Arrests at West Virginia Mountain Top Removal Coal Mine Signals New Phase of Direct Action Campaign

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Posted Aug. 1, 2012

Interview with Dustin Steele, organizer with RAMPS, Radical Action for Mountain People's Survival, conducted by Melinda Tuhus

MTR

On July 25, 45 persons walked onto the site of a mountaintop removal mine in Lincoln County in the southern West Virginia coal fields to demand an end to the practice in which the tops of Appalachian ridges are blasted apart to get to the coal seams beneath. It leaves behind what looks like a moonscape in many cases, with the blasted rocks and soil dumped in the valleys below. More than 2,000 miles of valley streams have been buried so far.

Coal from mountaintop removal sites is a small but profitable part of total coal production. Critics charge that the mountaintop removal coal mining process has contributed to increases in cancer and birth defects among the people living in surrounding communities.

Dustin Steele is a West Virginian from the town of Blair, the site of a major protest in 2011, commemorating a 1921 march by miners demanding workers’ rights. Steele is an organizer with the group Radical Action for Mountain People's Survival, or RAMPS, which sponsored the civil disobedience protest action last week. He was one of 20 arrested and charged with trespassing and obstruction, both misdemeanors, but all those arrested were being held on $25,000 bail each. RAMPS reports that Steele was severely beaten while in custody. In an interview with Between The Lines’ Melinda Tuhus before his arrest, Steele explains the relationship between the diminishing role of coal in powering the nation, local jobs and the campaign to end America’s dependence on fossil fuels.

DUSTIN STEELE: People who are employed by the coal industsry are seeing the right of being employed by the coal industry drop; layoffs are happening everywhere and people are being scared and rightfully so. It's because of market conditions, but the coal companies need to blame it on something, so they blame it on out-of-state environmentalists. But for me and my account, the oppression that's happening here with extractive industries is happening all over the world, and you have to fight it in whatever form it takes, and I'm so glad there are so many people who have decided to fight extractive industries here.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Polls show a majority of West Virginians oppose mountaintop removal (MTR). What's your own opinion about underground mining? Do you think more people should be doing underground mining, or do you think coal should be left in the ground?

DUSTIN STEELE: I think extraction is extraction, and whenever you take carbon-based non-renewables out of the ground you are leading to the climate crisis. It's a non-sustainable way to create electricity and provide employment. I feel like there has to be a transition point, but it needs to start with MTR being over tomorrow, and having a really steadfast plan to move away from coal. I feel we're to the point where if we don't start addressing the problems with our environment, it's going to be too big for human beings to fix ourselves, so we have to get away from coal mining as soon as possible.

BETWEEN THE LINES: The majority opinion in West Virginia is still in favor of coal because of the jobs. Is that changing at all? Do you think there's very many people with your opinion?

DUSTIN STEELE: That's impossible for me to quantify. I feel there is a market decrease in production of Appalachian coal, and that's going to continue as coal resources in the Powder River Basin and out west with pit mining and better technology that has less of a need for low-sulfur coal, it's going to be the end of the central Appalachian coal market anyway. People are still dependent on this monolithic industry, but the fact is coal is leaving, regardless of what we're doing or not, the market isn't going to support coal in central Appalachia for too much longer. And as that market continues to drop and hopefully as we become more steadfast and more efficient within our organizing, you'll see the dissenting voices of coal increase.

BETWEEN THE LINES: You're right in the middle of MTR. Have you or your family, friends, neighbors, experienced any direct negative impacts from MTR?

DUSTIN STEELE: Where I live for a multitude of reasons – and this is coal mining in general and not just MTR – the community I live, their water has been poisoned by continuous blasting. Everyone is on well water and everyone's water in the community I live in in Blair – their water is poisoned. This is a process that's happening all over the place. I've seen good friends of mine be diagnosed with cancer. Anyone who lives in southern West Virginia, whether they're aware of it or not, is negatively affected by MTR, and quite frankly, by coal mining in general.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Dustin Steele, after the march on Blair Mountain last summer, there was a group that stayed and formed an organization ...

DUSTIN STEELE: I am a member of the Blair Mountain Heritage Alliance. I work at the Blair Mountain Community Center and Museum, [which] aims to create a safe space for community members to gather. Blair has been rapidly depopulated since the early 1990s, going from a few hundred people down to between 40 and 60. Our main objective is to keep instilling the fact that the community of Blair is still alive and will continue to function and also the museum venerating the history of Blair and why it's important not only to coal mining history, not only to labor and union history, but to the history of the middle class. We also do more work separate from the community center monitoring permits, testing water, generally being the leg work and the support for a community that's been fighting for its rights for the past 110 years.

BETWEEN THE LINES: And just the last thing...this action that's coming up, they're calling it a mass walk-on to an MTR site, is being pitched as the next step, as a step beyond what's been done so far. What do you hope this action will engender?

DUSTIN STEELE: We're beginning to force the coal companies to react to us. And from that point we're going to continue to use this process to make the coal companies react to us. We're only moving forward; we're only going to build a stronger movement. We're looking to stop MTR. We're not going to lose and we're not going to take "no" for an answer. We're going to end MTR.

For more information on Radical Action for Mountain People's Survival, visit rampscampaign.org.

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