Mountaintop Mining Protest

  • One of the organizers of the rally opposing mountaintop removal coal mining scheduled the protest to coincide with the first day of climate talks in Copenhagen. (Photo by Sandra Sleight-Brennan)

World leaders are in Copenhagen,
Denmark where the debate over
what to do about climate change
is getting loud sometimes. But
in West Virginia coal country, the
debate is even louder. Lester
Graham reports:


World leaders are in Copenhagen,
Denmark where the debate over
what to do about climate change
is getting loud sometimes. But
in West Virginia coal country, the
debate is even louder. Lester
Graham reports:

When the West Virginia Coal Association heard about plans for a rally to protest mountaintop removal coal mining, it issued an email. The Associaiton wanted supporters of the coal industry to hold a counter protest to the quote, “liberal enviro-whacko’s rally.”

(sound of protest and truck horns)

The coal mining supporters not only showed up, but they brought in some big trucks, horns blaring to try to disrupt the protest speakers at the rally in front of the offices of West Virginia’s Department of Environmental Quality.

The Coal industry’s message was simple. Coal means jobs. Jobs mean paychecks.

But the protestors against mountaintop removal coal mining say there are more important things.

One of those speakers was Maria Gunnoe. She’s a coal miner’s daughter who’s worked against the environmental damage of blowing off the tops of Appalaichan mountains to get to the coal. The blasted debris has been dumped into valleys, damaging streams and water supplies.

“I challenge you. You think it’s hard to live without a paycheck? Try living with nothing to give your children to drink. Paycheck’s not important when you don’t have water to give your children.”

Maria Gunnoe has been there. She lives in a valley just downhill from a debris fill. She testified against the coal companies in a court case to stop them from dumping debris in streams. Let’s just say she’s not a popular figure among the pro-coal folks.

Bo Webb lives in Coal River Valley. He’s one of the organizers of the rally opposing mountaintop removal coal mining. He scheduled the protest the same day climate talks in Copenhagen started. He’d liked to see the people where he lives get something from those negotiations.

“I’m hoping what comes out of Copenhagen for here would be a message that some of these miners could start understanding and stop manipu- allowing- themselves to be manipulated by a coal industry that’s got one concern, and that’s profits.”

At the counter-rally, many of the coal mining supporters did not want to talk to news people. One guy who would talk is Gary Finley. He’s from Ohio and sells equipment to the coal mining industry.

“You know, this industry is regulated, heavily regulated, now. It has been since, what, 1977? (Yep.) So, you know, we’re doing everything that’s dictated by law in the mining of coal.”

When asked about the future of coal, Finley hesitated.

“Well, (laughs) right now I’m uncertain. I can tell you what I hope it’ll be. I hope it continues. You know, we’ve got a lot of coal in these mountains. I don’t believe the people in this country realize how important coal is to the economy of the eastern United States, people realize when they go into their homes and turn on their light switch and the electric comes on, if we don’t mine coal, that’s gonna be- it’s done.”

The protest was a lot of passionate speakers, a lot of booing, and a lot of truck horns.

But what irritated the coal mining supporters more than anything seemed to be the idea that outsiders were coming to West Virginia to tell them what to do. And the liberal outsider that aggravated them most was environmentalist Robert Kennedy, Junior. Kennedy calls fossil fuels a deadly addiction that’s wrecking the country, and says mountaintop removal coal mining is destroying communities.

“And, you know, we need to figure out ways to power our country that don’t compromise the aspirations of future generations, don’t compromise their potential for prosperity, for wholesome, dignified communities.”

In the end, nothing was settled in West Virginia, just as nothing will be settled in Copenhagen.

But at the local level and the international level, people are talking about fossil fuels differently. Some see a bright future in renewable, sustainable energy and preserved forested mountains, while others feel their lives and their livelihoods threatened.

For The Environment Report, I’m Lester Graham.

