MORGANTOWN — Environmental activists demanded a federal investigation Thursday into the alleged beating of a mountaintop removal mining protester by West Virginia State Police.
Several groups issued a statement asking the U.S. Attorney’s Office to investigate a weekend incident involving mountaintop removal mining protester Dustin Steele. They’d initially targeted the West Virginia attorney general, but that office has no criminal investigation or prosecutorial power. It primarily handles consumer protection and fraud cases.
Melvin Smith, a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office, said the FBI investigates claims of civil rights violations by public officials, but he was unaware of whether it’s received any complaints.
If the FBI were to determine charges were warranted, they would be pursued in federal court.
Steele, 21, is a Matewan native who now lives in Blair. He and 19 other protesters were arrested Saturday after a demonstration at Patriot Coal’s Hobet mine in Lincoln County.
Steele told The Associated Press he was dragged across asphalt outside the Madison State Police detachment, then punched and kicked by several troopers.
Sgt. Michael Baylous said State Police officials have received no complaint from Steele, so they’re not doing an internal investigation. He did not immediately comment further.
The demonstration was organized by Radical Action for Mountain People’s Survival, or RAMPS, which claims another veteran protester was dragged away from the scene by her hair. A RAMPS spokeswoman said a complaint would be filed on Steele’s behalf later Thursday.
Meanwhile, RAMPS posted a 9-minute video on YouTube on Wednesday morning that shows protesters being forced to walk for miles to their caravan of vehicles while other motorists are allowed to pass. The “Mountain Mobilization” video also shows counter-protesters in blue mining uniforms with fluorescent stripes lining the road in some places, forming a blockade and following along in vehicles. Protesters interviewed for the video accused the State Police of putting them in an unsafe situation.
Steele, who has been fighting mountaintop removal since he was 13, has been involved in as many as 30 demonstrations but said this is the first time he was seriously roughed up. He said he has abrasions on his back and deep bruises on his ribs and thighs. But he said the injuries have only strengthened his commitment.
“I’m doing physically OK, and mentally even better,” he said. “It’s such affirmation to be back with such a supportive group and doing the work I’m passionate about.”
Mountaintop removal is a highly efficient but highly destructive form of strip mining in which operators blast away the tops of the mountain to expose multiple seams of coal. The resulting debris is dumped into valleys below, often burying small streams.
Steele said it doesn’t matter to him which agency pursues justice on his behalf.
“The thing I want is for the State Police to be accountable for their actions,” he said.
Steele was released from the Western Regional Jail on Wednesday afternoon, after lawyers and supporters raised bail.
The environmental groups supporting Steele, including CREDO Action and the Energy Action Coalition, also want bail reductions for the other protesters. Although most face misdemeanor trespassing charges, they’re being held on $25,000 property bonds.
“Setting $25,000 bail for acts of nonviolent civil disobedience is not serving justice. It is serving the coal industry,” said Josh Nelson of CREDO Action.
Lincoln County Magistrate Mona Snodgrass, who set the bail amounts, is not working this week and didn’t immediately respond to a message left at her home. A fellow magistrate, however, told the Charleston Gazette (http://bit.ly/OFRKBk) that bail amounts are left to the courts’ discretion.
“The law supports reasons why we can set the bail how we do,” Magistrate Sophia Tully told the newspaper.