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“We All Live in the Coal Fields”: West Virginians Step Up Protests as EPA OKs New Mountaintop Removal

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At least thirty people were arrested in West Virginia Saturday as protesters marked a new phase of Operation Appalachian Spring, a campaign to end mountaintop removal mining. The protests came just a week after the Obama administration gave the green light for forty-two more mountaintop removal permits in a major victory for the coal industry. We speak to journalist Jeff Biggers, author of the book United States of Appalachia: How Southern Mountaineers Brought Independence, Culture and Enlightenment to America. Biggers says mountaintop removal is a national issue, not a local one, as many perceive. [includes rush transcript]

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

JUAN GONZALEZ: Seventeen people were arrested in West Virginia Saturday during a series of protests against the coal industry. The protesters marked a new phase of Operation Appalachian Spring, a campaign to end mountaintop removal mining.

The first two arrests occurred when two activists wearing hazmat suits and respirators rowed a boat onto an eight-billion-gallon coal slurry lake and unfurled a huge floating banner reading, “No more toxic sludge!” They were charged with trespass and littering.

Later in the day, eight more protesters were arrested on trespassing and conspiracy charges after they walked onto the Kayford Mountain mine and locked themselves to a giant dump truck.

Seven others were arrested at a Massey Energy facility.

AMY GOODMAN: The protests came just a week after the Obama administration gave the green light for forty-two more mountaintop removal permits, dealing a victory for the coal industry. The Environmental Protection Agency’s decision shocked many activists in Appalachia, who have been campaigning to end the practice of mountaintop removal that’s already destroyed over 450 mountains in West Virginia, Virginia and Kentucky.

We’re joined here in our firehouse studio by Jeff Biggers, journalist covering mining in the Appalachian region. He’s author of the book United States of Appalachia: How Southern Mountaineers Brought Independence, Culture and Enlightenment to America, and he has a forthcoming book coming out, Reckoning at Eagle Creek: The Secret Legacy of Coal in the Heartland. He’s here in New York for the New York Loves Mountains Festival.

Welcome to Democracy Now!

JEFF BIGGERS: Thank you for having me.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about the situation now with mountaintop removal.

JEFF BIGGERS: You know, Amy and Juan, we’ve — from my perspective, the Appalachian region has really reached a state of emergency. We’re talking, every day, three million pounds of ammonium nitrate fuel oil explosives are detonated in these areas. And this is not simply just ripping off mountains. You know, in the past thirty years, since Jimmy Carter signed the surface mining bill, we’ve lost over 500 American mountains. You know, a land mass the size of Delaware has been wiped out. Over 1,200 miles of streams have been sullied and jammed.

But we’ve reached the issue that this is a human rights issue. And I think that’s what was happening last week in West Virginia, that this incredible movement called Operation Appalachian Spring has really tried to bring it to the forefront, that we’ve reached an emergency, that people’s lives are on the line, that we have these massive coal slurry impoundments. And around them, they’re honeycombed with old abandoned mines. And now they’re beginning to blast near these coal slurry impoundments, and any day they could break, if some sort of blasting could reach them. And I think this is what the kids and the activists are trying to reach the people to say: “Hey, this is no longer an environmental issue; it’s a human rights issue.”

JUAN GONZALEZ: And the recent decisions by the EPA to issue forty-two new permits, what will be the impact of that?

JEFF BIGGERS: It’s a huge impact. That was — last week was really Black Friday for Appalachia. You know, President Obama campaigned with the idea that we have to find another way to get our coal instead of blowing up our mountains. And this is very important to point out, that less than seven percent of our coal production comes from mountaintop removal, that we easily could eliminate it with energy efficiency, with renewable energies, or simply getting underground coal, which would provide more jobs.

But it’s been an agonizing spring, because we’ve had mixed signals from the EPA: perhaps we’ll have more scrutiny, perhaps not. The Department of Interior says we’re going to rescind a law, take it back to 1983. But the fact of the matter remains, you have to abolish mountaintop removal. You can’t regulate it. You can’t regulate this kind of violation.

AMY GOODMAN: Who’s pushing for it? Why does it continue?

JEFF BIGGERS: It continues because we have an incredible coal industry and their lobby in Washington. And this is something that transcends politics. You know, I’m based in the Midwest now, in Illinois.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And also, just to clarify, for the industry, it’s much cheaper to blow up a mountaintop than to actually send people, workers, underground to get the coal out.