Related Links

Plutonium Shipment Outrages Activists

Activists in Canada and the U-S are trying to stop plutonium from
dismantled warheads from being shipped to Canadian nuclear power
plants. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Lester Graham reports… the
first shipment was recently slipped into Canada and another is coming
this spring:


Activists in Canada and the U.S. are trying to stop plutonium from dismantled warheads

from being shipped to Canadian nuclear power plants. The Great Lakes Radio

Consortium’s Lester Graham reports the first shipment was recently slipped into Canada

and another is coming this spring:

The Canadian government plans to dispose of weapons-grade plutonium from dismantled

nuclear warheads from Russia. Canada suggested it could mix the weapons-grade

plutonium with uranium and use it for fuel in its nuclear power plants.

Protestors in the U.S. and Canada vowed they’d stop the shipments. During public

hearings in Michigan, some environmentalists and politicians said they’d lie down in

the road to stop trucks. So, when the U.S. Department of Energy planned a shipment of

sample material, the DOE made the shipment classified. Nobody was told when or where

the plutonium would be shipped. This month, the secret shipment left Los Alamos and

entered Canada at Sault Sainte Marie.

Verna Lawrence is the mayor of Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan. She’s outraged her town was

not notified the shipment was coming.

“We’d have barricaded I-75. I had people that would go with me. How dare they do that

to us in our area with the Great Lakes Basin. It’s crazy!”

Mayor Lawrence says the federal government is shipping the plutonium against the

wishes of the people.

“See, the Canadian government and the United States government are in cahoots. They

don’t give a damn about anybody else. And let me tell you another thing: the governors

are not protecting their citizens. If I was the governor and I had the National Guard

and the State Police, they would not set foot on the state of Michigan.”

Just on the other side of the border, the mayor of Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario also was

not notified.

Once in Canada, the shipment was put on a helicopter and flown to the Chalk River

Nuclear Power Plant where the fuel is being tested. Protestors say it was flown to

avoid blockades by activists and native people. The only road from Sault Ste. Marie to

the Chalk River Nuclear Plant runs through the Garden River Reservation. Cathy

Brosemer is with a coalition of environmental groups in Ontario called “Northwatch.”

She says the shipment was kept secret and the helicopter was used to avoid angry

peopole along the route.

“What we’ve been dealing with right now is the utter contempt the government holds its

citizens in. The government decided to ignore the public’s views on this issue and

literally fly over our heads.”

Canada’s nuclear industry says that’s not the case. Larry Shewchuck is a spokesperson

for Atomic Energy of Canada, Limited (AECL). AECL operates Canada’s nuclear power

plants. He says avoiding protestors was not the reason AECL used the helicopter.

“Quite frankly, AECL was just as happy to leave the shipment on the road. It was the

government of Canada that asked us to put it in the air because that’s what Canadians

were asking for. So, in the end, we did what the politicians wanted.”

Shewchuck says at public information stops this past fall, many people suggested if

the shipments were as safe as AECL and the Canadian government said they were, they

ought to fly them to the nuclear plant.

Protestors question whether a last minute switch from ground transportation to air was

a regulatory shell game to trick opponents of the plutonium shipments. Shewchuck says

the change was proper and followed the rules.

“The regulations in Canada did not have to be changed to accommodate air transport.

Air transport was made under existing Canadian regulations. Everything was done by the

book and nothing had to be changed.”

Environmental activists in the area don’t believe it. Cathy Brosemer says that flight

might have violated regulations and might be key in an effort to get an injunction.

“We believe that there have been some breaches in the way that this was handled and we

are going to try to get something to stop the test of the substance at the CANDU

reactors in Canton/Chalk River.”

The AECL plans to go ahead with tests of the plutonium mix fuel. Brosemer says the

environmentalists will also seek an injunction to stop future shipments. This spring,

Russian plutonium is scheduled to be shipped through the St. Lawrence Seaway, on

through the Great Lakes and finally to the Chalk River plant in Ontario.

