• Search

Facing Down the Machine – Direct Action to Stop Mountain Top Removal in Appalachia

Facing Down the Machine - Mike Roselle Draws a Line
Direct Action to Stop Mountain Top Removal in Appalachia
by Jeffrey St. Clair and Joshua Frank

The beard is graying. The hair is clipped military-short. He is a large man, oddly shaped, like a cross between a grizzly and a javelina. It’s Roselle, of course, Mike Roselle—the outside agitator. He and a fellow activist have just spread an anti-coal banner in front of a growling bulldozer in West Virginia on a cold February morning in 2009. He’s in this icy and unforgiving land to oppose a brutal mining operation and will soon be arrested for trespassing. Massey Energy, the target of Roselle’s protest, is the fourth largest coal extractor in the United States, mining nearly 40 million tons of coal in Kentucky, West Virginia and Tennessee each year.

The arrest was nothing new for Roselle, who cut his teeth in direct action environmental campaigns decades earlier as a co-founder of Earth First!, top campaigner for Greenpeace U.S. and later as the wit behind the tenacious Ruckus Society. Unlike most mainstream environmentalists you are not likely to see Roselle sporting a suit and lobbying Washington insiders on the intricacies of mining laws—you are more apt to see this self-proclaimed lowbagger (one who lives light on the land, works to protect it and has few possessions to show for their hard work) engaged in direct, but non-violent, confrontations with the forces of industrialization, using tactics honed during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s. And his dissent in West Virginia is more than justified.

The mountaintops of the Appalachia region, from Tennessee up to the heart of West Virginia, are being ravaged by the coal industry—an industry that cares little about the welfare of communities or the land that it is chewing up and spitting out with its grotesque mining operations.

The debris from the mining pits, often 500 feet deep, produce toxic waste that is then dumped in nearby valleys, polluting rivers and poisoning local communities downstream. Currently no state or federal agencies are tracking the cumulative effect of the aptly named “mountaintop removal,” where entire peaks are being blown apart with explosives, only to expose tiny seams of the precious black rock.

On December 22, 2008, a coal slurry impoundment at the Tennessee Valley Authority’s Kingston coal fired power plant in Harriman, Tennessee spilled more than 500 million gallons of toxic coal ash into the Tennessee River. The epic spill was over 40 times larger than the Exxon Valdez in Alaska. Approximately 525 million gallons of black coal ash flowed into tributaries of the murky Tennessee River - the water supply for Chattanooga and millions of people living downstream in the states of Alabama and neighboring Kentucky. The true costs—environmental and social--of the spill are still not known.

As a result of the ongoing destruction of this forgotten region of Appalachia, Roselle and others affiliated with his latest group, Climate Ground Zero, have set up shop and vow not to end their actions until this mining practice has been outlawed. But the West Virginia media, long in the pockets of Big Coal, has not depicted Roselle as a non-violent activist who has been pushed to act because his conscience has forced him to. On the contrary, Roselle has been portrayed as a potential eco-terrorist and a threat, not only jobs in the region, but human life as well.

“A quick search of Roselle’s name on the internet produces pages of accusations that he will go to any length for his cause, vandalism that could put lives in danger,” reported WSAZ-TV on February 11, 2009.

Fox affiliate WCHS-TV8 went even further in a story they aired on the same date stating, “Roselle has been called an ‘eco-terrorist’ by some because of his tactics. He’s someone we think you should know about. Tomorrow night don’t miss the ‘Roselle Report’ when we’ll take a closer look at how this man’s radical methods of protest may put lives at stake in West Virginia.”

Being labeled a terrorist isn’t a new accusation for Roselle, who has been at the forefront of dozens of non-violent direct action environmental campaigns throughout the past several decades. “I have been arrested over forty times in twenty states,” Roselle remembers with a smirk. “My longest time in jail is four months in South Dakota for an action on Mt. Rushmore against acid rain.”

Even anti-environmentalist Ron Arnold, who coined the term “eco-terrorist” in Reason magazine in the early 1980s, came out with a statement in opposition to Roselle’s terrorist label.

“I don’t agree with him, but he’s no terrorist. I’ve covered Roselle since 1995 and even devoted dozens of pages to his protest activities in my 1997 book EcoTerror: The Violent Agenda to Save Nature,” says Arnold. “I covered his actions to distinguish between radicals and terrorists. I say he’s a radical environmentalist, not an eco-terrorist. It’s not a crime to be a radical and Roselle has never been charged with any violent crime.”
Despite Arnold’s clear distinction between terrorism and environmentalism some media outlets, corporate spin machines, right wing rant websites, and politicians seem to disagree.

Meanwhile, Mike Roselle sits back and conducts one of his many radio interviews by telephone. Empty beer cans are piled up in the kitchen. Roselle’s rental home has become the headquarters for Climate Ground Zero. In this particular interview Roselle it is spelling out his defense of the treesitters who are attempting to halt Massey Energy’s mining operations by setting up camp in their blast zone. It was an unusually busy summer for Roselle, as hundreds of boisterous activists descended on West Virginia to voice their objections to mountaintop removal. The fight has heated up, so much so that even Roselle is surprised at the grassroots outpouring. There have been dozens of arrests and several major protest actions. Yet Roselle is still sympathetic to the workers’ concerns and shrugs off the negative media coverage as par for the course.

“Those who are not involved in the mining industry are almost unanimously opposed to it. And even a lot of the folks who work for Massey Energy are not really happy with what they’re doing, but they’re kind of—because this is one of the poorest states in the country, they don’t have many choices. There are no other jobs,” Mike Roselle told Amy Goodman on Democracy Now! in April, 2009. “I don’t think there’s really that much support throughout West Virginia for destroying the mountains. There is support, I think, for supporting the coal industry ... The best way to maintain coal jobs in West Virginia is to end mountaintop removal immediately, because it employs a lot less people than underground mining. Underground mining is a lot less destructive to the environment, and it could be even less so if more regulations were enforced and new ones put in place.”

So his fight to save the mountains of Appalachia continues. Laws may attempt to deter Mike Roselle as accusations of terrorism attempt to tarnish his reputation. Yet he soldiers onward, and will do so until he sees an end to mountaintop removal. In the meantime, however, you can expect Massey Energy, in conjunction with Democratic Senator Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia who receives hundreds of thousands of dollars from the coal industry in his state, to do its best to outlaw the actions taken by Roselle’s Climate Ground Zero campaigners. Even if it means trampling over their civil rights in the process.

Jeffrey St. Clair is the author of Been Brown So Long It Looked Like Green to Me: the Politics of Nature and Grand Theft Pentagon. His newest book, Born Under a Bad Sky, is just out from AK Press / CounterPunch books. He can be reached at: [email protected].

Joshua Frank is co-editor of Dissident Voice and author of Left Out! How Liberals Helped Reelect George W. Bush (Common Courage Press, 2005), and along with Jeffrey St. Clair, the editor of the brand new book Red State Rebels: Tales of Grassroots Resistance in the Heartland, published by AK Press in July 2008. This is an excerpt from GreenScare: the New War on Environmentalism, forthcoming from Haymarket Books.