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“We Are Tearing Down Our Mountains”: Photojournalist Antrim Caskey on West Virginia’s Fight Against Mountaintop Removal Coal Mining

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The Environmental Protection Agency took a significant step last week toward blocking one of Appalachia’s largest and most disputed mountaintop removal coal mines. On Friday the EPA proposed a veto of the Clean Water Act permit issued by the Army Corps of Engineers for the Spruce No. 1 Mine in West Virginia. Earlier this month, we interviewed Antrim Caskey, a photojournalist who has been chronicling the nonviolent fight against mountaintop removal coal mining. Her new book is Dragline. [includes rush transcript]

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

AMY GOODMAN: The Environmental Protection Agency took a significant step last week toward blocking one of Appalachia’s largest and most disputed mountaintop removal coal mines. On Friday, the EPA proposed a veto of the Clean Water Act permit issued by the Army Corps of Engineers for the Spruce No. 1 Mine in West Virginia. The mine is owned by a subsidiary of Arch Coal and would directly impact more than 2,200 acres of forest and seven miles of streams. Shawn Garvin of the EPA said, quote, “We must prevent the significant and irreversible damage that comes from mining pollution, and the damage from this project would be irreversible.” The EPA’s proposed determination faces a sixty-day comment period before it can be finalized.

Well, earlier this week, Anjali Kamat and I interviewed a photojournalist who’s been chronicling the nonviolent fight against mountaintop removal coal mining. Antrim Caskey is embedded with Climate Ground Zero, a pressure campaign to stop mountaintop removal. She is the director of the journalism advocacy project Appalachia Watch, and her latest project is called Dragline.

    ANTRIM CASKEY: Dragline is a seventy-four-page photojournalistic exposé of mountaintop removal coal mining in Appalachia and the campaign to end it. I created Dragline after almost five years of reporting on the subject in West Virginia, in Appalachia. It’s designed to activate and to educate the American people on the atrocity that is mountaintop removal.

    And my work goes beyond just documenting what’s going on. I’ve been witnessing now for years people’s water being poisoned, mountains being blown apart in my subject’s backyard. So, while over the years I’ve been publishing this work, at this point I wanted to take the body of work and to create a tool, using photojournalism as a tool.

    And as my model, it’s sort of an old school photojournalism technique. It’s photo heavy, it’s large format. And this is something that we don’t see much anymore, because, as we know, these avenues are drying up for journalists. So I was able to go to allies and supporters and people who are interested to fundraise the money to create this — to create Dragline.

    AMY GOODMAN: You are embedded with Climate Ground Zero. What is Climate Ground Zero? And what does it mean to be embedded with them?

    ANTRIM CASKEY: Climate Ground Zero is a grassroots campaign based in Rock Creek, West Virginia. It’s a campaign to stop mountaintop removal. The embed —

    AMY GOODMAN: Mountaintop removal, to you, is?

    ANTRIM CASKEY: Mountaintop removal is, as my friend Judy Bonds says, strip mining on steroids. This is a type of modern coal mining where they use machines to take down the peaks of the Appalachian Mountains and to then push that rubble into the valleys below. So the valleys are rising, and the mountains are falling, and they’re flattening West Virginia. All for coal, the dirtiest fossil fuel. And these days, you know, this isn’t a story about Appalachia, poor Appalachia; this is a story that concerns the globe, because its so critical connection to global warming.

    DraglineDragline, the cover, the title and the image, is meant to expose the coal industry for what they’re doing today. What is a dragline? A dragline is a twenty-story-tall machine which has a giant bucket and a large boom with a bucket on the end. And this is the machine that they use to scoop up those blasted-up mountaintops and to dump into the valleys below. The image on the cover of Dragline, it looks beautiful and mysterious, but that’s actually a pit of poison toxic coal waste, one of hundreds throughout the Appalachia. They’re unlined. And this is the — this is a — they call it an impoundment, but it’s basically a toxic dump. It’s the waste byproduct of the chemical cleaning of coal. And this is, again, the modern coal mining that I don’t think a lot of people are really familiar with. It’s a witch’s brew of chemicals that they use to clean the coal. And this is a result of clean air legislation that was passed in the ’70s, where the stacks were cleaned so the emissions coming out of the coal-fired power plant stacks, they took the chemicals and the sulfur and the NO2s out of that, and now that waste is transferred to the beginning of the process, so the coal is cleaned before it goes to market. But this coal sludge, this pond of it, as you see on the cover of Dragline, that’s what we have left.

