Anti-coal Activists Shake Up St. Louis

Anti-coal Activists Shake Up St. Louis

Fern Benally of Black Mesa, AZ and Dustin Steele of Mingo Co, WV on the steps of Peabody HQ, Photo credit: RAMPS
Fern Benally of Black Mesa, AZ and Dustin Steele of Mingo Co, WV on the steps of Peabody HQ. Photo credit: RAMPS

Most of us know St Louis as the home of the Gateway Arch, of Budweiser and of the Cardinals baseball team. But the city also serves as the headquarters for Arch, Peabody and Patriot, which rank among the most environmentally and socially destructive coal companies in the US. In a city with the historical reputation as the “Gateway to the West” for its role in the Westward Expansion of the 19th century, and under the shadow of a monument that was constructed as a celebration of colonialism, activists from communities impacted by strip mining and their allies joined forces and took action. This took place at the culmination of a three-week mobilization and action camp organized by Radical Action for Mountain People’s Survival (RAMPS), Missourians Organizing for Reform and Empowerment (MORE), Black Mesa Indigenous Support (BMIS), and members of the Black Mesa/Big Mountain communities.  
 
Arch, Peabody and Patriot were targeted for more than just mining practices. As labor journalist Mike Elk explained in a piece for In These Times earlier this month, Arch and Peabody “offloaded large amounts of retiree healthcare obligations to new companies that now face bankruptcy” over the last ten years. Magnum, Arch’s spinoff company, was purchased by Patriot (formerly Peabody), in 2008. Patriot is now making preparations to dump its obligations to pay over $1.3 billion in pension costs to 10,000 retired union miners and their families. These beneficiaries include not only elderly retirees but also miners who were forced into early retirement as the result of injuries experienced on the job and the families of workers who lost their lives in the mines. The United Mineworkers of America (UMWA) is organizing a campaign (Fairness at Patriot) to fight these plans. It is also currently suing both Peabody and Arch, arguing that Patriot and Magnum had been designed to offload pension obligations, and that both companies had been intended to fail. The UMWA began running ads on St Louis TV networks earlier this month, aimed at shaming Arch and Peabody into paying the pension costs. While the UMWA itself did not sponsor or endorse this month’s action camp, UMWA members and activists from UMWA households attended it.
 
Tuesday (January 22) saw a day of action against Arch Coal. “At approximately 9 a.m., three protesters disguised as delivery personnel wheeled a 500-pound potted plant filled with concrete up to the third floor offices of Arch Coal and locked themselves to the plant”, states a press release from RAMPS. Following this, four more activists locked on, blockading the entrance to the office. Meanwhile, another group of protesters sang songs and danced inside the lobby, and released a balloon banner addressed to the CEO that read “John Eaves: Your Coal Company Kills”.
 
Arch, the second largest coal company in the US (after Peabody), has come under increasing pressure to halt its mountaintop removal mining (MTR) operations in Appalachia. MTR is an extremely destructive form of strip mining where mountaintops are blasted away in order to expose the coal seams underneath. The “overburden” (excess dirt and minerals, including a host of heavy metals that had been trapped inside the mountain for millennia) is deposited into valleys, polluting the streams that local communities depend on for their drinking water. Numerous studies, and the work of Michael Hendryx of West Virginia University in particular, have demonstrated the severe health impacts that MTR brings to local communities. MTR threatens livelihoods in addition to lives, as it offers a small portion of employment opportunities that traditional underground mining had previously brought to the region.
 
A key fighting ground for mountain justice movement is Arch’s plans to destroy Blair Mountain, a historic battlefield site that saw the largest labor uprising in American history and the second largest insurrection after the Civil War. Blair Mountain is where some 10,000-15,000 miners who had come together to fight for the right to unionize met a coalition of state and local forces in 1921.
 
Dustin Steele, one of the activists who locked on to the plant, is from Mingo County, WV. “From the Battle of Blair Mountain to the current fight with the Patriot pensions”, Dustin said, “the people of Central Appalachia have been fighting against the coal companies for the past 125 years. The struggle continues today as we take action to hold Arch Coal and other coal companies accountable for the damage that they do to people and communities in Appalachia and around the world”.
 
A second day of action took place on Friday (January 25), when a hundred-strong group of St Louis activists, Navajo residents from Black Mesa, Arizona and Appalachians from coalfield communities in West Virginia gathered outside the Peabody headquarters. Banners were dropped from nearby buildings that read, “Peabody: Get Off Black Mesa”; “Stop the War on Mother Earth. Peabody: Bad for St Louis, Bad for the Planet”; and “Peabody Kills”.

Friday’s rally was meant to pressure Peabody to enter into a dialogue with Fern Benally and Don Yellowman, of Black Mesa. They had had planned to deliver a letter to Peabody that day, but the company broke its promise to accept it and called the police instead. In response, twelve protesters crossed the barricades and locked arms on the steps to the office building. From below, Benally spoke into a megaphone about the many deaths and severe health impacts experienced in her community as a direct result of Peabody’s mining activities. She relayed a message to the company from her tribe’s elders: “Stop mining on Black Mesa… Tens of thousands of our people were forced to leave their land to make room for your mine, making this the biggest forced relocation of Native people in this country since the Trail of Tears… We want you to leave. Cease operations now!”

Adam Hall of West Virginia also had a message for Peabody. “Peabody Coal displaces communities, poisons the environment and the people and leaves a path of destruction and misery wherever they set up shop… Today, we start taking it back. We are taking back what they have stolen from us for years: our culture, our heritage, our dignity. Today, East and West meet in St. Louis… we will suffer no more by their hands!”
 
Appalachians, Navajo and Hopi residents have organized together for many years, visiting each other’s communities and standing together in solidarity against the wholesale destruction of their cultures, environments, health and livelihoods at the hands of out-of-state coal companies. Even in the 21st century, St Louis remains a symbol of colonialism, where industrialists reap the profits that they have stolen from communities that, in spite of the resource richness of the land that they live on, have remained in poverty for generations. 

Reggie Rounds, of Missourians Organizing for Reform and Empowerment, explained MORE’s ballot initiative to make St Louis divest from carbon-heavy corporations. “We need our taxpayer development dollars to be invested in green jobs, not corporations who have no regard for human life.”

 

Mountain Justice is planning two “Spring Break” action training camps in Virginia and West Virginia in March, focusing on MTR, fracking and nuclear energy. To find out more or to sign up to attend, visit www.mjsb.org.