JEFF BIGGERS: Exactly. When we say coal is cheap, of course, you know, that’s an absolute outrage. It’s not cheap. It’s just cheaper for them. You know, instead of having three underground mining jobs, they only need one job of someone blowing up the mountain with massive explosives and then using heavy equipment to get at this tiny little seam. So, yes, for them, it’s a cheaper and effective way.

But the problem is, the coal really transcends party politics, that you have liberal Democrats in the Midwest, like Senator Dick Durbin from my Illinois or even President Obama, who have always been working with the coal industry. It’s something that, if you come from a coal state, it’s been very hard to shake from the stranglehold of the coal industry on our politics.

JUAN GONZALEZ: You’re here in New York, and I think in one of your articles you mentioned the unknown ties that the City of New York has to the coal industry in Appalachia. Could you talk about that?

JEFF BIGGERS: Right. You know, New York is burning mountaintop removal coal, and that’s why I’m here this week. There’s an amazing festival called New York Loves Mountains that was started by Appalachians here in New York City to say, “Hey, these lights, this microphone, today, is because explosives are being detonated in Appalachia, that we all live in the coal fields.” You know, we can’t say it’s just a problem down there with those people down in those haulers. No, it’s a national issue, just like any other issue, with the nuclear industry or going back to the early abolitionist movement that came out of the Mountain South.

And so, this festival this weekend, it begins with an incredible — the first national touring production of a theater production looking at mountaintop removal theme, is to say that New York has to look at its connection to mountaintop removal. It needs to have a reckoning. And, in fact, this fall, there will be legislation passing through the state legislature to say that if New York must have coal for your coal-fire plants, let’s at least buy coal that doesn’t come from blowing up the mountains.

AMY GOODMAN: What about media coverage, Jeff Biggers, of Appalachia?

JEFF BIGGERS: Media coverage. You know, this is something that I’m just not quite sure what’s going on. You know, here you have one of the most egregious environmental and human rights violations right before our very eyes. You have little communities in West Virginia, a little town outside called Prenter, where 97 percent of the people have some sort of gallbladder disease. You have Americans who cannot drink their water. You have people who are living under daily explosions and silica dust coming into their gardens and their farms. People are having to be relocated and removed. And yet the mainstream media is not handling it. They’re just sort of acting as if this is something that can wait, that something — that it’s not really an urgent issue.

JUAN GONZALEZ: How has the American labor movement dealt with this issue? Clearly, obviously, at least for the mine workers and others, this has meant a loss of jobs. But have they taken a firm stand with their political leaders around this?

JEFF BIGGERS: You know, the United Mine Workers — and I should say, you know, I’m a grandson of a coal miner, and my granddaddy was a union coal miner. He suffered with black lung. And I appreciate the work of the United Mine Workers. They’re the people who gave us our eight-hour workday. You know, we struggled for a hundred years to have a great union movement.

But that movement has been broken really since the 1980s. In West Virginia, in particular, they’re still struggling just to survive. And what I don’t understand is, instead of looking at the ramifications of mountaintop removal that has taken their jobs, that has absolutely plundered the industry and led to skyrocketing poverty rates, the United Mine Workers are hanging onto the scraps, and they’re supporting mountaintop removal in West Virginia. Think about this. There are less than a thousand jobs for the United Mine Workers in mountaintop removal. Less than a thousand jobs. You know, they’re really trying to hang onto the last crumbs of this industry, as opposed to saying, “Let’s come up with another form of underground mining, or let’s actually — let’s shift into some sort of clean energy that we can relocate and we can reeducate and retrain our miners to do.”

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about Operation Appalachian Spring, these protests that have been going on now, this civil disobedience that gets very little coverage.

JEFF BIGGERS: Right. And this is really one of the most exciting movements in the country right now. I think we have definitely a parallel with the anti-nuclear movement back in the 1970s or even the civil rights movement, that people are actually saying we have to go to the level of civil disobedience to get the attention, that we’ve reached this moment of crisis, that they simply can’t wait.

And so, in January it began in an area called the Coal River Mountain area in West Virginia, where an amazing wind project had been laid out, that actually along the same range which they’ve granted the permits for mountaintop removal, a young man had come down and created an amazing wind project that would have created more jobs, more tax revenues and a longer source of energy for the community, rather than the strip mining. And in fact, it didn’t go — didn’t get beyond just the sort of the virtual effort. And so, this Operation Appalachian Spring sprung out of that movement to say they’re willing to go to the lengths of chaining themselves, to have civil disobedience, literally to stop from blowing up Coal River Mountain. To save it for this incredible wind project could really be a breakthrough in the Appalachian coal fields for a new green economy.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And are there any political leaders in the region who have been courageous enough to stand up to the coal industry?

