The face of Big Coal in West Virginia has changed. Gone (but not forgotten) is the larger-than-life Coal Barron Don Blankenship the former CEO of Massey Energy. Notorious for his hatred of "greeniacs" and love for Mountain Top Removal (MTR), Blankenship was ousted last year after the underground mining disaster which left 29 men dead. The ongoing investigations into the disaster have revealed a culture at Massey of reckless pursuit of profit at the expense of miner's welfare and a willful disregard for government safety regulations. Largely as a result of these revelations, which had been aggressively asserted for years by various environmental organizations and concerned miners, Blankenship was forced to step down and Massey sold to Alpha Energy this year. While Alpha continues to aggressively use MTR in extracting coal reserves, there are positive signs that the company has no interest in continuing Massey's reckless policies and is now playing by the rules and even acknowledging that MTR is legitimately opposed by concerned individuals and organizations.
The battle over Mountain Top Removal as a method of coal extraction continues to be waged intensely across the mountains and hollows of Appalachia and in Washington DC. A landmark study on the health impacts to residents in areas where MTR is active was recently published. The association between mountaintop mining and birth defects among live births in central Appalachia, 1996-2003 for the first time conclusively shows the devastating impacts on human health and safety, specifically those related to birth defects and cancer rates. For nearly a month now, two young women, Becks Kolins and Catherine-Ann MacDougal, have been treesitting 80 feet in the air on the Alpha Energy's Bee Tree Hollow MTR site in Coal River West Virginia. They work with the environmental organization RAMPS (Radical Action for Mountain People's Survival) which is dedicated to the termination of MTR as a method of coal extraction.
Photo Courtesy RAMPS
After she climbed to the very top of the tree she is occupying to maximize reception, I spoke to Catherine-Ann by a rather sketchy cel phone signal.
JC: How did Mountain Top Removal become an issue for you?
CM: When I first found out about MTTR it struck me because it was so unreal. I started organizing a bit in high school - it was always something that got to me in a really powerful way. I got involved in Mountain Justice organizing and Christians for the Mountaintop and I also di an internship with United Mountain Defense in Tennessee that opened up a whole new world of activism for me.
JC: What is the exact location where you are now?
CM: I am at the top of Bee Tree Hollow.
JC: And how did you come to be in that part of West Virginia?
CM: I knew when I finished school last December I wanted to work with Climate Ground Zero, RAMPS and Coal River Mountain Watch (CRMW). So i became a CRMW intern and started living in that house in Rock Creek doing RAMP stuff as well. And then of course I got involved in this action which is really exciting.
JC: Previously when someone did this and the property was controlled by Blankenship and Massey, they responded very aggressively with brights lights throughout the night and noisemakers, even going so far as to fell nearby trees. How has your interaction been with the security and Alpha representatives since you have been up in the tree? It would seem Alpha is playing their hand much smarter than Massey.
CM: I think playing their hand smarter is a good way of putting it. My experience has just been positive. Security has been really friendly. The fellow who is overseeing mining in this area has always made sure nobody is harassing us and that we are OK, and that people outside of Alpha are not coming in and disturbing us in our trees. They have only been civil and polite - completely different from what people were experiencing before.
JC: Obviously by being nice Alpha has stolen some of the thunder from your action and taken some of the media interest out of the formula, how would you rate the success of your treesit?
CM: It definitely makes Alpha look a lot better. I would say it has made the treesit more livable and possible longer - I think we would have stayed up here anyway even if they were trying to kill us. It is important to remember that on the face of it it looks different but it is superficial difference. I hope that people will see that destruction wearing a nice face is still destruction.
Photo Courtesy RAMPS
Becks Kolins began the treesit with Catherine and was arrested two weeks ago when she came down.
JC: How did Mountain Top Removal become such a priority issue for you?
BK: I heard about Mountain Top Removal and when I came down to West Virginia and saw I knew this is what I needed to fight. I am more drawn to social justice issues and environmental justice - this certainly is that. It is not just devastating to the land but people are dying.
JC: Do you sense a change with the new ownership there (Alpha Energy)?
BK: Yes. Its a totally 100% different company. People were kind to us - they were not harassing us. They were checking on us daily to make sure we were OK. Although they are being very kind and I think there is definitely more hope in working with them than with Massey, they are still poisoning people. They are still doing Mountain Top Removal. So while they are nice to activists they continue to destroy communities.
Bo Webb, who won the Purpose prize this year for his tireless work on MTR issues also agrees that Alpha is taking a kindler gentler approach to dealing with activists.
BW: I think what Alpha did is they bought a bad company - an outlaw coal company. They have a lot of cleaning up to do with the public image so that's part of it. I think they are trying to clean that image up - they are trying to clean up Massey's mess so to speak. But I do not expect anything different from Aplha as far as Mountain Top Removal goes because it cannot be regulated. No matter what they do selenium is going to come off the sites entering our creeks and rivers. No matter what they do that dust is still going to come down that we are breathing - silica, diesel fuel, ammonium nitrate - those things they can't prevent. The only way to regulate it is to end it.
JC: Do you think that to some degree Alpha is trying to operate more along the lines of a normal business? Do you see any change in Alpha's relationship with the community as opposed to the way Blankenship ran Massey?
BW: No, not at all. I think what they are trying to do is to create a public image that is much nicer to the country and the state that they are a cleaner company. But again, Mountain Top Removal is killing people. If they want to be community minded they should shut down all of their MTR operations.
Alpha Energy declined to be interviewed.