After 3-Year Protest Campaign, Swiss Banking Giant UBS Pulls Back from Investments in Mountaintop Removal Coal Mining

Posted Aug. 27, 2014

MP3 Interview with Tom Torres, organizer with the group Hands Off Appalachia, conducted by Melinda Tuhus

MTR

In November 2013, 14 activists were arrested for challenging the role financial services company UBS plays in mountaintop removal coal mining. Their protest action took place at the U.S. headquarters of UBS in Stamford, Connecticut. One group of activists scaled a crane and unfurled a banner which read, “UBS Stop Funding MTN Top Removal," while others locked themselves to a railing inside the headquarters’ main entrance.

Over the past few years, UBS has moved away from its earlier unqualified support for companies engaged in mountaintop removal coal mining that blows the tops off mountain ridges and dumps the debris into valley streams below. The mining method results in massive air and water pollution, and several studies have shown a significantly higher incidence of some cancers and birth defects among residents of communities located in coal mining areas where this extreme energy extraction practice is in use.

The Swiss banking giant’s actions over the past several months make it clear that UBS no longer thinks investment in mountaintop removal is a good business decision, apart from ethical concerns. In a statement to the local Stamford Advocate newspaper, Karina Byrne, a spokesperson for UBS Americas, said the company "fully acknowledges the importance of mining to the global economy. At the same time, it also recognizes the potential environmental, social and human rights impact of this industry sector." Between The Lines’ Melinda Tuhus spoke with Tom Torres, an organizer with Hands Off Appalachia, the group which organized the UBS protest actions in Stamford last November. Here, he describes his group's ongoing campaign to stop mountain top removal coal mining and his reaction to the recent UBS announcement.

TOM TORRES: Throughout 2013, Hands Off Appalachia had a series of escalating actions against UBS, targeting their financial support of MTR. In the early spring, we had a lot of regional actions in the Southeast and in Appalachia, and in May, we escalated our campaign in Knoxville, Tennessee to arrestables, where three activists with Hands Off Appalachia got arrested in the protest in Knoxville – where Hands Off Appalachia started the campaign. Then in June, a group we work with, Capitalism vs the Climate, did a solidarity action with us in Stamford, Connecticut, where four activists were arrested at the protest at the UBS Americas headquarters. And so the work we were doing in Connecticut with the action camp was built off that escalating series of actions that we had been planning all year.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Can you tell us more about the history of UBS involvement with mountaintop removal coal mining, or MTR?

TOM TORRES: In 2010, UBS facilitated the merger of Alpha and Massey, which created the largest MTR company in the country. And between 2009 and 2010, UBS gave $1.4 billion to coal companies that engage in MTR – Alpha Natural Resources, Arch Coal and James River Coal. And then, in 2011, Rainforest Action Network, in their mountaintop removal scorecard, ranked UBS as the world's third largest funder of mountaintop removal. And since then, there's been other instances of UBS, but that's the main stuff with UBS, historically.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Can you summarize what action – or maybe lack of action – UBS has taken recently regarding its financing of mountaintop removal?

TOM TORRES: Yeah, so the Hands Off Appalachia victory wasn't a recent decision that UBS publicly made; it's been a series of actions they've taken over the past two years, but especially over the several months since our action camp in November and the Stamford actions that came out of it. In 2010 UBS released a statement against MTR, but the statement, we feel, is inadequate and really vague, with no real accountability in place, and so it just states their commitment to reducing their exposure to companies that engage in mountaintop removal, but beyond that doesn't have any way of holding them accountable -- no specific numbers or targets or goals or timelines or anything like that – so we've been bringing that up and having that be a big part of our campaign, and during the Stamford actions, our ask – our demands – of that week were for them to put out a stronger statement because we had seen them kind of taking some steps – like they hadn't actively funded anyone in a while, for a few months, and so we were like, Okay, maybe this is an opportunity to push for this, for them to release a stronger statement. So we ended up meeting with executives of UBS, like their global head of social and environmental risk, their global head of sustainability, people like that, and we had an hour and a half meeting with UBS and went through the policy line by line and then talked about our issues with it and different opportunities for them to strengthen that, and we walked out of that meeting...we didn't get the statement we wanted, so we did these actions. But over the past few months we've seen them not participate in loans with companies they've historically engaged with; we've seen them downgrade coal companies that they've previously funded from past years, so while we feel the statement itself isn't sufficient to prevent them from engaging in MTR financing, the actions they've taken recently show us their commitment to doing that. And we feel that's a big win for the movement.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Tom Torres, is Hands Off Appalachia asking anything else of UBS or are you moving on to other targets?

TOM TORRES: Yeah, it would be great if UBS would release a stronger statement, and there's gonna be some stuff around that, but as far as the campaign is concerned, everyone is working on different projects right now. So, the way it was shaping out was after the actions we were considering what our next steps look like, and so there are different talks about an international day of action as the logical next step for our campaign when we got the news of what's been going on with UBS, and since then, we've been working on other campaigns, because this is a really big win for the movement, but this isn't the win we need for the fight against strip mining and mountaintop removal, so we're working on different campaigns as well, beyond the UBS Hands Off Appalachia campaign.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Sometimes the biggest punishment for these kinds of non-violent direct actions is all the times people have to return to court. In the case of the UBS 14, they had to travel from Appalachia to Stamford, Connecticut every month only to be given another continuance. Can you say where the legal situation stands now?

TOM TORRES: Everyone is kind of in a different place in terms of resolution, and so, one member about a month ago, maybe six weeks ago, one of the 14 people who got arrested in Stamford got cleared of everything and so all the stuff they needed to do with court is over. Other folks are getting to that point. Other folks are expecting a little bit longer in this process. It depends on their level of participation in it, but the court stuff from the November actions is still happening, so people are still having to go up there kind of regularly.

For more information on Hands Off Appalachia, visit handsoffappalachia.com.

[CORRECTION: According to Rainforest Action's scorecard on mountaintop removal, in 2011, UBS was the third largest funder of the MTR coal-mining practice.]

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