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The Struggle Against Mountaintop Removal: Leading Activist Mike Roselle Continues Fight Against Destructive Coal Mining

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The Environmental Protection Agency recently dealt a blow to the coal mining industry when it delayed hundreds of mountaintop coal mining projects for a new review of their environmental impact. But the EPA decision still leaves in place hundreds of existing permits for mountaintop removal. The group Climate Ground Zero has been leading protests and peaceful direct actions against the company Massey Energy to prevent mountaintop removal at Coal River Mountain in West Virginia. We speak with leading activist Mike Roselle of Climate Ground Zero. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: As we continue with this historic broadcast in all sorts of ways, because we’re broadcasting from Johnson City, Tennessee, Johnson City, Tennessee, from Eastern — from East Tennessee State University. We’re just down the hall from where Democracy Now! broadcasts every day on the NPR station WETS. We’re in the Warf-Pickel Building. It’s the first time that they are going global, with a satellite truck, all over the world with this Democracy Now! broadcast.

I wanted to show the Johnson City Press photograph, wanted to show this image — Democracy Now! comes to ETSU, it’s in the Johnson City Press — and talk about the latest news from this region, from southern Appalachia, and especially neighboring West Virginia. We want to talk about mountaintop removal. That’s the coal mining method that levels the tops of mountains with explosives to extract the coal within. Mountaintop removal has been widely criticized for endangering waters and streams in the Appalachian Valley.

The Environmental Protection Agency recently dealt a blow to the coal mining industry when it delayed hundreds of mountaintop coal mining projects for a new review of their environmental impact. But the EPA decision still leaves in place hundreds of existing permits for mountaintop removal.

The group Climate Ground Zero has been leading protests and peaceful direct actions against the company Massey Energy to prevent mountaintop removal at Coal River Mountain in West Virginia. Protesters have entered Massey mine sites, chained themselves to mining equipment, and blocked coal haul roads.

One of the leading activists in the struggle is Mike Roselle. He has been arrested several times. Last month, a judge issued a restraining order against him on behalf of Massey Energy. Mike Roselle is a longtime environmental activist, co-founder of Earth First!, the Rainforest Action Network and the Ruckus Society. He is now with the group Climate Ground Zero, and he joins us here in Johnson City, Tennessee.

Welcome to Democracy Now!

MIKE ROSELLE: Thank you, Amy. Good to be here.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s good to have you with us. Well, explain what’s happening in this area. How far are you from Johnson City?

MIKE ROSELLE: We’re just a few hours by air, but it’s a lot longer to drive because of the roads here. So it’s really just over the hill from here.

AMY GOODMAN: And what are you doing? Why has there been a restraining order issued against you?

MIKE ROSELLE: Well, Massey Energy went to court to get a temporary restraining order to stop our peaceful demonstrations on Coal River Mountain. And they’re also trying to recover what they say are incalculable financial costs that these demonstrations have caused. And they’re trying, I think even more, to prevent people from joining our campaign. It’s kind of a way to kind of back other people off.

AMY GOODMAN: Explain what the whole issue here is in this region and where you are exactly in Tennessee.

MIKE ROSELLE: Well, we’re in southwest West Virginia. And, of course, this is the heart of coal mining country, and it has been for over a hundred years. But usually the coal has been mined by underground miners, and there are environmental costs associated with this, but in the last fifteen or twenty years, due to the massive new equipment that they brought in, now strip mining has become one of the key ways for them to remove coal. So, and then, over the last ten or so years, mountaintop removal has been — become an increasingly more common way of doing that.

AMY GOODMAN: Explain what mountaintop removal is.

MIKE ROSELLE: Mountaintop removal is when they blast the top of the mountain off, and then they push that over into the valley, and then they extract these coal seams that are too thin for underground mining. And then, they basically leave the area leveled like that. They put grass seed on it.

And up ’til now, about 2,000 miles of West Virginia creeks have been buried under these landfills, and over 500 mountaintops have been blasted away. It’s about — in our part of the country, that’s about 50 percent of the land area in there. So, right now, they’re trying to expand these existing mines, and if they are successful, they will eventually all connect to each other, and most of the mountains in that part of the state will be gone in another ten years.

AMY GOODMAN: What is the attitude of the local population?

