Youth Occupy Trees, Blasting Halted on Coal River Mountain

This morning, five individuals took direct action against Mountaintop Removal (MTR) by halting work at an MTR site. Sitting in barren oak trees and a poplar are Eric Blevins, 28, Amber Nitchman, 19, and David Aaron Smith, 23.  On standby at the trees’ base are the direct supporters Josh Graupera, 19, and Isabelle Rozendaal, 22. The trees’ location on Coal River Mountain directly impedes on Massey Energy’s attempt to build an access road to an impoundment where the toxic leftovers from coal processing (or, “slurry”) are being held back from the communities below. Their banners state: “EPA: Halt the Blasting”, “Windmills Not Toxic Spills”, and “Save Coal River Mountain.” Blevins expressed disbelief at this careless action, pointing out that “Massey Energy is a criminal corporation with over 4,500 documented violations of the Clean Water Act, yet the government has given them permission to blast next to a dam full of toxic coal waste that will kill 998 people if it fails.

Over the past two years I’ve been following the struggle against Mountain Top Removal – through blog and news articles, through the release of documentaries like Coal Country, and through updates from friends of mine involved in fighting the destruction wrought by mountaintop removal in Appalachia. As my personal connection to mountaintop removal and the movement fighting it has increased, top-notch media coverage has been increasing as well. I’ve been spending time in Central Appalachia for the past couple of weeks, and in that time Dr. Margaret Palmer’s “Mountaintop Mining Consequences” was published in Science Magazine’s January issue and Stephen Colbert brought her on his show to talk about the detrimental effects MTR has on environments and communities. All of this attention comes at the brink of this evening’s debate between Don Blankenship, CEO of Massey Energy, and Bobby Kennedy Jr, chief litigator for the Waterkeeper’s Alliance.

This media coverage hasn’t come about on its own.  There have been countless people working countless hours to expose the injustices being perpetrated by the practice of MTR mining.  Those involved with the tree-sit and Climate Ground Zero direct action campaign understand that they’re part of a much larger effort, and that they’re not going to single-handedly stop mountaintop removal by sitting in trees and locking themselves to coal trucks. Climate Ground Zero is continuing a decades-long Appalachian tradition of refusing to be silent as communities and ancient ecosystems are destroyed.  Graupera explained why he is risking arrest to resist mountaintop removal, “I knew that until I took an active role in the struggle to end MTR, I was passively condoning the poisoning and displacement of countless communities and in the obliteration of one of the oldest and most diverse ecosystems on this continent.”

But let’s take a step back and take a look at the connection between Massey, the Bee Tree Site, and the Brushy Fork impoundment.  The Brushy Fork impoundment on Coal River Mountain in Raleigh County, WV is a dam filled with 8.2 billion tons of toxic coal waste and water, and it’s been legally permitted to hold up to 9 billion.  The impoundment was authorized by the WV Department of Environmental Protection (WVDEP) the mountain was deep mined for decades, and the core of the mountain is extremely fragile.  If the dam’s foundation fell in – which happened in 2000 at the Big Branch Impoundment in Inez, KY – the waste would blast out of every side of the mountain from open mine shafts.   Massey Energy itself estimates that in the case of an ordinary dam failure 998 people will die, which honestly means the real numbers will be much higher and that the numbers for a blowout are totally unknown.  According to, the emergency warning plan that Marfork Coal, a subsidiary of Massey, has drawn up in case of a frontal dam failure states that a 40-foot wall of sludge, cresting at 72 feet, would engulf communities downstream as far as Prenter (20 miles away). At the Bee Tree Site, an access road from the processing plant to the impoundment is being built in order to dump even more slurry in Brushy Fork. This is where the sitters have halted blasting.  To sum it up: the blasting, processing plant, and the impoundment are not only hurting the community right now, at this rate, they have the potential to wreck even more damage across the region for years after there’s no coal left to extract from the mountains of West Virginia.

This action is another in a long line of actions working to protect Coal River Mountain, which is seen as a guiding light in the anti-MTR movement because of its potential for wind energy.  “Brushy Fork sludge dam places the downstream communities in imminent danger. The threat of being inundated by a wall of toxic sludge is always present.  Blasting next to this dam increases the risk as well as destroying the opportunity for renewable wind energy,” said Coal River Mountain Watch’s Vernon Haltom. According to the Coal River Wind Project the wind energy produced by a turbine farm on Coal River Mountain could power 70,000 homes, provide more permanent jobs for local residents and annually bring over a million more dollars in tax breaks revenue to Raleigh County than coal currently does.  Additionally, the location on Coal River Mountain where the sitters are currently occupying the trees is an excellent location for windmills.

Clearly there are a lot of complicated angles involved in just this one blasting site.  This is really emblematic of the obstacles presented by mountaintop removal mining.  There are so many companies and people that have their hands in this mess.  This means that it’s even more pressing that you and your friends help spread the news about the sit.  There are a few things you can do:  call the EPA 202-564-4700 the WVDEP 304-926-0490 (Division of Mining and Reclamation) and ask them to enforce the Clean Water Act and put a stop to blasting mountains and filling valleys.  Both the EPA and WVDEP haven’t shown the leadership that the citizens of West Virginia and the citizens of the United States expect.

We’ll be posting updates and visual media on the tree-sit as frequently as possible on this site.  Other information can be found at additionally please follow our twitter feeds: CoalIsFilthy and MtnAction.  If you’re part of the media community and would like to cover this story please email us at

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