By C.V. MOORE
More than 50 activists walked onto Patriot Coal’s Hobet Surface Mine 45 — part of one of the largest mountaintop removal complexes in Appalachia — asking for the protection of mountains and miners Saturday.
They unfurled banners, chained themselves to a rock truck and, in one case, climbed a tree in an attempt to disrupt mining operations.
“It is time for the government and the coal industry to stop strip mining, repay their debt to Appalachia and work to secure a healthy, prosperous future for the families and workers of this region,” said a statement from Radical Action for Mountain People’s Survival (RAMPS), which coordinated the action.
“Everybody’s got their own opinion,” said G.C. Conley, a Patriot miner on site who spoke with activists and cautioned them to be careful around the trucks. “As long as we’re doing it legally, we ought to be able to do that.”
Patriot Coal is currently undergoing Chapter 11 bankruptcy due to reduced demand for coal and rising costs.
Valley fills at Hobet 45, part of what’s officially known as the Corridor G mining complex, were approved by the Obama administration’s Environmental Protection Agency even after its so-called “permitorium.”
A midday gathering in Kanawha State Forest, before the action, was swarmed with State Police and protesting miners. At the back entrance of the state park near Marmet, about 75 miners parked their cars and walked miles into the bottom where they hoped to encounter the activists.
Many more units were on site at the activists’ camp in the state forest, where miners gathered to counter-protest. At least once, a lengthy, civil dialogue over the region’s economic future unfolded between the two sides.
Meanwhile, a caravan of about 15 vehicles had been deployed to the Lincoln County mine.
There was no police presence when the convoy arrived at the remote location on Mud River Road, but a guard at the mine entrance quickly called security.
The group activists proceeded past the guard house and into the working mine. Some unfurled banners reading “Restore Our Mountains, Reemploy our Miners,” “Coal Leaves, Cancer Stays,” and “STOP.”
Two others chained themselves to a rock truck, and one climbed a tree on the mine site.
Ryan Halas of Greensboro, N.C., was one of the protesters at Hobet who says he is committed to direct action as a tactic to fight strip mining.
“I think it’s worth me risking my body, arrest, and freedom because I feel these communities have been abused from the time of the broad form deed until now and it’s the duty of conscious people to come highlight injustice nationally,” he said.
“In conversations with people who don’t think I’m doing the right thing, even those folks acknowledge the risks, health costs, and dangers to the community. But they accept those risks bravely.”
Within half an hour, State Police arrived on the site, informed participants that they were trespassing and asked them to leave. Some did, and others stayed.
By 1:40 p.m., 10 State Police cars were on scene, with more following behind.
Back at the guard house near the mine entrance, local Jordan Dolin argued with some of the activists as they left the site.
“My message is to Obama,” he told The Register-Herald. “We need to get our people working. This has to do with everyone in the U.S. This is the land of the free, and we’re all together here.”
RAMPS called off plans to deploy any additional protesters at 3:30 p.m.
Just up the road from Hobet, in what used to be a town called Hagertown, a group of locals out for a four-wheeler ride gathered by the side of the road.
“It’s almost a Hager family reunion,” said one happily.
Allen Hager, an unemployed miner, grew up in Hagertown in the bottom near what is now the guard house at Hobet.
“Don’t come from other states and tell us how to work,” he said. “If the State Police weren’t here, we’d be knocking heads. Get the police out of here and we’ll take care of it.”
“I do agree we need to go with clean energy, but don’t leave these guys hanging,” said Latisha Dotson. “If it’s about clean energy, build something and have it ready for our guys.”
In the mid-1990s, residents were bought out by the mining company and now the town is abandoned.
Hager says the company treated the former residents fairly when they bought their homes.
“It sucks, but now I’m living in a nicer place,” he says.
“Before the coal, people wanted to keep their homes,” says Dotson. “I’ve seen people fight the coal, but eventually embrace it. They relocated but got jobs out of it.”
Junior Walk, a RAMPS activist who grew up in Eunice, is one local who does not embrace coal.
He says he participates in direct action because he grew tired of the coal industry’s power in his community.
“Seeing all these people willing to put their freedom on the line to help people like me try and free ourselves from that kind of oppression is very inspiring. How could you not get involved in something like that?” he says.
“The people here in this state need to figure out who the real enemy is and realize their workers are getting poisoned and killed, just like members of their communities.
“When the coal industry decides to pull up roots and take off, what are they going to be left with? Broken bones, black lung, and probably not even a pension. I’ve never seen a tree hugger lay anybody off.”
Patriot Coal officials could not be reached for comment about Saturday’s event.