Saturday, June 05, 2010

That Other Energy Company

The BP-caused tragedy in the Gulf has replaced the Massey Energy-caused mining tragedy in West Virginia on the list of horrendous, death-dealing accidents which could have been prevented. I suppose that's understandable, given the wide area of impact and given the short attention span of the media. However, there is a small cadre of activists who are still challenging Massey Energy on its unholy practices, and, surprisingly, the Los Angeles Times has taken notice.

Although public scrutiny of Massey has focused on the April 5 mine explosion that took 29 lives — a congressional committee grilled company executives last month — the battle between the company and activists has largely escaped notice outside West Virginia. The conflict has dragged on for 16 months, and there is no end in sight.

The group Climate Ground Zero has performed 21 acts of nonviolent civil disobedience, including shackling themselves to towering draglines and bulldozers, canoeing across a toxic waste impoundment, and occupying a Massey subsidiary's office for 10 days. Most notably, members have camped out in trees to fight the practice of blowing up mountains to expose coal seams.

Coal giant Massey has labeled the protesters "criminals" and "environmental terrorists." The company is pursuing court injunctions against them and seeking financial damages. The group has not been cowed.

Activists say they are breaking the law to halt mining damage so grave it amounts to a crime. Mountaintop removal has left valleys and rivers clogged with debris, wells ruined and nearby homes uninhabitable.

The actions of Climate Ground Zero are impressive, especially given the power Massey Energy holds over West Virginia. As I noted in my April post (first link, above), Don Blankenship, CEO of Massey Energy "...owns West Virginia's legislature, governor, and even the state's supreme court. Bought and paid for by generous campaign donations, the state wouldn't dare cross this major Republican player." The activists don't seem to mind that the odds are stacked against them, however. For the past sixteen months they have continued to cross every line Massey has drawn.

As the months rolled by, however, Massey and the public authorities have upped the ante considerably:

When arrests began, the activists were released without bail or were required to put up a modest amount. Now bail is set in the thousands and is often required in cash for offenses as minor as trespassing. Two activists spent two weeks in jail waiting for funds to be raised. Bail was initially set at $100,000 in the latest case.

Punishment has been increased as well. Although plea bargains have been accepted in most of the cases, none of which involved jail time, one activist with the temerity to demand her constitutionally guaranteed right to a jury trial was slapped with a sentence of 60 days in jail. Another activist, offered a plea bargain of only 30 days in jail, has also chosen to go to trial. There's no telling at this point what she will face for a sentence.

This may look like small change to those activists who were killed trying to break the Israeli blockade of Gaza, but the actions of Climate Ground Zero are cut from the same cloth and deserve the same respect. It would be nice if the media, whether the traditional main stream media or the new electronic media, would accord the West Virginia battle some attention.

The Los Angeles Times did just that, even if it wasn't front page news. For that I am grateful.

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