WASHINGTON – About 100 people were arrested Monday outside the White House while protesting against mountaintop removal mining, temporarily trading their freedom for a chance to highlight what they consider an environmental calamity.
The protesters, arrested after refusing orders from U.S. Park Police to leave the sidewalk on Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the White House, were taken to a waiting city bus. As police escorted them one-by-one, hundreds of their supporters screamed encouragement from behind the police lines, like fans greeting runners from the sidewalk of a marathon. Most of those arrested went along peacefully, but a few resisted, leading Park Police to drag them to a police truck.
Park Police spokesman Sgt. David Schlosser said a majority of the arrests were for disobeying a lawful order — in this case, to come in compliance with demonstration regulations. A handful of others were charged with crossing a police line, he said.
Event organizer Bo Webb said that some had been released and that he expected most to be freed that night.
Among those arrested was climate scientist James Hansen, who issued a statement saying that mountaintop removal "destroys historic mountain ranges, poisons water supplies and pollutes the air with coal and rock dust."
"Mountaintop removal, providing only a small fraction of our energy, can and should be abolished. The time for half measures and caving in to polluting industries must end," Hansen said.
The industry-backed group FACES of Coal said in a statement that such a ban would cost tens of thousands of jobs and make the U.S. more dependent on foreign sources of energy. The group paid for most of the travel and lodging expenses for a protest two weeks ago by coal miners upset at steps the Environmental Protection Agency has taken to rein in the coal removal process.
The mostly youthful ralliers started Monday's protest at Freedom Plaza, then marched a few blocks to the White House. They carried signs like "Blowing Up Mountains for Coal Poisons People" and "Mountain ecosystems won't grow back." Some carried small white crosses adorned with messages such as "water pollution" and "corporate greed." The rally, dubbed "Appalachia Rising," was organized by protesters from West Virginia, Kentucky, Virginia and Tennessee.
In mountaintop removal mining, forests are clear-cut, explosives blast apart the rock, and machines scoop out exposed coal. The earth left behind is dumped into valleys, often covering intermittent streams. Coal operators say it's the most efficient way to reach some reserves, supports tens of thousands of jobs and provides coal for electric power plants across much of the South and East.
Despite on-and-off showers, Monday's protest had a festive air to it, with horns, drums, chanting and singing accompanying the roughly two hours of arrests, with people even dancing as they waited for police to take them into custody. The last eight standing did a little chorus line move. One man wore stilts that made him tower over everyone else, along with a hat adorned like a U.S. flag and a long nose.
At one point, they turned and faced the White House and yelled, "Obama, stop mountaintop removal!," ''Let us in!" and "Yes you can!" The protesters said the EPA hasn't gone far enough — they want a total ban.
"You cannot regulate destruction," organizer Maria Gunnoe told the crowd at Freedom Plaza.
In a statement, the EPA said it was using its authority to significantly improve protections by reducing the impacts of mountaintop mining. "We've set commonsense guidelines that protect the local waters, maximize coal recovery and reduce costs," the agency said.
The coal industry has filed a lawsuit against the EPA's new policy to tighten water quality standards for valley fills at surface coal mines in West Virginia, Kentucky, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Virginia and Tennessee. EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson has said the goal is a standard so strict that few, if any, permits would be issued for valley fills.
The ralliers had a hippie, counterculture vibe, with some sporting face piercings and many of the young men bearded. They sang and chanted old standbys: "The people, united, will never be defeated," ''This is what democracy looks like," ''We shall overcome," and "What do we want? Justice. When do we want it? Now!"
Jeremy Cherson, a senior at American University in Washington, had a mandolin around his neck and held a carrot and stick in his hand. He said the carrot was a plea for clean energy and the stick was actions like Monday's rally. Cherson skipped a class on critical social thought to attend the rally.
"My professor said that was fine — this is critical and social," he said.
Appalachia Rising: http://appalachiarising.org/
Faces of Coal: http://www.facesofcoal.org/index.php