulder gave way, causing some to stumble and sometimes fall, but we kept going.
With no support vehicles anywhere in sight, we were forced to walk over four hours on the narrow winding Mud River road as local miners and their allies raced up and down, sometimes at very high speeds, in trucks, cars, motorcycles and all-terrain vehicles screaming "Get out. Get out!"
Steve Norris along Mud River road by Mountain Justice Photos
We had no way of knowing when help would come. We were out of phone contact, with minimal water. We were ordered off the land whenever and wherever we stopped for an off the road shady rest. At the Spurlock post office, we found a water spigot and very short respite under a shade tree until the owner arrived accompanied by state police and other vehicles to move us along, albeit in a much more polite manner than others had taken.
Some vehicles slowed down to pace us playing coal miners' laments loudly from trucks loaded with men, women and young children, some with feet dangling off tailgates.
"Oh, you're a bunch of wimps. Why don't you walk faster," one adolescent shouted. There were various levels of vehemence. Not all were hostile. Two young miners, on foot, walked alongside for a while in earnest conversation with some of the younger women. They talked about the realities of their lives and the desperate need for work.
When a car or truck pulled along side us, or we rounded a curve in the road to see a cluster of men leaning on parked cars or sitting outside a local church parking lot, we could not predict their reaction. Families had quickly mobilized in this tight knit and impoverished mining community. Some locals who slowed their vehicles to match our pace asked good questions: "How do you expect us to feed our families if you shut down the mine?" and "where will you get the electricity that you use without coal?" But it seemed neither prudent nor safe to engage in these needed conversations along the busy road.
One fellow passed us numerous times speeding by on a motorcycle holding the front wheel almost vertical as he drove alarmingly close to the walkers. Others passed at high speed with horns blaring waving shirts with coal mining slogans and flying the state flag.
"Single file, first grade style," one driver taunted. We quickly picked up the refrain as we began to move at a more unified pace, up hill and down, sharing water and encouragement and our growing anxieties about what would become of us in that mountain hollow if we didn't get out before darkness fell.
About two hours into the forced walk, video journalist Flux Rostrum of Mobile Broadcast News, who had been filming both at the mine site and the diversionary rally in Kanawha State Park, passed along the road and offered three or four walkers a way out. Later reports showed that police had refused to allow support vehicles back in to pick up walkers, threatening arrest and impoundment of their vehicles if they were found on return to be 'harboring protestors."
At 6:30 p.m. other support vehicles finally made it through to rescue us from the roadside gauntlet. This 63 year old grandmother along with Steve Norris, a great grandfather, were urged to go as the situation was tense. We crowded together with the driver and four others in the compact car. Our driver pulled away as quickly as she could, while an angry resident attempted to block our departure on a dangerous curve. As we left we were relieved to see a large van arrive to pick up our fellow walkers. That vanload of weary walkers was further delayed another two hours by miners blocking the road, until state police intervened, according to reports on Mobile Broadcast News.
Eva Westheimer in custody by Mountain Justice Photos
Twenty brave activists, including Warren Wilson student Eva Westheimer and Katuah Earth First! activist Bryan Garcia, are still being held in Western Regional Jail in Barboursville, WV on an astoundingly high $25,000 bail each -- a combined $500,000. A steep price to buy back the freedom of these earth warriors.
"We are here today to demand that the government and coal industry end strip mining, repay their debt to Appalachia, and secure a just transition for this region" said jailed activist Dustin Steele of Matewan, West Virginia. Steele has told jail supporters that he was taken into a room at the jail and beaten after his arrest, and others have alleged they were roughly handled according to R.A.M.P.S. reports.
A bill has been introduced in the U.S. House with primary sponsor Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) titled the Appalachian Communities Health Emergency (ACHE) Act. H.R. 5959 would place a moratorium on permitting for mountaintop removal coal mining until health studies are conducted by the Department of Health and Human Services.
"If we want strip mining to end and restoration work to begin; if we want a post-coal future that is more than devastated landscapes, rampant fracking, and deepening poverty; if we want a healthy and whole Appalachia, we must escalate our resistance," and the R.A.M.P.S. campaign is showing the way.
For more information on jail support and updates go to the R.A.M.P.S. Campaign website.
"The harsh repression of nonviolent civil resistance to the crime of mountaintop removal coal mining must be challenged," says Asheville area activist and Warren-Wilson college professor Email address removed">Steve Norris, who hopes to see hundreds of supporters rally outside the jail house in support of the still-jailed mountain defenders.
Photo credits: Mountain Justice Photos,
Clare Hanrahan, and R.A.M.P.S.