Virginia-based Massey Energy has filed three lawsuits so far this year against environmental activists who have staged more than a dozen acts of civil disobedience to pressure the nation’s fourth-largest coal company to abandon the destructive form of strip mining.
Massey did not immediately comment on its cases Wednesday, but court filings suggest the protesters are having a measurable, if minor, impact on the bottom line: In one lawsuit, Massey claims a single action — the 3½-hour occupation of a dragline at Progress Coal’s Twilight mine June 18 — cost the company $300,000.
The protesters are mainly affiliated with Climate Ground Zero, based in Rock Creek.
The most recent lawsuit targets two people who brought blasting to a halt in August by spending six days in treetop platforms at Massey’s Edwight mine in Raleigh County, as well as two ground-support people.
“Defendants have no defense,” the lawsuit argues. “They have announced to whoever will listen that they are trespassing and will continue to trespass.”
One Climate Ground Zero activist was tried Wednesday for a separate action against Patriot Coal in May.
Glen Collins, who chained himself to a giant dump truck on Kayford Mountain, was convicted in Boone County Magistrate Court on charges of trespassing and conspiracy.
“I believe that actions like this are necessary and just, and that’s what I’ll say in court,” Collins said before his trial began. “If Boone County wants to take away my freedom for trying to protect its citizens from the atrocity that is mountaintop removal, then so be it.”
No jail time was assessed, though. Instead, Magistrate Charles M. Byrneside fined Collins a total of $2,901 for both counts, including court costs and jurors’ service fees.
Mountaintop mining is a highly efficient but destructive practice that involves blasting away ridge tops to expose multiple coal seams. Massey, which operates mines in West Virginia, Kentucky and Virginia, contends it’s the only way to reach some of the coal it wants. Opponents say it forever disfigures the land, damages the environment and causes physical harm and property damage to people who live near the sites.
Massey subsidiary Alex Energy Inc. first sued protesters in February after three demonstrations — one at the Bee Tree surface mine and two at Edwight.
Independence Coal Co., another Massey subsidiary, sued in June after the dragline occupation that Massey claims forced it to temporarily idle 187 workers. That lawsuit, which calls the activists’ actions “publicity stunts,” also refers to a May 23 action in which two protesters donned hazardous material suits and paddled a canoe into the nearly 9 million-gallons of sludge at the Brushy Fork dam at Marfork Coal Co. near Whitesville.
Earlier this year, Raleigh County Circuit Judge Robert Burnside issued a restraining order against some of the protesters, and last week, he held six in contempt for repeatedly defying that order.
Burnside’s Sept. 24 ruling, which is temporarily stayed, orders protesters to pay Massey more than $19,000 in attorney fees and expenses, plus a $500 fine per person.
The order covers Collins, Antrim Caskey, James G. McGuinness, Rory McIlmoil, Mike Roselle and Chad Stevens. Roselle is a co-founder of Earth First! and the Rainforest Action Network, while McIlmoil is a community organizer for Coal River Mountain Watch and McGuinness is a veteran activist.
Caskey argued she was working as an independent journalist and should be exempt from the restraining order, but Burnside said no such privilege exists under state law.
Charleston attorney Roger Forman, who is representing the protesters, said he will take the case to the state Supreme Court if Burnside ultimately requires his clients to pay.
“It’s just plain wrong,” he said, accusing the judge of issuing an overly broad restraining order.
“He’s holding people in contempt who weren’t even subject to the restraining order,” Forman said. “It’s just absurd.”
In his answer to Massey’s last lawsuit, Forman claims the coal company’s employees wrongly seized photography equipment and other personal possessions, including a cell phone, from Kurt D. Mann of Asheville, N.C., and Paul C. Brown of Fayetteville.
That “interfered with their ability to pursue their living as photojournalists and have cost them lost earnings,” the filing says.
“The way Massey behaves,” Forman said, “you need photojournalists on these protests.”