MADISON — A group of environmentalists marched on one of the largest mountaintop removal mines in the country Saturday, shutting down the operation for hours in a highly visible protest.
However, before the 50 people associated with the R.A.M.P.S. (Radical Action for Mountain Peoples Survival) Campaign walked onto Hobet 45 in Boone County, industry supporters and critics faced each other for hours in Kanawha State Forest, gathering their troops for the impending march.
The coal miners, with their families, had traveled to the park to take part the battle of what has been called a “War on Coal.” RAMPS was taking a stand against what they call “death and destruction.”
The RAMPS group had a base camp of sorts at a park shelter on a hill, partially hidden from where the miners stood. A few of the protesters came to stand across the road from the miners, receiving verbal barbs, shouts of “go home,” “get a job,” as well as a few personal insults. The environmentalists were mostly silent, prompting the miners to ask if they were allowed to speak.
West Virginia State Troopers patrolled the area, occasionally asking people from both sides to move aside for vehicles coming in and out of the park, but the situation did not escalate to a physical confrontation.
One miner, who asked to be identified only as Joshua, said he had been working in the mines for three years. He stood at the front of the group, dressed in his stripes and hard hat, and attempted to engage the environmentalists in a dialogue, which was mostly met with silence.
“I am here because I am sick of my family and friends being laid off,” he said. “Our stock is low, if they shut down a mine for a few hours, it is detrimental to our industry.”
Joshua’s tone and message played against the shouts of those with him, although he received verbal support.
“Who here agrees that God gave us these mountains?” a miner shouted, to a rousing answer of “We do!” from the ranks of the miners.
“And so who put coal under these mountains?” the miner asked. “Do you think God put coal here as a joke?” A miner’s wife called “It’s a natural resource, He put it here for us to use!”
The environmentalists stood quietly, talking among themselves, getting the logistics of the march on Hobet in order in whispers.
Joshua said he had one question, and that none of the protestors on the opposite side of the road had been able to answer it:
“What will West Virginia do if the mines shut down?” he asked. “Ask any West Virginian, here, it’s coal. There won’t be any new industries, because there won’t be any money flow. My taxes go to make a better life for my family. There will be no money without the mines.”
Meanwhile, a few feet up on the hill, the environmentalists listened to the man who has been called the Grandfather of the environmental movement in West Virginia, former State Representative and Secretary of State Ken Hechler.
Hechler is will be 98 years old in September, and still a staunch critic of mining companies.
“In West Virginia, King Coal is difficult to challenge,” he said. The group of environmentalist gathered around, silent as television and print reporters gathered around Hechler, who pumped his fist as he spoke. A friend traveling with him asked that questions be asked in a loud tone, Heckler’s hearing is fading, he said.
“But we are a determined group, we are standing up for the mountains, and for the people in the valleys that are being hurt by the vicious practice of mountaintop removal.”
A reporter asked point blank: why do you think it is important to be here, Mr. Hechler?
“I am determined to fight,” he said. “To demonstrate, to support the mountains. There are people here from all over the country, people from all over the world see this destruction and come to fight the exploitation. West Virginia is almost a colonial possession, out-of-state interests come and exploit our natural resources. But, like a tree rooted here, we shall not be moved.”
While Heckler spoke about the single industry economic picture in the state, many of the coal supporters left, whether to lend support to the cause elsewhere or to rotate and let other miners come have their say. As the miners’ numbers dwindled, a few were left, and the much delayed conversation began, over the road, with armed State Troopers closely monitoring the exchange.
“We are not against all coal mining, just mountaintop removal” one person who asked not to be filmed or identified, told the miners. He was asked where he was from, why he cared about what was happening in West Virginia to working men.
“I am from West Virginia,” he told them. “I am a construction worker, a carpenter. I am here because I care what is going to happen in the future.” He went on to give statistics about mountaintop mining, how more miners would be employed in an underground mine, and studies of the health of those who live near mountaintop removal operations. The miners gave him examples of developments on reclaimed mountaintop removal sites.
“Coal is a limited resource,” he said. “We need to start transitioning now. I know its hard, half of all small businesses fail. But we need to start somewhere. What if, hypothetically, no new mining permits were issued? What would West Virginia do then?”
“And what would I do?” a coal miner asked in return. “Strip mining is all I know.”