Ready to Rumble

A Global Movement Is Bringing Down King Coal – One Power Plant at a Time.


It’s a cold March morning in Washington, DC, still dark. As I approach Freedom Plaza I spot about a dozen warmly dressed people standing on the east side of the park, and find my contact, Annie Sartor of the Rainforest Action Network. I’m here to see some sort of protest against coal – beyond that I don’t know much. Until the last minute, Sartor has been reluctant to tell me the exact target of the action. Since it’s a federal agency, there’s concern about security and surveillance. She and her fellow activists have put too much time into this action to have it spoiled by a tip-off to the Federal Protective Service, which handles security at government buildings.

Crossing the street, we head down Pennsylvania Avenue, then round the corner onto 12th Street just as a large rental truck pulls up. The driver lifts open the back of the truck and suddenly everyone is moving at double-speed – pulling 21-foot-long galvanized steel poles out of the truck, grabbing bundles of purple nylon fabric, hauling lengths of chain, and hustling it all onto the front lawn of the US Environmental Protection Agency’s main office building, where 4,000 people come to work each morning.

Within minutes, two immense conical structures take shape: Purple Mountains Majesty. They’re joined by a banner that reads: “Stop Mountaintop Removal.” Each mountain has been scaled by a protester, who is now perched on top. Four more protesters have locked themselves around the bases of the structures. The two teepee-like constructions have occupied vital ground; without a crane or fire engine ladder it would be impossible to remove the protesters without risking injury.

photo of a woman wearing a shirt that reads, stop destroying my mountains Goldman Prize winner Julia Bonds

Annie Sartor’s boots click on the sidewalk as she paces back and forth, a cell phone attached to her ear as she briefs a member of the press. “Lisa Jackson wouldn’t come to Appalachia to see the mountains,” she says. “So we’ve brought the mountains to DC.”

Just to make the message clear, there’s a five-foot-wide “airline ticket” propped on the sidewalk. It reads: “Air Appalachia, First Class Boarding Pass, Valid for one citizen-guided Mountaintop Removal flyover for Lisa Jackson.”

A woman in business attire approaches the protesters and brusquely asks if they have a permit. Nadine Bloch, the designated liaison to the EPA staffers, responds, “Our permit is from the people of Appalachia.”

The locked-down protesters, who have been chatting with friends who showed up to offer encouragement, drinks, and snacks, suddenly stop talking and look toward the street. A van has pulled up on the curb and federal police have removed a large box marked “arrest kit.” I start to wonder how things will play out, and especially how the police will manage to arrest the two activists perched 20 feet in the air. Thirty minutes pass, then an hour, and no arrests are made. Meanwhile, the sun creeps up the sandstone walls of the federal administrative buildings on either side of us, like daytime arriving in a desert canyon.

Over the past three years, protest actions against coal have become increasingly common, not only in the United States but also in New Zealand, the United Kingdom, Israel, Bangladesh, Canada, South Africa, Italy, Turkey, Poland, Venezuela, Norway, Colombia, India, and Germany. The CoalSwarm Web site, which I coordinate, tracks nonviolent civil disobedience actions against coal around the world. At least 18 such protests took place in 2007, 44 in 2008, and 74 in 2009. The pace of protests continues to increase. In Australia, scores of small crafts occupied the port of Newcastle, making it impossible for ships to enter the port to load coal for export. At the Denver headquarters of Xcel Energy, citizens staged a die-in to protest the utility’s plan to build a new coal-fired power plant, and in Boulder, Colorado, five protesters were arrested for erecting symbolic windmills on top of a large coal stockpile at the Valmont Power Plant. In the Philippines, residents affected by mining joined fishermen to rally against a proposed coal plant in Saranggani province. Last October, Swedish activists dumped 18 tons of coal outside the offices of state-run Vattenfall Energy, which operates coal plants throughout Europe.

To find another example of this sort of widespread environmental protest, you’d have to go back to the anti-nuclear protests of the 1970s and 1980s, which resulted in the cancellation of some 100 nuclear projects in the United States. Environmental groups are now surpassing that accomplishment. In the past five years, according to the Sierra Club, 129 coal plants have been defeated in 37 states by a movement that combines the legal firepower of large, well-funded national organizations with the scrappy tactics of local grassroots groups.

