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Group plants trees in mountaintop-removal protest

KAYFORD, W.Va. -- Dozens of activists planted trees on a Kayford Mountain mine Sunday in protest of mountaintop removal coal mining.

More than 50 people from Mountain Justice and Climate Ground Zero showed up to the Patriot Coal Corp.-owned mine for the non-violent protest, including politician and long-time mountaintop-removal opponent Ken Hechler and U.S. Senate Mountain Party candidate Jessie Johnson.

"I want to see social justice in the state of West Virginia and the nation," Johnson said. "I want to see environmental justice in the state of West Virginia and the nation."

Hechler, a former congressman and secretary of state, put his support behind Johnson's senate campaign two months ago, after an unsuccessful bid for the senate seat in the recent special primary. At the rally Sunday, Hechler continued to endorse Johnson.

"[Johnson] is the only candidate running who is in favor of these God-given mountains," Hechler said. "The other candidates are cheerleaders for mountaintop removal."

Both Johnson and Hechler gave a short speech about mountaintop removal and Johnson's candidacy before walking with the crowd of protesters to the mine site to plant the trees.

The 96-year-old Hechler, flanked by Johnson and other supporters who helped him stay on his feet, led the way down a rocky trail to the site.

About 20 protesters carried hemlock, walnut, red oak, and tulip poplar sprouts. They planted them into a hill on top of the site while the rest of the crowd watched from about a half-mile away on property owned by Larry Gibson, another activist.

John Johnson, one of the leaders of the demonstration, said he picked tulip poplar because it is the state tree of his native Tennessee.

He picked hemlock because their roots help keep streams clean, he said.

In mountaintop removal, coal operators use explosives to blast off entire hilltops and uncover valuable low-sulfur coal reserves. Leftover rock and dirt is shoved into nearby valleys, burying streams.

Industry officials consider the method to be highly efficient and the only way to reach some thin seams of Appalachian coal.

But critics point to the fewer number of workers mountaintop removal needs, and a growing body of science shows that forests, water quality and community health are threatened by mining practices.

"We're going to reforest this mine site," John Johnson said. "It's crucial work."

It took the protesters until late Sunday afternoon to finish planting the trees. Security guards eventually arrived, warned them they were trespassing, and threatened to call the police. Police had not arrived as of about 4 p.m.

Benny Zable, 65, travels to the U.S. from Australia for several months every year to take part in environmentalist protests. Zable wore a long black trench coat and a gas mask shaped like a human skull. He carried a flag, on which was printed a picture of Earth.

"When we are killing the Earth, we are killing the life force that keeps us alive," Zable said. "This whole movement is about giving back to Earth."

Federal regulations require coal companies to reclaim mining sites by planting vegetation and restoring them to the original contour.

Zable helped spread a large blue banner on the hill where the activists were busy planting trees. The crowd cheered as the words "Reclamation FAIL" came into view.

Reach Zac Taylor at Zachary.Taylor@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5189.


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