JEFF BIGGERS: Yes, there’s one man who’s a great American hero: ninety-four-year-old Ken Hechler. He was the great congressman. The only congressman who marched with Martin Luther King in Selma, Alabama, was this hillbilly from West Virginia, great Ken Hechler. And here he is, ninety-four years old, in West Virginia last week, and the state troopers refused to arrest him, you know. And Ken Hechler came to me, and he said, “President Obama needs to have a Harry S. Truman movement — moment,” that he must, like in 1948, when Harry S. Truman, against the Democratic Party, said we must integrate the military, and he did that on executive order. And Representative Hechler is saying, “We’ve reached that moment now, that President Obama must rise above this idea that we have to have a consensus, that we have to have some kind of compromise with the coal industry, that you can’t compromise with evil.” And Representative Hechler was willing to be arrested for this.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to go to this congressman right now, to the congressman who — Congressman Hechler. You said ninety-four years old.

JEFF BIGGERS: Ninety-four years old.

AMY GOODMAN: We played a SOT, a clip, of him just the other day here on Democracy Now!

    REP. KEN HECHLER: The governors of West Virginia always call me an environmental extremist. You’ve got to be an extremist in order to achieve things. You’ve got to be ready to make enemies in order to accomplish something. And it’s absolutely necessary that the people here today continue to demonstrate against this highly destructive practice.

AMY GOODMAN: There you have it. West Virginia Congressman Hechler.

JEFF BIGGERS: Congressman Hechler, ninety-four years old, in front of a Massey coal mine. It’s one of the worst strip mines, because this blasting, where he is, is actually jeopardizing an incredible coal slurry impoundment, that even according to Massey’s own evacuation plans, that if this coal slurry impoundment broke — and think about what happened last December in the TVA — but if this coal slurry impoundment broke, 998 people would have four minutes to flee. And so, Dr. Hechler was there with these protesters, and they had laid out a thousand shoes to tell you that this is what we’re up against. It’s a life-or-death issue in many of these areas.

AMY GOODMAN: Rockefeller, Byrd?

JEFF BIGGERS: Rockefeller and Byrd and, more importantly, Nick Rahall are —-

AMY GOODMAN: Rockefeller and Byrd are the senators.

JEFF BIGGERS: Senators from West Virginia.

AMY GOODMAN: Nick Rahall, the congressman.

JEFF BIGGERS: And Nick Rahall -— right. And who have all been entrenched there for decades. And it’s very important to look at Congressman Rahall, who I think really sort of rules the roost on these coal issues, that even he said, two months ago, we have twenty years of coal left. You know, we’re running out of these seams. And even Nick Rahall said we have to look at green jobs. But, in fact, it’s Nick Rahall who’s pushing the EPA to provide these permits, is pushing the Obama administration to go through with mountaintop removal to get these last crumbs. And it’s shameful. It’s absolutely shameful.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And in terms of the new appointees of the President, have any of them indicated that they’re going to move in a different direction at all?

JEFF BIGGERS: Right. You know, I greatly admire President Obama. And Lisa Jackson, I think, is doing an amazing job at the EPA. And Ken Salazar, of course, came in with the Department of Interior and immediately announced that they were going to rescind a Bush manipulation of a 1983 stream buffer zone.

But the truth is, they’re searching for some kind of compromise. Can’t we find a consensus on this? Can’t we work this out? Can we just have stricter enforcements? And I think, as Representative Hechler pointed out, you just simply can’t compromise on these things, that it easily must be stopped. It’s one of these situations that it’s an absolute violation of our human rights and the environmental movement down there and that you have to go through and stop this. And I think they really need to get beyond this idea that they can regulate this. It has to be abolished.

AMY GOODMAN: We want to thank you very much for being with us, Jeff Biggers. Where is the event tonight here in New York, the New York Loves Mountains Festival?

JEFF BIGGERS: Sure. It’s this amazing theater production, Light Comes. It’s the first theater production in the country to deal with mountaintop removal and New York’s connection with Thomas Edison, of course, and the first coal-fire plant. It’ll be at the Coltoff Center at 8:00 p.m. It will be beginning at 7:00 p.m. with a wonderful concert by the celloist Ben Sollee.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we will link to it at our website at Jeff Biggers has been covering mining in the Appalachian region. He is the author of the The United States of Appalachia. And your forthcoming book, again, is called?

JEFF BIGGERS: It’s called Reckoning at Eagle Creek: The Secret Legacy of Coal in the Heartland.

AMY GOODMAN: Look forward to reading it. Jeff Biggers with us here in New York.

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