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(en) Britain, Anarchist Federation Organise #66 - THE STRUGGLE AGAINST MOUNTAIN TOP REMOVAL IN APPALACHIA Interview by an AF member in Ireland

Date Mon, 17 Jul 2006 09:53:04 +0300

I came across Mountain Justice Summer while browsing, and was
interested in the parallels with Rossport Solidarity Camp. Both
appear to be premised on the idea of attracting youth radicalised
through anti-globalisation and anti-war activism into travelling to an
area to support a struggle based around a local community’s
opposition to environmental devastation. I was interested in learning
from the difficulties faced by, and potentials of, this campaign.
Mountain Justice Summer is based in Appalachia, historically a
place that has seen intense class struggle, quite different from Mayo,
and I was interested in how that influenced the current situation. I
interviewed Joe, a member of the Industrial Workers of the World
(IWW), aka Wobblies, who is involved in Mountain Justice
Summer, for the perspective of someone from one of the more
workplace orientated parts of the libertarian left, as those parts, in
general, are often uninterested in matters environmental.

AF: What is Mountain Top Removal and what effect is it having on
communities and ecologies in Appalachia?

Mountain Top Removal (MTR) is a form of strip mining that has
existed since the 1970s. Its use was increased about ten years ago in
West Virginia, and in the past three years its use has been
accelerated to an all-time high. Instead of starting from the top and
digging down to the coal seam, in MTR huge drills are used to bore
holes into the sides of a mountain until they hit coal. Then the hole
is packed with explosives and the top of the mountain is literally
blown off. In most cases, the rubble, or “overburden,” is
then pushed over into the surrounding valleys, burying the any
headwaters that were there. So far over 1200 miles of headwater
streams, in West Virginia alone, have been buried by this process,
know as valley filling. Geologically speaking, the coal seams that
exist in these mountains also play an important part in maintaining
the water table by creating an impermeable layer that disperses water
into the surrounding area instead of letting it sink. The combined
effect of the loss of streams and the removal of the coal has led to a
drop in the water levels, which has taken quite a toll on local
communities, many of which rely on wells for their water. Water
quality has also been declining because of the chemical runoff
created by coal washing.

Another danger around MTR sites is slurry spills. The waste from
these processes is stored in large slurry ponds, which are often
simply surrounding valleys dammed up with over-burden. Last
December there was a spill from one of these dams, operated by
Massey Energy’s Marfork Coal Company, in which 10,000
gallons of heavy metal-laden sludge was dumped into a stream,
affecting a five-mile area. In October of 2000, a spill occurred in
Kentucky that the Environmental Protection Agency has called
“the worst environmental disaster ever in the Southeast.”
One site where Mountain Justice Summer (MJS) focused a number
of its actions was at the Marsh Fork Elementary School which sits
below an over 2 billion gallon slurry pond.

The end product of MTR, of course, is that Appalachia is
disappearing. Even the most lauded reclamation efforts look more
like a golf course than the incredibly diverse mountain forests that
existed before the mining. The mountains are being topped off, and
in the process the people and communities that existed there are
being driven away. Degrading water supplies, constant blasting,
huge clouds of dust, dwindling numbers of jobs, and over-loaded
trucks barrelling down tight mountain roads are just a few of the
factors that force many families to leave. And as more and more land
becomes vacant, the coal companies just buy the land up cheap and
expand their mine.

AF: In Britain the move to electricity generation through nuclear
power, and later the development of strip-mining, was a means to
break the power of mining communities which were a source of
resistance to capital, is the story in Appalachia a similar one in
regard to the technique of Mountain Top Removal?

Absolutely. The switch to Mountain Top Removal has allowed the
companies to greatly reduce the number of employees that they
require. In the 1960s coal employed 150,000 West Virginians.
Today, despite much higher levels of coal production, it employs less
than 15,000, many of who are still employed in deep mines, which
continue to disappear as cheap MTR coal makes deep mining
uncompetitive. There are even instances of workers being brought in
from other states to fill jobs on MTR sites. This tactic is employed so
that the workers won’t worry about the long term effects of what
they’re doing and so that the company can provide as few jobs
as possible, speeding the evacuation of the community and the
expansion of their mine. The current excuse that the coal industry is
using is that they need to start bringing in an immigrant labour force
because there aren’t enough qualified West Virginians who want
to work in the mines, which is simply untrue.

AF: What sort of actions took place during last year’s Mountain
Justice Summer?

The spectrum of actions was pretty wide. There were lots of rallies
and demonstrations outside the offices of coal supporters and
government buildings. We have done lots of information gathering
and distributing, like the listening projects, where volunteers went
into the communities to ask people about their experiences with
MTR and the coal companies, or flyering and distributing our
publications while doing street theatre. We had a number of coal
sludge lemonade stands, showing folks outside the coalfields what
the by-product of coal washing looks like. During our actions in
Lexington we served the President of the Kentucky Coal Association
a bowl of coal sludge, which he actually dipped his finger in and ate!
On two different occasions we had folks arrested for refusing to leave
the offices of the Massey Energy Corporation until they were allowed
to deliver demands. We had a two-day march across West Virginia,
and there was a march and rally for the international day of action
against climate change outside the Massey Headquarters in
Richmond, Virginia. There was a hunger strike at the
Governor’s office in West Virginia. And at the end of the
summer we blockaded of one of the mine sites in Tennessee.

