Coal Undermine | Pittsburgh City Paper

Coal Undermine

Storied environmental activist Mike Roselle didn't come to West Virginia on a mission. He came to visit a friend -- Larry Gibson, who had refused to sell out to a coal company that proceeded to demolish the mountain by Gibson's home, south of Charleston. "The mountain used to come up around his place," says Roselle. "Now, you look down." 

That was in 2008, the year a federal court overturned a ruling that had slowed "mountaintop-removal mining," a form of strip-mining that levels mountains and buries creeks in the rubble. Suddenly that section of West Virginia -- part of a coal region stretching west to Kentucky -- was again fair game for companies like Massey Energy.

"Well, it's time for civil disobedience," thought Roselle, 55, a co-founder of Earth First! and the Rainforest Action Network.

Roselle joined local opponents of mountaintop-removal, and in January 2009, 50 protesters chained themselves to excavation equipment at a Massey mine on Coal River Mountain. (Massey has been recently been in the news because of April's deadly explosion at its Upper Big Branch mine.) And the environmental protests continue: Roselle was arrested six times last year, among some 150 arrests resulting from actions organized, ironically, from some old mining cottages near Pettus, W.Va.

On Sun., May 16, Roselle and a colleague drove the five hours to Pittsburgh for Go Tell It on the Mountain, a benefit concert for Climate Ground Zero, Roselle's anti-fossil-fuels campaign.

Roselle is tall and weathered, with a wild gray beard and deep-set hazel eyes; the title of his 2009 memoir, Tree Spiker, proudly references his support for a controversial anti-logging protest tactic. Before the show, he stood outside East Liberty's Shadow Lounge and compared the mountaintop-removal fight to the civil-rights movement.

Protesters, he says, just want government to enforce the law: While it's illegal to dump "waste" into a stream, the Bush administration reclassified mine waste as "fill," which is legal to dump. In West Virginia alone, some 1,200 miles of streams have been buried this way. And though the Obama administration hasn't issued any new "valley-fill" permits, previously permitted operations continue razing forests and entombing creeks.

Roselle knows that "tree-sits" (occupying trees in mining zones) merely slow down companies like Massey. But as with civil-rights era lunch-counter sit-ins, the goal is to draw national attention to a locally infamous problem.

Indeed, recent years have seen wider coverage of mountaintop-removal. And proposed federal laws, like the Senate's Clean Water Protection Act and the House's Appalachian Restoration Act, would effectively end mountaintop-removal.

Yet Roselle notes that no mainstream environmental groups have deployed activists in West Virginia, even as the bootstrappy Climate Ground Zero ( operates on about $70,000 a year.

Meanwhile, jail sentences for protesters are getting longer, he says. And a nation worried about climate change needs to learn how the forests it's bulldozing to seize coal are, among other benefits, really good at keeping carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere.

 "We're foreclosing our own future here," Roselle says. "It's just too high a price to pay for electricity. It's time for us to close this chapter of our energy development."