    ANJALI KAMAT: Antrim, you’ve been arrested three times while covering this story.

    ANTRIM CASKEY: That’s right.

    ANJALI KAMAT: Talk about the restrictions placed on you as a journalist while exposing what’s happening.

    ANTRIM CASKEY: Well, technically I haven’t been totally restrained in doing my reporting, in the beginning. I crossed that line after years of witnessing this. And something has to be done, and I’m embedded with this movement. And so, I will —- I went with activists to cover it. Now I’m suffering the consequences. I’ve been held in contempt of court. I’m subject to fines, to -—

    AMY GOODMAN: Contempt of court for what?

    ANTRIM CASKEY: Contempt of court — well, let’s backtrack a little bit. Last year, February 2009, there were two actions that month that I was arrested for documenting the protests. Massey Energy, the parent company of the subsidiary mining company where the actions took place, issued a temporary restraining order, which seeks to stop the activists, stop the journalists, from doing what they’re doing. I felt I had gotten to the point of such a saturation of knowledge of the issue and listening to the local people — I’m on the ground and hearing what’s going on — so I felt confident in what I was doing. I was doing the right thing. And if I wasn’t going to do this, if I wasn’t going to go with the activists and cover it, I think I would be negligent, negligent in my job.

    AMY GOODMAN: And what were you documenting?

    ANTRIM CASKEY: I was documenting the nonviolent civil disobedience campaign, where the activists go onto the active mine sites and peacefully demonstrate. They may lay down in a haul road blocking traffic and blocking the movement of coal. Or in other cases, they’ve locked themselves to machinery. All in a peaceful, nonviolent way, in the tradition of Martin Luther King and Gandhi. That may seem a little overblown in comparison, but there really is no other comparison. This is the equivalent to the lunch counter sit-ins. It’s just as urgent of a cause.

    AMY GOODMAN: And what has happened to them?

    ANTRIM CASKEY: To the activists? Well, slowly but surely, the court system has punished them further and further. Just, you know, in the beginning of 2010, we’ve seen a lot of the activists go to prison —- sorry, go to jail. Three of them spent fifteen days in jail just a few weeks ago. That was Mike Roselle, Tom Smyth and Joe Hamsher. But there’s an escalation that we have seen in the punishment of these cases. You know, first we got into the courts in March 2009. And with the persistence and the refusal to obey this criminal corporation’s temporary restraining order and the, frankly, corrupt courts in West Virginia that are bought and paid for by the coal industry -—

    AMY GOODMAN: What do you mean?

    ANTRIM CASKEY: Well, coal in West Virginia is a mono economy, and it basically controls and has infiltrated every level of the power structure, from the governor to the courts all the way down. And your viewers may be familiar with Don Blankenship, the CEO of Massey Energy, who basically purchased the state Supreme Court seat for Brent Benjamin several years ago. The ensuing controversy over that situation was a refusal on Benjamin’s part to recuse himself from certain cases where the opposing side thought he was biased, because Blankenship gave him $3 million to help him get elected to the state Supreme Court. And that’s how they do it in West Virginia. They elect these judges to the Supreme Court.

    So when you have — when an industry has such a firm grip on the employment, on the power structure, on everything, you see it reflected, and you see it reflected in Judge Burnside’s orders. This temporary restraining order that was issued against us is overbroad. It enjoins arguably the entire world. You’re probably enjoined, according to Judge Burnside. Is that fair? Is that just?

    AMY GOODMAN: Enjoined from doing what?

    ANTRIM CASKEY: Enjoined from supporting the campaign, enjoined from — enjoined from acting in concert with us against Massey Energy. It technically could draw you into this legal action that they are putting against us.

