Arrested in West Virginia: A First-Person Account

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Mike Brune, executive director of the Rainforest Action Network, was one of 29 people arrested by West Virginia State Police yesterday while peacefully protesting mountaintop mining.

The horn blasted right outside the window where we slept early this morning.

"Wake up, losers!" two miners yelled from their pickup truck, gunning the engine. "Wake up! Time to get a job! Better yet, time to get the f*** out of town!"

Ah, yes. Mornings in the coal fields of West Virginia. For wake-up calls, I generally prefer morning crickets, birds chirping, perhaps the smell of coffee – I’ll even take a few kicks to the ribs in bed from my little ones. Oddly enough, however, I must say I find taunts from belligerent coal miners to be highly motivational.

I’ve been in West Virginia the past few days to help bring an end to mountaintop removal. We’ve made it a top priority at Rainforest Action Network.

Last week, 14 citizens were arrested in a high-altitude protest against leading mountaintop removal mining company Massey Energy. On Saturday, The New York Times stepped in with an editorial, "More than Stopgaps for Appalachia," saying that the recent announcement from the Obama Administration, while a sign of progress, doesn’t solve the problem, because:

It still leaves in place the destructive Bush rules that essentially legalized the practice of dumping harmful waste in valleys and streams. The Obama administration has pledged to restore the old buffer zone restriction. But it has said nothing at all about redefining mining waste as an illegal pollutant, which it was before the Bush people came along. A bill before the House would do exactly that. The administration should do it first.

Yesterday, a reported 800 people – including a hundred or so coal miners gathered in opposition – rallied at Marsh Fork Elementary School in West Virginia’s Coal River Valley. Following the rally, I joined Dr. James Hansen, Goldman Prize winner Judy Bonds, Daryl Hannah, local organizer Bo Webb and more than two dozen other residents in a peaceful civil disobedience at the Massey coal processing facility adjacent to the school.

There had been high tension leading up to yesterday’s demonstration. Last Friday, upon learning that Dr. Hansen would be joining the protest this week, Massey CEO Don Blankenship challenged the NASA scientist to a debate on climate change. Goading Dr. Hansen and other residents, Blankenship stated in a press release,

"While I don’t recall anyone inviting out-of-state environmental protesters from San Francisco and a Hollywood actress to Massey’s property on June 23, I’m more than willing to invite Dr. Hansen to have a factual discussion about coal mining in West Virginia. …"

Blankenship upped the ante at yesterday’s event, giving time off to some of his loudest and most bellicose workers to come intimidate their neighbors. During the rally, miners tirelessly taunted each speaker, even shouting down local Rev. Jim Lewis while he gave a short prayer.

I can’t remember a more charged atmosphere. The majority of people surrounded one half of the stage, supporting each speaker calling for an end to mountain blasting. Separated by police, the remainder crowded around the rest of the stage, wearing Massey t-shirts and shouting their disapproval.

I spoke shortly after Ken Hechler, the 94-year-old former Congressional representative who has decried the effects of mountaintop removal in his region for more than three decades.

"I want to thank Don Blankenship for inviting me to this rally," I began, to a mixture of catcalls and applause.

I told the crowd that mountaintop removal isn’t just a local issue, it’s an American problem – brought to us by Massey Energy and other coal companies.

When utility companies wanted to dam the Grand Canyon, people across the country, not just in Arizona, rallied to protect an American treasure. And when loggers were liquidating ancient redwoods in California’s Headwaters Forest, Americans from every state exercised their right to preserve part of our natural legacy.

Whether it was to end segregation or to honor women’s right to vote, Americans have always exercised their voice. And the tragedy of destroying mountains and burying streams for relatively small amounts of coal can’t be ignored by people in any state.

Then I turned to the miners.

"I understand why you’re here," I said. "I have two young children myself, and know the pressures of needing to feed your family." Personally, I think its criminal the way workers in West Virginia are being treated by coal companies and government officials. Mountaintop removal is an abomination, and all bluster from miners aside, it can’t feel good to be blowing up your own backyard.

Let’s be clear: This is a test of the Obama administration’s resolve to stimulate a clean energy economy. High wind speeds throughout much of central Appalachia present an excellent opportunity for investments in clean and renewable wind power.

The Coal River Valley, slated to be blasted by Massey Energy, could support a 328-megawatt wind farm. It’s one of the few places in the country where both the cause of climate change and its solution can be found in the exact same location.

Will we make a deep commitment to clean energy and green jobs in the U.S.? Or will Big Coal continue to intimidate Americans from the coal fields to the Beltway?

It’s time to end mountaintop removal. We need your help. Check out this short video by James Hansen, and please get involved.


See also:

NASA’s James Hansen, 28 Activists Arrested Protesting Mountaintop Mining

Appalachia Says ‘Not Good Enough’ to Obama Mountaintop Mining Plan

Appalachia’s Best Hope for Ending Mountaintop Mining


(Photos: Rainforest Action Network

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