Environmentalists have focused their energies on coal for many reasons, from the destruction caused by mountaintop-removal mining to the health effects of air pollution from coal plants. Foremost among the concerns is climate change, which is primarily caused by the carbon dioxide released from fossil fuel combustion. Bruce Nilles, the leader of the Sierra Club’s push to stop new coal plants, summarizes the problem: “Coal is where the carbon is.”

Not only is coal more carbon intensive than other fossil fuels, it is also more plentiful, with remaining reserves that far exceed those of conventional oil and gas. Citing both factors, James Hansen, director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Sciences, wrote to Nevada Governor James Gibbons in 2008 that phasing out emissions from coal is “80% of the solution to the global warming crisis.”

photo of two men on the scene of a coal mine; one in overalls and another older man speaking to him seriouslyKent Kessinger/Appalachian VoicesLarry Gibson and former W. Va. Congressman Ken Hechler.

Considering that coal provides about half of the electricity used in the United States, such a phase-out would be an ambitious task even if society were united in seeking to accomplish it. What makes the task far more challenging is the fact that a politically powerful industry, Big Coal, stands in the way. And that industry is unlikely to step aside without a shove.

Of course, fighting over coal is nothing new in America. I know this from stories told by my mother, who was born in 1925 in Dundon, a company-owned town in Clay County, West Virginia. According to family lore, my grandfather, a Presbyterian preacher, was run out of town by the coal company for preaching pro-union sermons. He may have gotten off relatively easy. During that period union organizers in many parts of West Virginia were not only prohibited from holding meetings or entering miners’ homes, many were arrested, beaten, and even killed.

That sort of violent conflict is long past – as is, in some ways, coal mining’s role as a major source of jobs. From its peak in 1923, employment in US coal mines steadily declined as mining became mechanized. Mechanization also gave bosses the leverage they needed to oust unions from most mines. After 1970, production shifted westward toward the massive strip mines of Wyoming’s Powder River Basin. Since coal was no longer used for heating homes, most Americans never saw a single lump. By 2008, the number of workers building wind farms (85,000) had surpassed the number mining coal (83,000).

photo of a building with a banner and triangular tents, people atop them that read, blowing up mountains poisons people, contaminates waterRainforest Action NetworkRainforest Action Network’s Purple Mountains Majesty protest at the EPA building was one of
hundreds that helped bring about EPA guidance on MTR.

Although few new coal plants have been built since 1990, more than 600 large coal plants continue to generate power, and the pollution produced by those plants exacts a sickening toll in damaged health and lost lives. Coal emissions are the largest industrial source of mercury pollution, which, according to the EPA, produces an increased risk of learning disabilities in 15.7 percent of newborns. Another health effect related to the burning of coal is the emission of fine particulates. According to a study released by the Clean Air Task Force, particulates from coal plants result in 23,600 heart and respiratory fatalities per year. But just as coal itself is no longer an obvious part of everyday life, the death toll from coal emissions remains largely hidden from sight, buried in statistics. Until recently, neither environmental nor health-oriented citizen groups devoted major attention to the issue.

Coal’s move to the center stage of public controversy can be traced to the arrival of the Bush administration in 2001. One of Vice President Cheney’s first actions was to convene a secretive task force on energy that began pushing for an ambitious expansion of fossil fuel energy sources. By early 2007, federal reports listed more than 150 proposed coal-fired power plants and coal-based synthetic fuels plants in various stages of planning and permitting.

Initially isolated and scattered, opponents to the building spree began finding each other through online watering holes like the No New Coal Plants listserv, created by Mike Ewall of the Philadelphia-based Energy Justice Network. But other than the Sierra Club, which had begun to organize an anti-coal effort in the Midwest, national environmental groups at first lent little support to the grassroots opposition.

With scant help from national organizations, opponents of power plants found common cause with those battling a surge in Appalachian mountaintop-removal (MTR) coal mining. The first MTR operation began in 1970 when Cannelton Industries blasted the top off Bullpush Mountain in Fayette County, West Virginia, and pushed the rubble into adjacent valleys to expose the underlying coal. During the Bush administration, mountaintop removal expanded further. Local citizens fought back with grassroots organizing, media outreach, litigation, marches, direct action, and legislative initiatives. In 2003, tenth-generation West Virginian and self-proclaimed “endangered hillbilly” Judy Bonds won the Goldman Award, the environmental movement’s equivalent of the Nobel Prize, for her work with Coal River Mountain Watch.