MIKE ROSELLE: Well, they’re very mixed attitudes. The underground miners, I think, are starting to see this form of mining as a threat to their jobs. Those who are not involved in the mining industry are almost unanimously opposed to it. And even a lot of the folks who work for Massey Energy are not really happy with what they’re doing, but they’re kind of — because this is one of the poorest states in the country, they don’t have many choices. There are no other jobs. So, this is a very serious situation for everyone involved on both sides of the issue. But I don’t think there’s really that much support throughout West Virginia for destroying the mountains. There is support, I think, for supporting the coal industry, which has been the backbone of West Virginia’s economy for quite some time.

AMY GOODMAN: So how do you put all this together then?

MIKE ROSELLE: Well, the best way to maintain coal jobs in West Virginia is to end mountaintop removal immediately, because it employs a lot less people than underground mining. Underground mining is a lot less destructive to the environment, and it could be even less so if more regulations were enforced and new ones put in place.

But the blasting of the mountains removes any hope for any jobs in the future. And some of these mountains are very good sites for wind farms, and we’ve done studies on Coal River Mountain to show that it would actually produce more jobs if they were to develop the wind resources.

So this is not a jobs issue at all. This is an issue about an out-of-state company coming into West Virginia and extracting the coal, with the most profits, with the least amount of expenses, and then getting out of there. And it’s a cut-and-run operation. So, the forests are removed, the streams are buried. They’re just — plant these mountaintops, which is just basically gravel with a little bit of grass seed, and take a picture when it greens up, and then they leave. So it is really not about coal mining. This is about a company that has been exempt from the law. It’s about a state where federal laws don’t apply. And it’s about the Environmental Protection Agency, which has looked the other way because of the powerful politicians on the sides of the coal companies.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about your trajectory, where you’ve gone in your life, from Earth First!, Rainforest Action Network, Ruckus Society? Talk about each of these organizations that you helped to found, what you hope to do with them, and then what you’re doing here.

MIKE ROSELLE: Well, I started out in Wyoming, in northwest Wyoming, and that was kind of an energy resource colony there. And some of the first issues that we worked on were oil and gas drilling near the Yellowstone National Park, the development of uranium mines on the Red Desert, and coal mining down in the southwest part of the state. So I’ve been familiar with these issues for some time.

But it’s very different out west, to how they impact people. It’s a much more rural area. There’s less population in Wyoming. Here in West Virginia, all of these valleys contain communities. Some of them have been there for over a hundred years, and some of them were there before the Revolutionary War. So the impact on communities is much greater in West Virginia.

But after working on energy issues for a while, I became very concerned about the situation with biological diversity on our public lands, and the key issue there was the logging of old-growth forests. And I see a lot of similarities between the attitude of the coal companies in West Virginia and the attitude of the timber companies in the Northwest. They’re going for something that’s limited, and they’re getting as much money out of it, and they’re leaving.

We weren’t able to stop them in the courts, we weren’t able to stop them with the legislation, so we had to mount a campaign of nonviolent civil disobedience, where we were going to try to stop them with protests. And it was a very long campaign. I think it — really, we just had one of our big successes last month with the passage of the new wilderness bills in some of these areas we had been fighting for thirty, thirty-five years. So that [inaudible] —-

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about some of the direct actions and more creative ones.

MIKE ROSELLE: Well, we would -— first, we started just blocking the roads, and then we would use more creative ways of chaining ourselves or digging ditches, and then we began to climb the trees and occupy the trees. And then, you know, we went after the companies’ customers through market campaigns. We used a lot of tactics.

But ultimately, it was going to — you know, what was needed was legislation, and that’s what we finally got. We got some victories in the courts early on, too, because our argument had been all along that it was illegal to do this on public domain, you know, to cut down thousand-year-old trees, to cause the extinction of species of wildlife. And we find the same thing here going on in West Virginia.

AMY GOODMAN: The Ruckus Society, talk about some of what — and why you felt you needed to go from Earth First!, Rainforest Action Network, Ruckus Society, before we talk about now.

MIKE ROSELLE: Well, the Ruckus Society was really a way to try to help train activists in civil disobedience across the spectrum, you know, not just in Earth First! or in the Rainforest Action Network. And we had a network of trainers that worked for a lot of these different organizations that use direct action. So we put together a volunteer training staff, and then we would come into areas and offer them the types of training that they would need for the type of actions that we did. So —-

AMY GOODMAN: Like what?

MIKE ROSELLE: Well, we came to the WTO early. We provided training, radios, a lot of the equipment that was used. We helped set up the kitchen. We actually helped set up the first public independent media center there. And we’ve been in -— well, with the old-growth issue, we’ve done the same thing. And then, now, we’re working more on energy issues.

AMY GOODMAN: And so, talk about the kind of organizing that’s going on here right now and what it means to have the restraining order against you. What can you do?

MIKE ROSELLE: Yeah, well, those are very different things. I mean, the organizing going on in the Coal River is going on on several levels. One is in the local community itself, and I think that’s where some of the most important work is being done, trying to get folks to have the courage to stand up against the coal companies, because the repercussions can be very serious. Just saying that you support an end to mountaintop removal can, you know, expose you to a lot of threats in those communities. So, you know, people standing together, taking care of each other, watching each other’s back, that’s kind of the real base of this campaign, and to have a real resistance in the coal country itself, you know, and not just to depend on outside help. We’ve got to fight there first and hardest.

And the second is a statewide coalition here to try to get the state of West Virginia, you know, to enforce the laws. And then the rest is nationally. And we have two bills in front of Congress now, one in the Senate and one in the Congress —-

AMY GOODMAN: What are the bills?

MIKE ROSELLE: And those would essentially, if passed the way they’re written right now, would put an end to mountaintop removal.

And then, we’re also in the courts, because under existing law, it’s illegal to destroy a healthy creek, and that’s exactly what’s going on here. The EPA has looked the other way. So, another aspect to this campaign is to get the Obama administration to apply the existing laws here, and we think that would be enough to shut them down.

AMY GOODMAN: And they would be -— those laws are?

MIKE ROSELLE: Well, the Clean Water Act, which protects the aquatic resources and doesn’t allow for you to turn a healthy stream into an unhealthy one. And that’s been the bedrock of our environmental protection laws in this whole country. And the only place it doesn’t apply is in Appalachia. If you put in a garbage landfill in any state in this country, you are under EPA guidelines and rules. There is no regulation on the dumping of coal waste, coal slurry and fly ash, as we all know. And if we apply just those laws, then they wouldn’t be able to dump the mountains into the creeks.

AMY GOODMAN: And your assessment of Governor Rockefeller —- of Senator Rockefeller?

MIKE ROSELLE: Well, he’s in the camp of the coal company, and he is openly and vigorously supporting mountaintop removal, and so is Senator Byrd. So these guys have always been on the side of coal. Rockefeller, when he first ran, was against coal, and he had his hat handed to him, and so he never ever came out against the coal industry again. And it’s not so much whether or not they support you; if you don’t support them, they support your opponent. They’ll put millions of dollars into their campaign, and they will get their friend of coal into that office.

AMY GOODMAN: And Massey’s role in politics?

MIKE ROSELLE: Massey is putting lots of money into the political process. They have helped elect judges and almost every politician in the state of West Virginia. But more importantly, if anyone goes up against them, they will oppose them very vigorously with a lot of money.

AMY GOODMAN: And President Obama?

MIKE ROSELLE: We think the Obama administration wants to end mountaintop removal. We are pretty optimistic that they’re going to start reviewing all the new permits and that it may be very difficult for them to get new permits. But what we’re really concerned about are the existing permits, and we’re not sure exactly what they’re going to do there. So our job is to put as much pressure on the Obama administration and EPA now, so that they will do their job and enforce the law.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Mike Roselle, I want to thank you very much for being with us, also mention that on March 15th, eight students from right here, East Tennessee State University, visited the site of the Tennessee Valley Authority coal ash disaster in Harriman, Tennessee. The students were participating in what they called Mountain Justice Spring Break 2009. The students, wearing dust masks to prevent inhalation of coal fly ash dust, stopped at a church. While taking photographs and filming, the TVA police parked, came up to them. Ultimately, they were arrested. And I’ve been talking with some of them here. But I want to thank you for being with us, Mike Roselle -—

MIKE ROSELLE: Yeah, thank you very much. It was good to be here.

AMY GOODMAN: — for talking to us about mountaintop removal.

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