Coal River Mountain sit-in

Cherry Pond Mountain, Coal River Mountain, West Virginia
Photo: Nicole Motson.

As the U.S. Supreme Court continues to hear the Brent Benjamin-Don Blankenship case on the compromise of judicial neutrality from special interest lobbies — read: Massey Energy’s Big Coal grip on West Virginia courts — five more arrests took place today in a growing campaign to stop mountaintop removal in the Coal River Valley.

If the local and nationwide momentum is any indication of a promised spring and summer campaign of civil disobedience, Coal River Mountain is destined for an extraordinary Appalachian Spring.

Earlier this week, a student campaign at Santa Clara University, a Jesuit-related school in California, won a successful victory in getting their university administration to agree to divest from their stock in Massey Energy.

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.

Today’s action took place at 1:30 p.m., at the Massey Energy Edwight mountaintop-removal site on Cherry Pond Mountain. Calling attention to the mine blasting taking place near the Shumate Dam, a mountain valley Class-C dam which holds 2.8 billion gallons of coal sludge that sits a few football fields above the Marsh Fork Elementary School, five activists unfurled a banner — “Stop Blasting, Save the Kids” — and were cited for trespassing and peacefully escorted by the state police to jail at Pettus, West Virginia. They were released.

The 385-foot earthen wall of the dam, built in the 1980s, is within view of both the school below and the nearby blasting site. The dam was built a half century after the establishment of the elementary school, where a 2005 survey found that over 80 percent of the children suffered from respiratory problems.

Only a week after the anniversary of the 1972 Buffalo Creek Dam disaster, when an impoundment burst and killed 125 people, injured 1,000, and left 4,000 homeless, the protesters called on the state of West Virginia, the EPA, and MSHA, which has recorded violations at the Shumate Dam in the past, to stop the blasting and mountaintop-removal mining, given the issue of the dam’s safety.

One of the most informative ways to understand the scope of the Shumate Dam and its proximity to the Marsh Fork Elementary School is to watch the trailer for the forthcoming documentary On Coal River, by nationally acclaimed filmmakers Francine Cavanaugh and Adams Wood.

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.

One of the participants, Nicole Motson, a freelance videographer and clean-water activist from Michigan, declared: “I feel that we have a responsibility to alert the nation about the dangers of coal production in our country. These people are suffering and directly in harm’s way. With all the money that coal companies like Massey Energy have, and all the pleading of area residents to get those kids to safety, this issue cannot wait another day. That’s why I am here, and I feel it’s important what we did today. It’s not just flipping on a switch, it’s allowing serious injustice and a silent war in the coal fields.”

Earlier last week, Raleigh County Circuit Judge John A. Hutchison granted Massey Energy’s Temporary Restraining Order against long-time activist Mike Roselle, other members of Climate Ground Zero, a photographer, and Rory McIlmoil, the co-director of the Coal River Wind project.

The first civil disobedience action took place on Feb. 3, when five Coal River Wind activists chained themselves to a bulldozer on a mountaintop-removal site that had been hailed in a special industrial wind farm study for its wind and green job potential. Later that day, another eight local Coal River residents were arrested at the Massey Energy offices, as they attempted to deliver a letter of protest.

Roselle and James McGuinness were arrested on the Cherry Pond Mountain site on Feb. 17 and Feb. 25.

Participants from today’s direct action also released their own video:

Cassandra Rice, a native of Fairmont, W. Va., who was arrested today, stated: “This is a really destructive and dangerous way of bringing energy to our homes. I worry for the future of my home state. We need immediate investment in building healthy communities and promising our state an economic and environmental future. I feel good about the way I spent my time today, we can’t just look away.”

Only hours after the West Virginia protesters were released, scores of anti-coal protesters were picketing the New York Coal Trade Association banquet at the Millennium Broadway Hotel in New York City. Organized by the Friends of the Earth, Sierra Club, and the New York Public Interest Research Group, the protest was joined by a special contingent from NY Loves Mountains, a growing all-voluntary cultural organization established to raise awareness of the connection between mountaintop removal and New York.