AF: Two particular parts of Mountain Justice Summer interested
me, the emphasis on training for participants, and the
“listen-in” where residents told participants of their
experiences, can you tell us more about these?

We had the beginning-of-summer trainings so that we could get all
of our volunteers on the same page in terms of our commitment to
non-violence, to educate them on what was going on, and to ensure
that they respected the communities in which we worked.

The listening projects, as we called them, were probably one of the
best things we did all summer. The idea was to go into the
communities and get the locals to start talking because they knew
more about the effects of MTR than we did. All the volunteers that
I’ve spoken with have really positive stories about the listening
projects. It helped give many of our volunteers perspective on the
history and experience of the communities in which they were
working, and it definitely helped ease many of the community
members to the presence of a crew of out-of-towners in what are
normally pretty isolated communities.

AF: Mountain Justice Summer seems to have been forged through
an alliance between Earth First (EF!) and some community groups.
Other community groups seemed more wary of Earth First!. Why
was that, and how did that change over the course of last summer?

There was some hesitation with a few of the community groups.
With some groups, such as Coal River Mountain Watch, there
wasn’t any tension. They did state initially that they didn’t
want any violence or property destruction and the EF!ers said that
they didn’t see property destruction as appropriate in this
campaign, so it went really smoothly. Other groups, Save Our
Cumberland Mountains (SOCM) being the extreme, didn’t want
to have anything to do with EF! and therefore MJS. There was also a
spectrum of groups in between the two extremes. It is interesting,
though, that after last summer we gained a lot of credibility through
the effectiveness of our campaign and now groups like SOCM are
much more willing to work with us. It should be interesting to see
how that plays out this coming summer.

AF: Is there a direct link between the resistance to mountain top
removal and the long proud history of labour struggle in Appalachia?

I think many of us MJS volunteers view ourselves as decedents of
that struggle. The United Mine Workers of America (UMWA), once
one of the hotbeds of radical labour in this country, hasn’t
exerted much power to try and save Appalachia. To my knowledge
they don’t have a firm position on MTR, but they do have a
general “pro-coal” stance despite the obvious effects that
MTR has on jobs and especially union jobs. I feel like their
resistance to change has really led to their failure. The face of the
struggle has to change when the company changes its tactics. After
100 years of big coal exploiting the people of Appalachia and robbing
us of our rich resources, they’ve decided that they don’t
need the people. Its not just about extracting greater value from our
labour now, it’s about literally driving out the communities that
have existed here for hundreds of years. If the UMWA can’t
recognize what’s happening then its up to another movement to
pick up the struggle to preserve the strength and dignity of
Appalachian communities. I like to think that that’s us.

Actually Blair Mountain, the site of a battle in 1921 between 10,000
union miners and company thugs supported by local law
enforcement, is an MTR site. Our allies in West Virginia are trying
to stop the mining by getting the mountain registered as a historic

AF: Why was there such a strong emphasis on non-violence and on
not committing acts of sabotage on the part of Mountain Justice
Summer? It seems at odds with what little I know of the traditions
of popular struggle in Appalachia, see for instance the massive
amount of sabotage during the wildcat strikes of the 1960s and

We decided that the decision to use sabotage and other forms of
property destruction should be made by the communities. From our
position, as a regional coalition, it wasn’t our right to escalate
the conflict when the violence would certainly fall on the shoulders
of the community residents. Since most of the volunteers that came
into our campaign were from out of state, we decided that it
wouldn’t have been right to start a fight that we wouldn’t
have been around to accept the consequences of.

AF: What specific class based approach did the I.W.W. bring to this
campaign, or did you need to bring such an approach, is it more
widespread than your group?

The IWW wasn’t officially involved in the campaign. Appalachia
isn’t a place where we’re very strong, unfortunately. The
involvement of the union was in some publicity, a front-page article
about the environmental and working class implications of MTR in
our paper, and the personal involvement of between half a dozen and
a dozen Wobblies in the campaign. There definitely wasn’t the
kind of organizing that was being done during Redwood Summer,
but the reason that I think this struggle drew Wobblies into it was
that it already had strong community and working-class roots. Many
of the folks in the community groups we are working with are
ex-coal miners. The strength of the community support for the
campaign is one of the most important things about it, and it
isn’t uncommon for our allies to talk about the history of their
family’s struggle against the coal companies. There is definitely
more that needs to be done, though, to reach out to labour because
the need for jobs is still the main argument that pro-MTR locals tell
us, despite the long-term effect that MTR is having on jobs.

One good example of future work that’s in the planning stages is
a conference that’s going to be happening in Kentucky. It will
focus on creating a post-coal economy in Appalachia. Hopefully, as
organizing for sustainable non-coal jobs continues, it will move in
the direction of worker control.