Bonds speaks frequently about the need for Appalachians to unite with anti-coal activists outside the region. “We’re in King Coal’s territory,” Bonds has said. “He’s got his foot on our throat. Thank God for the Internet.”

In, 2005 she and other activists invited students from outside the region to bolster their efforts, and 50 young people arrived for the first Mountain Justice Summer. The activist training camp included rallies, marches, and sit-ins that earned headlines across West Virginia and Virginia. Halting mountaintop removal was becoming a national cause.

At the Purple Mountains Majesty action, the atmosphere is quiet, almost languid. Hours have passed and still there have been no arrests. Despite stern warnings by EPA security people, the authorities appear in no hurry to remove the structures or the protesters perched on top of them.

One of the locked-down activists tells me that EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson just tweeted about the action. “Pro or con?” I ask.

“It’s almost like she wants us to be here,” says the protester, hopefully. That’s not hard to believe, considering how many EPA staffers have offered a smile, a thumbs-up, or an encouraging comment. A few stop to chat with Chuck Nelson, a grizzled 54-year-old West Virginian who spent 28 years working in underground coal mines. Rather than talking about climate change, Nelson describes the immediate impacts of mining on his community. He tells one EPA staffer, “I live in Sylvester, West Virginia, and our water looks like coffee.”

“Bring us the water quality data,” responds the staffer, “and we’ll have something we can work with.”

I check in with Annie Sartor, who confirms that Jackson has indeed tweeted what sounds like a positive message: “People are here today expressing views on MTM, a critical issue to our country. They’re concerned abt human health & water quality & so am I.”

Jackson’s response goes a long way toward explaining why actions like this one seem to produce effects. Bureaucrats and politicians rarely feel emboldened to take risky steps without strong popular support. Marches, street theater, and protests where activists risk arrest create what Sierra Club strategist Bruce Nilles calls “political space.” Although the Sierra Club itself steers clear of civil disobedience tactics, Nilles seems abundantly aware of how radical action enhances more conventional tactics.

photo of a manMark SchmerlingEd Wiley

Concluding that nothing is likely to happen soon at the EPA headquarters, I head across town to visit veteran environmentalist Lester Brown at his offices at the Earth Policy Institute. Brown listens eagerly to my account of the EPA action. He is a big fan of the anti-coal movement, which he calls “extraordinarily powerful” and praises for “promoting change without waiting for international agreements.”

Listening to Brown’s assessment of the movement, I nod in agreement: The accomplishments of anti-coal forces over the past three years have been nothing short of astonishing. In early 2007, when James Hansen spoke at the National Press Club about the need for a moratorium on new coal plants, the notion that the coal juggernaut might be stoppable seemed wildly optimistic. Most of the projects were in solid “red states,” where local regulatory authorities had long been reluctant to challenge energy companies.

According to David Wooley, an officer of the Energy Foundation, which provided funding for legal battles against dozens of proposed plants, the notion that more than a handful of new coal plant proposals could actually be halted “was beyond our wildest dreams.”

But as China’s hypergrowth pushed up prices for basic construction materials, coal plant construction costs climbed rapidly in 2007 and 2008 and utilities’ plans became vulnerable. Meanwhile, opponents had a few new tools, such as renewable energy portfolio standards in 33 states and emerging carbon standards in California, Washington, and Maine. At the same time, the costs of wind and solar thermal energy were beginning to drop to levels competitive with new coal plants.

The first sign that the coal industry’s momentum might be slowed came in Texas, where multiple groups, including the mayors of Dallas and Houston, had organized a campaign to stop 17 proposed coal plants. In February 2007, Texas utility TXU agreed to a settlement with two large groups, the National Resources Defense Council and the Environmental Defense Fund, to cancel eight of the 11 plants it was planning to build in return for the environmental groups agreeing not to oppose the remaining three plants.

Within months of the TXU deal, other coal plants began to fall. A panel of administrative law judges in Minnesota recommended in April 2007 that Mesaba Energy Project be denied a crucial permit. The following month, opponents of the Indian River Power Plant in Delaware succeeded in raising questions that tipped the decision of state regulators in favor of a competing proposal to supply power from a combination of wind and natural gas.

In Kansas, grassroots activists opposing a large new coal plant proposed by Sunflower Electric Power Cooperative scored a major upset when state health commissioner Rod Bremby turned down the plant in October 2007 on the grounds that climate change constitutes a threat to public health. Governor Kathleen Sebelius backed him, vetoing four attempts by legislators to overturn the decision.

