Photo of rally courtesy of Appalachia Rising

On September 27 we joined in the spirited Appalachia Rising protest in Washington, D.C., calling for an end to the destructive practice of mountaintop removal coal mining. James Hansen, joining speakers and musicians from mountain communities, spoke at a rally in Freedom Plaza. He tied climate science to the imperative of ending our dependence on coal – thus adding another dimension of leadership and support to Appalachian residents who are confronted with the practice of blowing up mountains and dumping the debris into nearby streams and valleys to reach seams of coal. From Freedom Plaza, we headed first for the EPA headquarters building…Reports by Appalachia Rising, CNN, and Mother Jones.

On-again, off-again rain didn’t dampen the energy of the overwhelmingly Appalachian  grassroots crowd at the rally and march against mountaintop removal. I’m far from expert at estimating crowd sizes – I’d guess there were roughly 1,000 demonstrators. At Freedom Plaza,  facing down Pennsylvania Avenue toward the Capitol Building, speakers and musicians carrying the voice of Appalachia conveyed a passionate narrative of commitment to defending their communities, their environment, and their way of life against the depredations of the corporate coal interests, the banks that behind the scenes finance mountaintop removal, and the complicity of politicians and government agencies

The one speaker whose name would be widely recognized beyond the movement was climate scientist James Hansen, who has already established an ongoing involvement with the mountaintop removal activist community. Wearing a rain hat and speaking carefully chosen words from written notes (full text of his remarks), he said:

James Hansen speaking at the rally. Photo courtesy of Appalachia Rising.

The science is clear. Mountaintop removal destroys historic mountain ranges, poisons water supplies and pollutes the air with coal and rock dust. Mountaintop removal, providing only a small fraction of our energy, can and should be abolished. The time for half measures and caving in to polluting industries must end.

I had a chance to speak briefly with Jim after his talk. I said that, whatever else might be done in creating a meaningful climate policy, I supported his approach of going directly at the coal problem with forthright and high-profile action. Go after mountaintop removal, coal mining, coal-fired power plants, the coal companies, and the elected officials who take their campaign contributions and carry water for them politically. There may be many ways to connect climate science conclusions to societal implications, and this is one of them – the sort of thing that may tend to get lost when national-level public interest advocates put so many of their eggs in the basket of working for incremental legislative reforms.

From Freedom Plaza we walked several blocks, using sidewalks and part of the street, with banners and placards, and monitored by police and security guards, several blocks to the headquarters of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Outside the EPA building on Constitution Avenue across the street from the Smithsonian American History Museum, the crowd gathered, listened to a few speakers using bullhorns, then set up a loud chant, “EPA, do your job…EPA, do your job…” The chant went on for a long time as we continued down Constitution toward 15th Street, in the direction of PNC Bank and the White House.

On EPA’s role, Appalachia rising says, in summary:

Last April, in response to resounding opposition to mountaintop removal, the EPA announced new guidelines for permitting mountaintop removal valley fills. However, the impacts of mountaintop removal mining are so destructive that Appalachia Rising is calling on the administration to end the practice altogether by halting active mines and creating a permanent moratorium on new permits.

As a step in the right direction, groups have called on the EPA to immediately veto the Spruce No. 1 Mine project, which would be one of the largest strip-mining operations in Appalachia. The EPA is set to make a decision in the coming weeks on whether to reverse the Corps of Engineers’ 2007 approval for the mine. With mountaintop removal becoming increasingly controversial, the EPA’s decision on the 2,278-acre Spruce project is being closely watched as a sign of the mining practice’s future….

A dozen leading scientists published a paper in the journal Science in January 2009, concluding that mountaintop removal is so destructive that the government should stop giving out new permits altogether. “The science is so overwhelming that the only conclusion that one can reach is that mountaintop mining needs to be stopped,” said Margaret Palmer, a professor at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Sciences and the study’s lead author.