The U.S. Department of Energy says there won’t be any more shipments from the States.

And official with the DOE spoke on the condition his name not be used. He says while

the United States is helping to pay for the disposal of plutonium from dismantled

Russian nuclear warheads, the U.S. has decided to use its plutonium in American

nuclear power plants.

The mayor of Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan, Verna Lawrence, doesn’t believe the Energy

Department. She says she and other people opposing the shipments have to be more


“We got to get somebody on the inside, I think. You know, that’s the only way we’re

going to – If you can’t lick ’em, trick ’em, you know. But we’ll figure out a way

because that’s just the first shipment. There’ll be many, many, many more.”

Officials in Canada and the U.S. say it’s ironic that the shipments are causing so

much controversy among some of the same people who opposed the nuclear arms race.

Canadian officials say the nuclear material as fuel is a safe and efficient way to

dispose of weapons-grade plutonium. If the mixed fuel works well in Canada’s nuclear

plants, regular shipments of plutonium from Russia’s dismantled warheads will travel

through the Great Lakes region for at least the next ten years.

For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, this is Lester Graham.

Commentary – The Public’s Right to Say No

Earlier this month, the U-S completed a controversial shipment of
weapons grade plutonium to Canada. Despite considerable protest
before the event, the material was shipped without any public
As Great Lakes Radio Consortium commentator Suzanne Elston points
out, this sets a dangerous precedent:


Earlier this month, the U.S. completed a controversial shipment of weapons-grade

plutonium to Canada. Despite considerable protest before the event, the material was

shipped without public knowledge. This sets a dangerous precedent, as Great Lakes

Radio Consortium’s commentator Suzanne Elston points out:

Proponents of the plan think it’s a good idea. Take plutonium from dismantled nuclear

weapons, mix it with uranium and use it for fuel in nuclear reactors. The process

doesn’t destroy the plutonium, but what it does do is make it very difficult to use.

Supporters hope that this will prevent the plutonium from falling into the wrong


The plan had been in the works for several years. The problem was getting the stuff

from Los Alamos, New Mexico to an experimental nuclear facility in Chalk River,

Ontario. As soon as the public got wind of the trucking routes there were howls of

protest, particularly from a group of activists in Michigan. They were concerned about

the risks of an accident when the plutonium was shipped through their community. They

were desperately trying to get a court injunction to stop the plutonium from being

shipped when it was discovered that the stuff had already been sent.

There was no public input, no warning – nothing. Even the mayors of Sault Ste. Marie,

the towns where the plutonium crossed the border into Canada weren’t notified until

after the event. And because the whole thing went off without any problems, officials

were rather pleased with themselves. They duped the public, nobody got hurt – mission


I find this really scary. Whether the shipment was safe or not isn’t the issue here.

Not only does the public have a right to know what was going on, they also have the

right to stop it, if that’s the will of the people. But that right was taken away by

the boys at the Department of Energy and Atomic Energy Canada who seemed to think they

know better somehow.

Well guess what? That’s not what the democratic process is all about. Public input –

regardless of how inconvenient – has got to be considered. Just because a plan is

proposed, doesn’t mean that it should go ahead. Debate is the cornerstone of

democratic process. One of the possible outcomes of that debate is that the public

will exercise its right to say no.

But that wasn’t allowed to happen here. We the people are supposed to decide. That’s

called democracy.

Suzanne Elston is a syndicated columnist living in Courtice, Ontario. She comes to us

by way of the Great Lakes Radio Consortium.

Commentary – Putting a Price on Human Lives

The eyes of the world were recently focused on Seattle, Washington for
the World Trade Organization conference. Despite their efforts, tens of
thousands of protesters were unable to stop the
conference. As Great Lakes Radio Consortium commentator Suzanne
Elston observes, rather than fighting the globalization of trade
maybe its time we fully embraced the idea: