Moving Mountains: Activists taking the battle to mountaintop-removal companies | Environment | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Moving Mountains: Activists taking the battle to mountaintop-removal companies

"We face these repercussions, but the coal industry doesn't."

Throughout Appalachia, mining companies are blowing up mountains for coal. 

More than 500 mountains, and 1.2 million acres of forest, have been leveled in Appalachia as a result of mountaintop-removal (MTR) mining. In this version of strip-mining, lush woodlands are turned to wastelands, and debris is dumped into neighboring stream valleys. Activists say that flooding increases in communities downhill; researchers add that blast-dust and water pollution seem to be sickening local residents. It's one way we make electricity.

Becks Kolins couldn't stand to see it happen. Earlier this year, after witnessing a mountaintop-removal site in West Virginia, the suburban-Philadelphia native took leave from her studies at New York's Skidmore College and began helping to lobby West Virginia officials on coal. When that proved frustrating -- like many activists, Kolins contends that West Virginia's government facilitates mining without much regulating of it -- she went further.

On July 20, working with the group RAMPS (Radical Action for Mountain Peoples' Survival), Kolins and fellow activist Catherine-Ann MacDougal climbed 80 feet into two trees on a MTR site owned by Alpha Natural Resources. The protest was the latest organized by a variety of groups on Coal River Mountain, located about five hours south of Pittsburgh. The tree-sit temporarily prevented Alpha from blasting nearby.

Thirteen days later, Kolins, 21, voluntarily descended to face arrest. She'd hoped to publicize her cause with jail time; instead, she was charged with 13 counts of trespass (later reduced to one), one count of conspiracy and one count of … littering, for leaving the small platform she'd lived on behind in her tulip poplar. 

The irony of facing littering charges for opposing strip-mining wasn't lost on Kolins. Neither was the claim of "irreparable damages" in a lawsuit filed Aug. 30 by Alpha subsidiary Marfork Coal Co. The suit seeks unspecified damages from, and a permanent injunction against, Kolins, MacDougal and two fellow activists who provisioned them during the tree-sit.

"We're all looking for lawyers," says Kolins, now back at Skidmore.

And activists are seeking any help they can get against MTR.

True, the Obama administration has acknowledged some of MTR's environmental impacts and made permitting a little tougher. "They're starting to do the right thing and enforce the law," says Rob Goodwin, of the group Coal River Mountain Watch. Media attention has increased, thanks in part to The Last Mountain, a documentary about Coal River Mountain, and a recent CNN special. (In August, a national CNN poll found 57 percent opposition to MTR.)

But Candidate Obama vowed to end MTR. Meanwhile, blasting continues: MTR accounts for roughly 8 percent of U.S. coal consumption, and nearly a third of all mining in West Virginia.

The stakes in the MTR struggle include community health. Mine runoff contaminates water with sulfates, iron, manganese and other metals. Blasting pollutes the air with ammonium nitrate, silica and sulfur compounds. The industry contends its practices are safe. But a recent study co-authored by a West Virginia University professor, Michael Hendryx, found that from 1996-2003, birth defects were 63 percent more common in central Appalachian counties with MTR than in nearby areas without it. And in July, Hendryx co-authored a study that found West Virginia residents of MTR areas reporting twice the cancer incidence found in non-MTR areas.

Kolins says such studies are one reason she'll plead not guilty at her Oct. 24 hearing in Beckley, W.Va. She'll invoke a necessity defense, she says: "We face these repercussions, but the coal industry doesn't, and they're poisoning people."

While many West Virginians support MTR, others, like Bo Webb, want it stopped. Webb has been fighting for 10 years, ever since returning to retire in his rural hometown at age 52. Instead of hunting and fishing, he got activism. The ex-Marine's house on Cherry Pond Mountain (near Coal River Mountain) is 400 yards from the blasting on an Alpha mine site.

"We're starting to see the long-term effects of mountaintop-removal," says Webb, who co-authored the Hendryx cancer study. 

Webb thinks protests like Kolins' tree-sit are valuable; he's been arrested for civil disobedience "a few times" himself. But he favors taking the fight to Washington, and not on traditional "environmental" grounds, like protecting endangered species.

"We'll end mountaintop-removal on the health issue," says Webb. "People are dying."

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