The battle in Appalachia's coalfields: Are the politicians listening?

massey_protest_handcuffs.pngThe nonviolent protest movement against destructive coal mining was ratcheted up another notch yesterday, with an action at a Massey Energy operation in West Virginia drawing about 200 people and a number of notable celebrities and environmentalists -- as well as an equally large contingent of counter-protesters who attempted to drown out speeches by shouting, blowing air horns, revving motorcycle engines and blasting car stereos.

massey_protest_marchers1.pngThe protest turned violent at moments. Jeff Biggers at Huffington Post reported that a Massey supporter assaulted activist and Goldman Environmental Prize winner Julia "Judy" Bonds with Coal River Mountain Watch and also tried to attack protester Lorelei Scarbro, a coal miner's widow and community organizer. The perpetrator was arrested and charged with battery.

hechler_arrest_massey.pngAmong those protesting Massey were leading NASA climate scientist James Hansen, who has called on young people to take direct action to address climate change; 94-year-old former U.S. Congressman and former West Virginia Secretary of State Ken Hechler, who crafted the first federal legislation protecting mine workers from deadly coal dust; and actress, environmental activist and sustainability blogger Darryl Hannah.

More than 30 people were arrested -- including all three celebrities (photo of Hechler being arrested above) -- for blocking a road leading to Massey property. Biggers reported these remarks from Hansen:
"I am not a politician; I am a scientist and a citizen ... Politicians may have to advocate for halfway measures if they choose. But it is our responsibility to make sure our representatives feel the full force of citizens who speak for what is right, not what is politically expedient. Mountaintop removal, providing only a small fraction of our energy, should be abolished."
The protest took place in Raleigh County, W.V. at Marsh Fork Elementary School, which is located in a river valley 400 yards below Shumate Dam, a leaky 2.8 billion-gallon coal sludge impoundment used by Goals Coal, a processing plant owned by Massey. The mountain above the school is also the site of a mountaintop removal mining operation, where ongoing blasting threatens the sludge impoundment. Local activists have launched the Pennies of Promise campaign to raise money to get the school relocated, something West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin (D) has refused to do.

Concerned citizens of Coal River Valley, as the area is known, are also pressing for the construction of a wind farm on Coal River Mountain, which is located across the river from the elementary school. A study has found that it would be possible to build more than 300 megawatts of wind energy capacity on the mountain -- enough to power 70,000 homes and put $1.7 million in tax revenues in the county's coffers annually. However, Massey -- the fourth-largest coal company in the U.S. -- is seeking permits to blast off the mountaintop, which is the last one left standing in the area. That would destroy the site's wind potential.

This week, Hansen agreed to stay in West Virginia an extra day to debate Massey Chairman and CEO Don Blankenship about global warming, the coal industry and mountaintop removal mining. But Blankenship is pressing for a televised debate on Thursday, the Charleston Gazette reports.

Blankenship does not believe in the threat of global warming. In a speech he delivered at the Tug Valley Mining Institute in West Virginia last November, for example, Blankenship -- who sits on the board of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce -- derided House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid as "greeniacs" and said he didn't think that climate change is "real."

Whether or not the Hansen-Blankenship debate takes place, an even more critical conversation about the future of coal is set to begin this Thursday, June 26 at 3:30 p.m. in Washington, D.C. That's when the Senate Subcommittee on Water and Wildlife will hold a hearing about the impacts of mountaintop removal coal mining on water quality in Appalachia.

Scheduled to testify is Maria Gunnoe, an organizer with the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition of Huntington, W.V. and a winner of this year's Goldman Prize. Other panelists include a representative of the regional Environmental Protection Agency's environmental assessment division, a scientist with the Chesapeake Biological Laboratory, and regulators with the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation and the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection (WVDEP).

The mining industry also plans to be a presence at the meeting, with the Mountaintop Mining Coalition, Citizens for Coal and the West Virginia Coal Association organizing a caravan of buses to Washington.

Gunnoe's group and Coal River Mountain Watch have called on the federal government to take over WVDEP, saying the agency has "failed to do its job by not enforcing laws and regulations, allowing coal companies to pollute with impunity." But it remains unlikely the Obama administration would be willing to do that -- especially since the White House recently disappointed foes of mountaintop removal by declining to impose an outright ban on the practice.

Instead, the administration said it would seek to reduce mountaintop removal mining's  environmental impact through the permitting process. But this week's ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court in a case involving an Alaska gold mine raises questions about how effectively the White House can tackle the environmental impact of coal mining via permits.

In a 6-3 decision, the Court held that the federal Clean Water Act allows a mining company to dump hundreds of thousands of gallons of toxic mine waste into a lake and render it virtually lifeless -- a ruling that the nonprofit law firm Earthjustice said "has dire implications for other waterways across the country." The ruling upholds the Army Corps of Engineers' authority to permit this so-called "fill" dumping rather than the EPA, which has more stringent environmental requirements. The Corps is also the permitting authority for the so-called "valley fills" associated with mountaintop removal, where the blasted-off overburden is dumped into the river valley below, polluting streams and creating flooding problems.

Earthjustice noted that the environmental problems created by the high court's ruling could be reversed easily if President Obama simply repealed a rule handed down by the Bush administration in 2002 allowing the Corps wide latitude to issue these so-called "fill" permits.

It remains uncertain whether Obama and other federal leaders are ready to stand up to politically powerful mining interests and halt the environmental destruction. But it seems clear that the protest movement against the ruin of Appalachia will continue.

As Hechler said in an interview videotaped during yesterday's protest, "We need hell-raising to stop this devastating practice."

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story said that Appalachian Voices, a North Carolina-based group opposed to mountaintop removal, reported that a miner may have been injured at the action; in fact, this occurred at an earlier action when activists scaled a dragline. We regret the error.

(Images are stills from a Rainforest Action Network video of the June 23 protest in West Virginia.)