    AMY GOODMAN: Who are the people who are protesting the mountaintop removal?

    ANTRIM CASKEY: Well, this is so wonderful. The people who are protesting mountaintop removal range in age from eighteen to eighty-one. It’s a broad and deep movement that includes local people who have been radicalized by the mountaintop removal operations in their backyard or in their neighborhood. It includes college students. We have a plethora of college students from places like Oberlin and Michigan and Vermont and Washington. And it includes journalists, like myself, who are committed to the story and committed to seeing justice. It’s an incredible, incredibly strong movement that over the past almost five years I’ve really seen grow and strengthen. It’s been pretty rewarding to see that.

    ANJALI KAMAT: What are your thoughts about so-called “clean coal”? President Obama has been pushing major initiatives to expand clean coal technology.

    ANTRIM CASKEY: I’m very disappointed with that. There’s no such thing as clean coal, and President Obama should know that. And this is testament to the power of the coal industry, probably the oldest and strongest lobby that we have. I’ve been in the halls of the Senate and Congress when we’re — when the activists are lobbying, and you can just — it’s palpable. You see local people from West Virginia walking the halls, visiting their representatives. And then you see the contrast, men in business suits with suitcases of influence.

    AMY GOODMAN: I’m looking at a quote. You have a picture of a Maria Gunnoe, closing her security gear away after threats of violence dissipate on Kayford Mountain, July 4th, 2008. And across from it, you have her quote: “They robbed my children of their childhood. They robbed me of my motherhood. That’s all I ever wanted to be, a mother and a wife. I just wanted to live in my little hollow and be left alone.” And you have the quote of Massey Energy attorney Bob McLusky, who says, “There are plenty of hollows for Ms. Gunnoe to look at trees, if she wants.”

    ANTRIM CASKEY: Doesn’t that just encapsulate everything about this, the callousness of the coal industry? They don’t care. They don’t care about the land or the people. And look what Maria Gunnoe has had to sacrifice.

    Maria was the very first person I met. I met her in the offices of the New York Indypendent and when we were on 29th Street. And someone said, “Hey, Antrim, someone’s here from West Virginia.” I met Maria at that moment. She talked to me for like forty-five minutes, and I couldn’t believe what she was telling me. I said, “No, they can’t be doing that. They can’t be doing it.” What’s happening in Appalachia is unbelievable.

    But three days later, I went down and saw for myself, and that was my first reporting trip. I met all the major players, had a flyover, saw the protest at Marsh Fork Elementary. And I was hooked.

    And, you know, since then, I’ve seen Bob McLusky in action in federal court, and I saw him cross-examine Maria Gunnoe in federal court. And, you know, he’s — he is the epitome of the cold coal heart.

    And, you know, if coal is so good for West Virginia, West Virginia should be paved with gold. It should be the richest state in the nation. But it’s the opposite. It languishes in last place in just about every category you can think of.

    AMY GOODMAN: What is Massey Energy?

    ANTRIM CASKEY: Well, Massey Energy is responsible for essentially breaking the unions, finishing them off in 1985. Their CEO, Don Blankenship, who at the time was an accountant, but rose to his present position from that point because he was instrumental in helping break the unions, Blankenship and Massey, they’re Darwinian capitalists. And this is a phrase I’ve coined from just my research. Blankenship thinks it’s the survival of the most productive. That’s his goal. And it’s all about production. He actually apparently receives production reports from all his mines every day to know how they’re doing. So it’s the cold heart of coal and capitalism that’s killing — is going to kill us. I mean, and we’re tearing down our mountains for, you know, maybe 7,000 jobs in West Virginia. So there’s a supreme imbalance that’s a result of the mechanization of coal. The coal-mining man has essentially been outmoded, replaced by draglines.

AMY GOODMAN: Photojournalist Antrim Caskey, director of the journalism advocacy project Appalachia Watch. If you’re listing on the radio or would like to see some of her photos on our video podcast or streaming online, you can go to

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