AF: The IWW is often thought of as just a workplace orientated
group, yet some Wobblies are involved in this campaign, and were
involved in Redwood summer, why is this?

I personally can’t see how it’s so easy for so many
environmentalists to disconnect labour and community struggles
from environmental struggles. In the end it’s always the working
class that bears the brunt of environmental devastation. The coal
companies have lots of money for ad campaigns and rallies that are
supposed to convince us that working class folks in the coal fields
like MTR, but we’ve seen polls have shown that most folks in
West Virginia, for example, don’t want MTR to be happening in
their state. Middle-class environmental groups, with their inability to
speak the language of community members, and their often-arrogant
attitude towards working class locals, have created a rift that
shouldn’t exist.

MJS is really about community self-determination and challenging
the history of feudal control that the coal companies have had in the
region. Despite its resources, the state of West Virginia is one of the
poorest in the US, and the poorest counties in the state are the ones
with the most coal. This is a matter of robbery by the capitalist class
any way that you look at it, and it makes sense for Wobblies to stand
in solidarity with these communities.

Wobblies involved in Redwood summer went a step further to
actually organizing timber workers. The environmentalists and
working locals have the same enemy, and the less we allow
ourselves to get pitted against one another the better we will all fare.
The working class locals want sustainable, good paying jobs so that
they can support their families, and the IWW (and other labour
groups) need to be involved to help workers realize that they have the
power to protect their communities AND provide jobs that will exist
for future generations.

AF: Did the effort to interest radicals in the struggle in Appalachia
catch much criticism of the ‘this is just a N-I-M-B-Y (not in my
back yard)’ sort? Were there other problems along those lines?
For instance I get the impression of some emphasis on visitors
needing to respect the norms of the host groups.

I haven’t heard anyone use that criticism. In terms of our
organization I don’t think that we have a NIMBY mentality at
all. Mountain Justice Summer was created to connect the struggles
against MTR that existed across Appalachia both because of the
strength that a regional campaign grants local struggles and because
groups in each state want to put an end to MTR for good and not
just push the destruction over to another community.

In terms of respecting local norms, last summer there was a great
emphasis placed on dispelling many of the myths about Appalachian
people and culture. Many, if not most, Americans, think of
Appalachians as backwards, violent hillbillies. The hillbilly
stereotype was created by coal companies as an explanation for the
violence and destitution that their rapid industrialization had created.
The image was picked-up and run with by national media and
missionaries, who returned to their middle-class congregation to get
funding for their efforts by telling stories about violent, wild people
desperately needing to be saved. Talking about these myths, their
origin and their effects allowed us to try and prevent folks coming in
from another region and looking down on the locals we were trying
to work with. It’s also easier for folks who live outside the
coalfields to accept the devastation when they can dehumanise the
people it is directly effecting. I actually had someone in a city where I
was distributing information say to me, “As long as I get cheap
power, I don’t mind pissing off a bunch of hillbillies.”

AF: Unlike in Ireland at the moment, people in this sort of campaign
in the United States seem to be subject to quite a bit of non-state
harassment, violence, and counter-protests. Can you tell us a bit
about that?

The coal companies have a long history of violent intimidation
tactics and its no different now. Larry Gibson, a very active
anti-MTR community member, has been subject to over 100
instances of violent harassment, including the shooting and hanging
of his dogs, vandalism of his solar panels, and arson of buildings on
his land, and he has personally been shot at and driven off of the
road. This is all because the coal company wants his land on Kayford
Mountain, West Virginia, which is a 50-acre oasis in the middle of a
10,000 acre Mountain Top Mine.

The other egregious instance of violence was against activists
involved in a blockade on Zeb Mountain in Tennessee. The local law
enforcement turned their backs while company employees tried to
run over folks involved in the blockade. We have tape of the
confrontation with their truck, but at this point the police forced
everyone not in the blockade to leave, and a company employee stole
the only remaining video camera. Several company employees also
pushed over a tripod that was suspending an activist 35 feet above
the road, and kicked one of the activists there supporting the
blockaders to the ground. The police then gave these company
employees, who clearly had no problem with injuring activists, the
cutting equipment to get people out of the car that was part of the
blockade, rather than removing the activists from the car themselves.
The company employees then dragged the car out of the road with
one person still attached to it, clearing just enough room for their
trucks to pass within inches of her body.

AF: What are the plans for Mountain Justice Summer 2, to take
place in the summer of 2006?

We’re making a few changes in the structure of the campaign.
Last year there was a main body of MJSers that moved from state to
state, but this year we’re going to focus more on placing people
in each state for their whole commitment. Instead of a big group
travelling around, folks will be more involved in a specific locality
and will come together for a few big actions during the course of the
summer. We’re also going to try to do more solidarity work with
other communities struggling against the coal companies.
We’ve already been reaching out to the indigenous community
in Black Mesa that is also fighting coal extraction on their land.
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