MORGANTOWN, W.Va. (AP) - It was the slap heard 'round the coalfields: Cordelia Ruth Tucker, wearing the fluorescent-striped shirt of a miner, strode past West Virginia state troopers and into a stream of marchers protesting mountaintop removal mining to deliver an audible smack.
The 54-year-old Rock Creek woman isn't talking as she awaits trial on a battery charge. Her neighbor, environmental activist Judy Bonds, says she was on the receiving end of the slap.
And Bonds - like many in a place where labor disputes have a violent history - fears more blows will follow as the fight escalates over mountaintop removal, the uniquely Appalachian form of strip mining that involves blowing tops off mountains and dumping the rubble in valleys.
For nearly a decade, environmentalists and the mining industry battled in courtrooms and the Capitol. Arrests were unheard of.
This year, as mountaintop removal has drawn more scrutiny from regulators, policy makers and the public, the activists' strategy changed.
There have been nearly 100 arrests in 20 protests, most involving trespassing. Led by a new group called Climate Ground Zero, the activists have chained themselves to giant dump trucks, scaled 80-foot trees to stop blasting and paddled into a 9 million-gallon sludge pond. They've blocked roads, hung banners and staged sit-ins.
Virginia-based Massey Energy claims a single 3½-hour occupation at Progress Coal Co. in Twilight cost the company $300,000. Two environmentalists pleaded no contest to battery after that incident for trying to push past a miner and climb a 20-story, earth-moving crane.
Mountaintop removal foes say the industry and its allies are stoking fear and anger among miners and their friends by accusing environmentalists, Congress and the Obama administration of trying to kill coal through regulation and permitting.
Massey equates anti-coal with anti-American. Pittsburgh-based Consol Energy blames the planned layoffs of 482 miners on a lawsuit by the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition.
Both sides are fighting for a way of life. The miners see the mountains as their livelihood. The environmentalists see them as divine and irreplaceable creations.
Since that slap in June, conflict has manifested itself mainly in harsh words and shows of force: Shout-downs by hundreds of miners at an Army Corps of Engineers hearing; a bare-bellied miner's profane, throat-slitting gesture at a picnic for environmentalists on Kayford Mountain; a curse-laden online tirade in which someone using the screen name "Superhippieslayer" warns, "Look out violence is coming your way. There is a group ready as we speak to eliminate the threat."
The bitter feelings bubble up in comments posted on YouTube video links to incidents like the June 23 protest march where Bonds was slapped. Hundreds of comments were posted after she spoke at a Dec. 7 rally in Charleston, many laced with profanities.
It's to the point where Bonds, a diminutive 57-year-old, has installed home-security cameras, carries a handgun and checks her car for dangling bomb wires.
"I feel a sense of dread," she said. "You're taking your life in your hands if they know who you are."
Lorelei Scarbro, an activist with Coal River Mountain Watch, said the industry provokes the miners as it demonizes the environmentalists.
"It's not the working man that's the problem here," Scarbro said. "It's the industry and the way they continue to use and exploit people on both sides of the issue, whether it's the working man trying to take care of his family or the environmentalist trying to take care of us all."
Environmentalists use words like "corrupt," ''greedy" and "thugs" to describe the pro-coal establishment. Industry counters with words like "hippies," ''extremists" and "terrorists."
The West Virginia Coal Association dismisses much of the inflammatory language as harmless rhetoric, to be expected when jobs are on the line.