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Environmental activists plan summer mining protests

Environmental activists from around the country are being urged to descend on Appalachia this summer for a series of protests against mountaintop removal coal mining.

Called “Mountain Justice Summer,” the four-month campaign is modeled after protests more than a decade ago against logging old-growth forests in Northern California.

The event is being sponsored and promoted by a Tennessee-based affiliate of the controversial group EarthFirst!.

On Thursday, Whitesville-based Coal River Mountain Watch is hosting a kickoff rally.

But none of West Virginia’s major environmental organizations has signed on as a sponsor of Mountain Justice Summer, group officials said.

“It is more a campaign than it is a coalition of groups,” said Judy Bonds of Coal River Mountain Watch, which supports the project’s goals but is also not a sponsor.

John Johnson, a Knoxville, Tenn., resident and volunteer with Katuah EarthFirst!, agreed with that assessment.

“Mountain Justice Summer is more of an amorphous movement than a tight organization,” Johnson said in a phone interview last week.

On its Web site, Mountain Justice Summer asks for volunteers to spend part or all of the summer in West Virginia and the surrounding coal states to protest mining operations.

“We see our call to action as an emergency plea, in desperate circumstances — to ratchet up the resistance to the atrocity of Mountain Range Removal before it’s too late,” the Web site says.

“Mountain Range Removal is the ultimate theft of a people’s heritage, the destruction of entire watersheds and the annihilation of one of the most biologically diverse places on earth,” the site says. “And, the perpetrators are turning it into the biological equivalent of a parking lot. The theft of our mountains is escalating as the coal companies strive to outdo one another in their orgy of destruction.”

Critics and opponents of mountaintop removal in West Virginia say that they support the campaign’s goal of stopping large-scale strip mining.

But within West Virginia’s environmental community, the event has become somewhat controversial. At least in part, that is because of fears that some protests could turn violent or involve destruction of property.

“Frankly, OVEC is wary, as we don’t know all the groups and individuals involved,” said Vivian Stockman, project coordinator for the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition. “We are very relieved to see this note on the [Mountain Justice Summer] Web site: ‘MJS is committed to nonviolence and will not be engaged in property destruction.’”

From the start, though, organizers of Mountain Justice Summer could be inadvertently setting themselves up for a confrontation.

By coincidence, their kickoff rally on Thursday will start just about the time that the industry group Friends of Coal ends its annual day at the Legislature.

Both groups have planned their events for the area on the north side of the Capitol building. Friends of Coal will hold its rally on the Capitol steps, and Mountain Justice Summer on the stage farther from the building.

Bill Bissett, a spokesman for Friends of Coal, said he doesn’t anticipate any problems.

“It’s everyone’s Capitol,” said Bissett, who runs the Friends of Coal campaign for Charleston publicist Charles Ryan Associates.

“People have differences of opinion every day,” Bissett said. “That happens at the Capitol all the time.

“Our goal is to bring people together, and show the broad support that exists for the coal industry.”

In Tennessee, Katuah EarthFirst! — named for a Cherokee word for the Southern Appalachian region — has organized stepped-up protests against strip mining.

Two years ago, the group blocked an access road to a mine on Zeb Mountain in Campbell County with concrete-filled barrels and by chaining themselves to the barrels, according to an account in the Knoxville News-Sentinel.

Last year, the group claimed in an Internet report to have placed locks on all of the gates at a Wise County, Va., mining office to prevent employees from going to work at the mine.

Johnson, the Tennessee activist, says that Mountain Justice Summer organizers hope to employ similar tactics across the region.

“We hope to be doing some of that, but we don’t have any specific plans yet,” Johnson said.

Johnson also insisted, “We want to abolish mountaintop removal, but we are going to insist on nonviolence.”

Johnson said some mountaintop removal opponents are frustrated that other efforts, from lawsuits to political lobbying, have not halted the practice.

“Since the overall anti-mountaintop removal movement has tried all of these other avenues, we think it’s time to get a little more confrontational,” Johnson said.

On its Web site, EarthFirst! says that it was formed in 1979 “in response to a lethargic, compromising, and increasingly corporate environmental community.”

“EarthFirst! takes a decidedly different tack toward environmental issues,” the Web site says. “We believe in using all the tools in the toolbox, ranging from grassroots organizing and involvement in the legal process to civil disobedience and monkeywrenching.”

Monkeywrenching is a form of activism that became famous in environmental circles when Edward Abbey wrote the novel, “The Monkey Wrench Gang” in 1975. It involves destruction of construction sites or industrial equipment. One of its most famous tactics involves tree spiking, where metal nails or spikes are driven into trees to stop loggers.

In 1990, EarthFirst! organized “Redwood Summer” to protest the timber industry’s intensive logging of Northern California’s old-growth forests.

The effort became widely linked to violent “eco-terrorism,” especially after two of its organizers were injured when a pipe bomb blew up in the car they were driving in May 1990.

Police arrested the pair — Judi Bari and Darryl Cherney — hours after the blast, telling the press that they were eco-terrorists who planned to use the bomb in their efforts.

But in June 2002, a federal court jury found that FBI agents and Oakland, Calif., police had framed the two activists to quash their political work. The jury decided that the government had violated the pair’s civil rights, and awarded them $4.4 million in compensatory and punitive damages.

In West Virginia, the debate over mountaintop removal has not been without a violent moment.

In 1999, a mob attacked Secretary of State Ken Hechler and other anti-mountaintop removal activists who were re-enacting the march that union miners made in 1921 during the Battle of Blair Mountain. Three of the attackers pleaded no contest to misdemeanor battery charges. Logan County Assessor Russell Grimmett went to trial on the charges against him for his alleged role in the attack. He was found not guilty.

Some of the nonviolent tactics that environmental activists are likely to use have also been reintroduced to the coalfields recently by the United Mine Workers.

Last month, 10 UMW members, including union President Cecil Roberts, were arrested when they blocked the road to a Massey Energy preparation plant near Smithers with a peaceful sit-in across U.S. 60. The UMW used such tactics widely in its 1989-90 strike against Pittston Coal in Virginia and West Virginia.


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