Mountaintop removal is a radical form of coal mining in which up to 800 feet, sometimes more, of densely forested mountaintops are literally blown up to reach thin coal seams. The resulting millions of tons of rock are dumped into surrounding valleys and rivers, polluting the headwaters that provide drinking water to millions of Americans. Already, 500 mountains and 2,000 miles of streams have been lost due to this devastating mining practice. A 2009 report estimated that coal mining costs Appalachia five times more in premature deaths than it provides the region in jobs, taxes and other economic benefits.

PNC Bank has a large stone building on the same block as the White House, across from the U.S. Treasury Department headquarters. We gathered outside the main entrance, while speakers called out PNC as a target of protest because it is the largest U.S. financier of mountaintop removal coal mining.

Inside the bank, a contingent of protestors led by our friend Reverend Billy, in a symbolic action, poured a pile of mountaintop removal coal waste onto the floor in the bank lobby. Four demonstrators were arrested at the bank. This particular tactic of political theater, of performance art, of spiritual statement, the delivery of coal waste directly to the lobbies of corporate entities associated with this environmental destruction, is an intervention that Reverend Billy and members of his Church of Life After Shopping (his thoughts on the rally here) have also carried out in New York City.

Reverend Billy and ralliers deliver mountaintop removal waste to the lobby of PNC Bank. Photo courtesy of Appalachia Rising

Then on to Lafayette Park, scene of many political protests, across from the White House.

James Hansen under arrest at the rally. Photo courtesy of Rainforest Action Network.

As planned, more than 100 of the demonstrators crossed the police line, sat down on the sidewalk at the White House fence, put up their banner, and refused to move until, one by one, they were arrested. Jim Hansen joined with the people and got himself arrested, too – not the first time he has been arrested in a coal protest. Check out Hansen’s essay “Activist” (August 2010).

On President Obama and mountaintop removal, see this piece by Earthjustice, the indispensable environmental protection legal team:

Mountaintop Removal Mining Continues Despite Obama’s Pledge

On the campaign trail, President Obama shared his thoughts about mountaintop removal mining:

We have to find more environmentally sound ways of mining coal than simply blowing the tops off mountains. We’re tearing up the Appalachian Mountains because of our dependence on fossil fuels … Strip-mining is an environmental disaster … What I want to do is work with experts here in West Virginia to find out what we need to do to protect the waterways here. That’s going to be a primary task of the head of my Environmental Protection Agency.

This, if it happens, would be a sea change from the previous administration’s EPA, which effectively wrote loopholes and exemptions into that law that allowed mining companies to evade longstanding regulations, sidestep basic Clean Water Act protections and dump their mountaintop removal mining waste directly into Appalachia’s waters, contaminating drinking water supplies for communities and burying important streams.

Nearly two years into President Obama’s term, we’ve seen small steps toward reducing the destruction of mountaintop removal mining in Appalachia, but the fact is: President Obama and his administration are still allowing this devastation to continue. The Army Corps of Engineers and the EPA are still permitting mountaintop removal mining permits in Appalachia, despite the regulations of the Clean Water Act….

This gesture – the arrests – became the centerpiece of the story for the media. The mainstream media – to the limited extent they covered it at all – focused on this conclusion to the Day of Action events. The Washington Post published a front-page picture of the arrest action, but lamely failed to cover the event with a story, which had played out just a few blocks from the newspaper’s office. The arrests were understandably seen as the key news hook – but there is much more to the narrative behind Appalachia Rising and the problem of mountaintop removal.

Does the media need a visible leader, a mediagenic spokesperson for the movement, someone to put on cable news and interview? A Jesse Jackson? A Cesar Chavez? The Appalachia Rising action had its grassroots leaders and voices, but they are not well-known by the mainstream media and the public. It’s the expression of a highly decentralized movement. How to connect it with the wider public support that this cause deserves? And with a wider public understanding that this is their cause, too, with powerful implications for the future of the country.

Related CSW posts:

January 15, 2010: Condemnation of mountaintop removal coal mining: A good example of citizen-scientist action

June 26, 2009: Jim Hansen’s statements at Coal River Mountain protest against mountaintop removal

June 23, 2009: NASA climate scientist Jim Hansen arrested today for civil disobedience against WV coal mining