Energy News | NASA Scientist Jailed for Mountain Top Removal Protest

hansensarrestLEXINGTON, MASS. — Our planet’s pre-eminent climate scientist, Dr. James Hansen of NASA, faces the very real threat of spending a year in jail. He and 30 others were arrested in June, during an act of civil resistance at an elementary school in West Virginia where children learn their lessons at the defenseless edge of the 2,000-acre mountaintop-removal mine on Coal River Mountain, owned by Richmond, Va.-based Massey Energy.

The school “stands as the prime example of just how far this country has gone to support its addiction to coal, and just how far Massey Energy will go to support its profit margin,” wrote the resisters on the day of the arrests. “The West Virginia Supreme Court has joined Gov. [Joe] Manchin in turning their backs on these children, subjecting them to expanded operations within 300 feet of the school. . . . According to Massey’s own documents, [the expanded] operations will add over three tons of coal dust to the air the children breathe every school year during their most formative years.”

Hansen’s prospects for a fair trial don’t look good. Big Coal, and Massey in particular, have undue influence in West Virginia courts. The state Supreme Court has twice overturned a $50 million jury verdict against Massey: In each case, the deciding vote was cast by a judge with a close relationship to the company’s CEO, Don Blankenship.

After the first vote, photographs surfaced of Justice Elliott Maynard dining with Blankenship on the French Riviera. When the court reconsidered the case, Justice Brent Benjamin, who tipped the scales the second time, failed to recuse himself even though Blankenship had spent more than $3 million on television advertisements for his election campaign. The U.S. Supreme Court recently ruled this a violation of the Constitution. The case will be reconsidered.

The schoolchildren, their parents and their neighbors near the mine on Coal River Mountain face other dangers from this most destructive form of coal mining: A 2.8 billion-gallon sludge dam stands 400 yards upstream from the school, and Massey has an egregious history of water pollution. In 2000, a break in a dam at a Massey mine in Kentucky released 250 million gallons of coal slurry and killed wildlife as far as 60 miles downstream. Last year, the company agreed to pay $20 million to settle a lawsuit by the Environmental Protection Agency over more than 4,600 documented cases of illegal dumping into Appalachian waterways.

For almost three decades, Jim Hansen has been warning of a threat that stands to kill many times the human population of all Appalachia and eliminate perhaps half the other species on Earth: human-induced climate change. Coal represents the single largest component of that threat and the one that could push the planet across the threshold where catastrophic change cascades out of our control.

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