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Canaries in the Coalfields protest coal mining with more than chirps

"These coal folks in this building are nothing but terrorists, pure and simple!" Bo Webb yelled through a bullhorn to about 60 anti-coal activists outside the David L. Lawrence Convention Center on June 7, where Longwall USA, a coal-industry convention and trade show, was being held here for the 15th year. "It's cultural genocide!"


Last month, in Coal River Valley, West Virginia, where Webb lives, he and other anti-coal activists challenged a 1,840-acre, mountaintop-removal coal-processing plant run by Massey Energy Company just 400 yards from Marsh Fork Elementary School. It includes a dam holding back 2.8 billion gallons of coal sludge that, according to Webb, suffers from widespread leakage. Massey is seeking a state permit to build another coal silo at the site. Webb and another activist tried to deliver a list of demands that, among other things, the plant behind the school be shut down and that Massey withdraw its application for the new silo. They were arrested by plant security and state police. Sixteen were arrested at another rally a week later. The silo permit is still pending.


In a voice as powerful as a tent-revival preacher's, Bill Price of Dorothy, W. Va., intoned, "The true cost of coal is being borne by the people of Appalachia. We demand a national energy policy in this country that answers to the people, and not to the industry!"


Says Pittsburgher Grace Anderson, "It's hard to tell how many casualties there have been." Her grandfather was a miner, two of her uncles were blown up in mines, and coal pollution likely had a hand in her great-grandmother's Alzheimer's disease, she says.

On the upper deck of the convention center, two dozen or so coal conventioneers watched the proceedings. A few others in suits hustled past with dismissive glances.


Geoff Frost took the bullhorn. He and others had just formed Canaries in the Coalfields to counter this convention and hold one of their own.


"So here we are, outside the coal show. Inside, people are trying to figure out how to make coal last another 250 years. Do we want coal for another 250 years?"




"What do we want?" he asked, invoking the classic protest call-and-response.


It took some conferring to decide on the answer: "Clean energy now!"


Canaries in the Coalfields, says Frost, was formed in solidarity with Mountain Justice Summer, a West Virginia group dedicated to empowering people who live in parts of Appalachia that bear the heaviest societal and environmental burdens of the coal-mining industry. The fledgling group has about two dozen members regularly involved. They plan to keep speaking out against polluting energy sources and proposing alternatives, continuing to work with Mountain Justice Summer and lending their support to a new group, Robinson Residents Against the Power Plant, formed in response to Robinson Power Company's desire to build a waste-coal-burning power plant in that township. 


The worst practices, the activists say, are longwall mining and mountaintop removal. Longwall mining removes an entire vein of coal via machine, leaving the ground atop the vein to settle, often damaging surface structures and diverting water supplies. Mountaintop removal razes the earth, using explosives to blast open mountaintops to access the coal within, leaving tons of rubble.

Cleaning coal for use and burning it for energy release toxic chemicals into the environment, as well as dust and small particulate matter, which can increase rates of asthma and possibly some cancers.


Matt Noerpel, a Virginia resident and participant in Mountain Justice Summer, explains that the group organizes coalfield residents and helps to articulate their concerns to mining companies and state legislatures.


"We knock on doors, talk to people and hear what they have to say," he says.


"We want to work on the connection between rural and urban people," Frost says of the Canaries group. Urbanites don't see the literal devastation that coal mining causes, he notes. Most mining is done in poor rural areas where people are desperate for jobs, and dangerous mining jobs are often the best -- if not the only -- jobs available. These activists want to introduce sustainable alternative jobs and energy.


"I don't think anybody paid any attention to them," says Thomas Hoffman, vice president of investor and public relations for CONSOL Energy, the coal and natural gas company headquartered in Upper St. Clair, who was attending the convention. Hoffman maintains that the coal industry has done an outstanding job of complying with and surpassing state and federal environmental restrictions, and that new technologies being built into all new coal-processing plants and retrofitted onto old ones are reducing pollution.


Longwall mining, in which CONSOL has extensive operations, does undermine homes, he allows, but that's "old news. ... It's understandable that people are upset, but it's well established that we own this [underground coal]. The law requires you to make repairs or restitution, not to prohibit mining."


Dan Miller, vice president of the West Virginia Coal Association, takes issue with how activists depict mountaintop-removal mining, claiming that they only show photos before coal companies have cleaned up after their work.


"It's like looking at a patient on the operating table rather than after they're finished," he says. West Virginia is the third most forested state in the country, he contends, with mining on only 1 or 2 percent of its land.


Katharine Kenny is vice president of investor relations for Massey Energy Company, the Richmond, Va.-headquartered coal concern targeted by Mountain Justice Summer and Coal River Mountain Watch. The site by Marsh Fork Elementary School, she says, has been inspected by federal and state regulatory agencies and no concerns were found.


No one would stand in the way of alternatives to coal energy, CONSOL's Hoffman maintains, but "we literally can't do without coal," which accounted for 52 percent of all electricity used in the United States last year. Wind and solar energy -- both touted by Canaries in the Coalfields -- produced one half of one percent of all the energy used in the U.S. combined over the same period.


"I hope everyone felt empowered, marching in the streets," Frost said, looking like he could have benefited from the air conditioning blasting inside the convention center. "We're showing the connection of how environmental issues are human-rights issues."


Grace Anderson didn't think the conventioneers took the protest terribly seriously -- and that was a good thing.


"The thing that makes me glad is that the people inside are laughing. First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they listen," she said. "They're already laughing."


Canaries in the Coalfield will meet next at 7:30 p.m.,  Sun,, June 19, at the Thomas Merton Center in Garfield.

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