Coal is “80% of the solution to the global warming crisis.”

The victory against the Sunflower plant galvanized the anti-coal movement, and coal activists continued honing their tactics. One audacious lawsuit, originating with the Montana Environmental Information Center, challenged the federal program operated by the Rural Utilities Service, which finances plant construction by rural electric cooperatives. In February 2008, the Rural Utilities Service announced it was placing all lending for coal plants on indefinite hold.

Other companies with multiple coal plant plans took a second look at their strategies. Most prominent among these was Warren Buffett’s PacifiCorp, which eventually nixed all six of its pending plants. No single factor caused the demise of Buffett’s expansion plans; rather, the buildout was ended by a death of a thousand cuts, including regulatory intervention, the threat of litigation, and a medley of protests that included business-led petition drives in Salt Lake City and anti-coal statements by mayors of several Rocky Mountain cities. The fact that the most famous investor in the world was no longer interested in building coal plants indicated how badly the coal rush was faltering.

Of course, Big Coal was hardly interested in ceding the battle over public opinion. The coal industry’s counteroffensive revolved around a media campaign trumpeting “clean coal.” Never mind that “clean coal” was a well-worn marketing term dating to the 1890s, or that the definition of what “clean” might mean in relation to “coal” seemed to continuously shift. That slipperiness was convenient, if not deliberate. In December 2008, blogger David Roberts dissected the technique: “Here’s the scam: They leave the definition of ‘clean coal’ deliberately ambiguous. As [coal industry] spokesman Joe Lucas said on NPR the other day, ‘clean coal is an evolutionary term.’ By ‘evolutionary,’ of course, he means, ‘whatever we need it to mean at the moment.’ If one meaning is attacked, they subtly shift to another meaning.”

An industry that once served to build the country is now weakening it.

Despite the tens of millions of dollars spent on the “clean coal” campaign, the industry was unable to staunch its losses. Nor was the strategy immune from backfiring. On December 22, 2008, a massive coal ash spill occurred in Harriman, Tennessee. It was King Coal’s worst nightmare: coal sludge pouring into the two-car garages of suburban America. Though it took the media several days to wake up to the enormity of the spill – estimated at a billion tons of sludge and larger than any toxic spill in American history – eventually the story became front-page news. The Harriman spill opened up a new front in the coal war as it came to light that hundreds of similar sites – laden with toxics like arsenic, but still with no federal monitoring – existed across the country.

During the 2008 presidential campaign, and in organizing his administration, Barack Obama sent out mixed messages regarding coal, expressing support for “clean coal” but hiring industry critics such as Stephen Chu at the Department of Energy and Lisa Jackson at the EPA. Following the inauguration, activists moved quickly to put pressure on the administration. In March 2009, 4,000 people blockaded the Capitol Power Plant, which had been burning coal in DC for nearly a century. Meanwhile, over the course of three months in early 2009, the coalition Power Past Coal coordinated more than 300 actions. The organizations involved reflected the breadth of the movement: Latino activists from the Little Village in Chicago, where residents had organized to shut down two Eisenhower-era coal plants; Wyoming ranchers whose water had been depleted by strip mining; members of the Navajo Nation from Arizona, where strip mining had destroyed sacred lands.

Photo of a woman in a wheelchair holding a sign that reads, coal is deadWahleah JohnsA Navajo Nation protester

The growing solidarity between those concerned about future climate change and those worried about the current, on-the-ground impacts of mining was made clear when James Hansen made a pilgrimage to West Virginia in June 2009 to witness the destruction from mountaintop removal. Hansen took a bumpy pickup ride to the top of Kayford Mountain to view the wasteland at Massey Energy’s Patriot Mine. That same day, he participated in an anti-coal march to deliver a letter of concern to Massey CEO Don Blankenship. Flanked by police dogs, he and others were prevented from entering a Massey facility by a group of angry miners. Hansen stood calmly while police cinched plastic handcuffs onto his wrists and placed him in a patrol car.

At the Purple Mountains Majesty action in front of EPA headquarters, it is now Day 2. On top of one of the structures, activist Adrian Wilson has managed to stay awake for 28 hours, and now prepares to film one more appeal to Administrator Lisa Jackson. Wilson is one of the peripatetic activists who have knit the diverse strands of the anti-coal movement together, by turns doing in-depth research on coal plants, organizing actions like this one, and traveling to Appalachia to work on mine blockades.

