CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Two mountaintop-removal opponents took to the trees of Raleigh County on Tuesday, hoping to shut down a Massey Energy operation they say is blasting dangerously close to nearby homes.
Protesters from the groups Climate Ground Zero and Mountain Justice climbed onto platforms near the top of two 80-foot-tall tulip poplar trees just off the permitted area for Massey’s Edwight Surface Mine near Pettry Bottom.
Two other protesters stationed on the ground were arrested, but tree-sitters Nick Stocks and Laura Steepleton said they would not willingly come down until blasting at the site stops for good. They also demanded that Massey cover the full costs for blasting-related home repair and health-care costs for area residents, and until the U.S. Office of Surface Mining “commits to supervising the full reclamation” of the mine site.
“I am sitting in this tree to halt the blasting that endangers the residents of Pettry Bottom and Clays Branch,” Steepleton said in a statement distributed by Climate Ground Zero and Mountain Justice.
The tree-sitting action is the latest in a series of protests along West Virginia’s Coal River Valley this summer. Activists have stepped up their efforts to use peaceful civil disobedience to shut down mining operations and push for an end to all mountaintop-removal mining.
Massey has obtained court orders blocking such actions, but the protests have continued. This is the third action in two weeks in which protesters specifically cited their anger with state Environmental Protection Secretary Randy Huffman’s outspoken support for mountaintop removal and the coal industry.
Massey Energy officials did not respond to requests for comment on Tuesday.
Department of Environmental Protection officials dispatched an inspector to the Edwight operation on Tuesday, but it was not clear what action, if any, was taken.
State Police Sgt. M.A. Smith said Massey officials told him the company had no plans for blasting in that area of the mine this week.
“Massey has no plans to blast in that area in the next little while,” Smith said. Smith said he is trying to negotiate with leaders of the protest movement to convince Stocks and Steepleton to come down for safety reasons.
Tuesday’s action marked the first time that mountaintop-removal protesters adopted tree-sitting, a technique that’s been widely against logging in the Western U.S. and in Australia and New Zealand, to try to halt surface coal mining.
According to the protesters, the tree-sitters were about 30 feet off the mine’s permitted area and about 300 feet from where blasting has generally taken place most days at about 4 p.m., but Smith said the protesters were trespassing on Massey property.
Federal and state strip-mining laws generally prohibit Massey from any blasting activity that would injure people, but it’s not clear that a ban on any mining activity within 300 feet of an “occupied dwelling” would protect the tree-sitters.
Mine operations, though, are also required to clear “all persons” from blasting areas before explosives are used, according to federal mine safety rules.