“Lisa Jackson,” he pleads to the camera, “please go to Appalachia and see for yourself the damage that mountaintop removal is causing to our mountains and to the people of Appalachia.”

Then he turns off the camera and carefully descends, as the activists who have locked down also detach themselves and stand up to stretch their limbs. Another demonstration is over.

As I leave the EPA and join the DC throngs along the sidewalks of the capital, I wonder what, if anything, has been accomplished by the protest. Often months of repeated actions pass with little or no discernable progress.

Yet scarcely two weeks later, the anti-coal networks buzz with excitement. On April 1, papers report that the EPA has issued new guidance having to do with acceptable pollution levels in water runoff from MTR waste. The upshot: Though they will not stop existing coal mines, the instructions – provided they are followed – could nix most new mountaintop-removal mining permits.

Obviously the two-day Purple Mountains Majesty action isn’t what brought about the shift in policy. Says Annie Sartor, “This has been a long struggle, and everything we have done just goes into the mix. And it’s not over yet.”

In Appalachia, celebration is muted. As Matt Wasson of Appalachian Voices points out, the EPA’s guidance is merely guidance, subject to interpretation and even reversal. For Wasson, who advocates a statutory prohibition on mountaintop removal, known as the Clean Water Protection Act, the message remains: “They’re blowing up our mountains and there oughta be a law!”

On the power plant front, coal opponents are shifting from defense to offense and laying plans to phase out the fleet of aging coal plants. The average American coal plant was built in the 1960s, which means that most of them are more than 40 years old. As Nilles describes the challenge, “With the world’s biggest coal reserves located here in the United States, we have the opportunity as a democracy to say, ‘Let’s keep this in the ground.’”

photo of a crowd in front of the US capiotl building, holding matching signs that say Power Past CoalGreenpeaceFollowing Obama’s inauguration, anti-coal forces moved quickly to put pressure on the
new administration. Some 4,000 people blockaded the Capitol Power Plant in March 2009.

Nilles points out that a combination of energy efficiency investments and clean power sources like wind can replace coal, but that the new industries can’t grow unless coal plants are closed. “We want to open up the market share for clean energy by shrinking the market share for coal,” he says.

In Washington, an effort is underway to shutter TransAlta’s Centralia Power Plant, the last remaining coal burner in the state. Says Doug Howell, the Sierra Club’s local coordinator for the effort, “It’s not a question of whether but when. The plant is definitely shutting down by 2025. We want to push that date forward as far as possible.”

On April 6, 2010 comes news that shocks coal’s opponents and supporters alike. An explosion at a Massey-owned deep mine in West Virginia has killed 25 miners. Within days the death toll rises to 29. It is the worst mine disaster in over two decades. For Chuck Nelson, whose 30 years as an underground miner included eight years working for Massey Energy, the accident is evidence of Massey’s careless treatment not only of the environment, but also of its own people. Even before the accident, he described to me how Massey, upon taking over union mines, would disband safety committees, force workers to destroy ventilation systems and remove safety curtains, and push crews to work past their eight-hour shifts to meet the daily quota of 400 feet of coal. Nelson recalled, “[Massey CEO Don Blankenship] came out to the miners’ bathhouse and said there ain’t a miner worth ten dollars.”

To Nelson, the problems of coal – from toxic drinking water to horrific mine disasters to climate change – are different facets of the same problem: An industry that once served to build the country is now weakening it. He points out that much of the coal from Massey’s operations in Appalachia is shipped overseas as metallurgical coal. “Is that why we’re doing this, destroying our own natural resources?” he asks. “We have no choice but to keep protesting.”

In Nelson’s determination to keep fighting King Coal, there’s an echo of generations of miners, residents of Appalachian hollows, Navajos and Hopis, and others who have suffered the effects of coal and fought back. What’s different this time is that in the era of climate change, those who once dealt with coal in isolation are no longer struggling alone. The isolated pockets have linked up, like patches of burning grass merging into a general conflagration. Says Judy Bonds, “The whole world is watching Appalachia. The whole world is listening about Coal River Mountain. We are ground zero.”

Ted Nace is the author of Climate Hope: On the Front Lines of the Fight Against Coal. He coordinates the CoalSwarm wiki, a fiscally sponsored project of Earth Island Institute.

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