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Appalachia And Beyond: An Interview With Mike Roselle

by Daniel Johnson

Appalachia And Beyond: An Interview With Mike Roselle
Appalachia And Beyond: An Interview With Mike Roselle
Appalachia And Beyond: An Interview With Mike Roselle

Famous for his efforts to generate media and political attention on major environmental situations, including his well-publicized actions such as placing a gas mask on George Washington's face on Mount Rushmore, Mike Roselle is known to be one of the movement's longest continuing direct action campaigners, as one of the original co-founders not only of Earth First, but also the Ruckus Society, Rainforest Action Network as well as Climate Ground Zero.

  For many months, Roselle has been working with Climate Ground Zero and various local groups in support of a bill to end mountain top removal mining in West Virginia. On Thanksgiving Day, Roselle along with Guinn McGuiness and videographer Mike Cherin went to the West Virginia Governor's mansion and left a jar of MTR coal dust on the steps. Roselle was arrested when he refused to remove it.

He was held on $20,000 bail for 3 days, and released without bail. His jury trial for tresspassing will begin on July 8, 2014.

But the dust jar stunt is merely a footnote in a long fight involving hundreds of local residents.

For the last hundred years, Appalachia has been treated as little more than a natural resource colony and an ecological "sacrifice zone". The 60's campaign environmental campaigns eventually resulted in major reforms to the 'Federal Water Pollution Control Act' in 1972 and the passage of the 'Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act signed by Jimmy Carter in 1977. 

In his article 'In the fight to end mountaintop removal, where is Big Green?' Roselle gives a lot of detail about the impact, not only on the region, but on the rest of North America and the world.

"Measuring chemicals in your tap water tells you little about what is happening upstream. If we want clean water downstream we have to look up river where our water comes from. Appalachia is the roof of Eastern North America, and the rains that come off the Gulf and the Atlantic are caught here, absorbed in the rugged forest covered hills and delivered to the sea via many rivers to both coasts. Chemicals introduced up here travel downstream due to the magic of gravity, and any damage to the headwaters will affect river flows. This is about much more than the economic and ecological health of a handful of poor rural counties. If you want to see what is really causing climate change get out of your house and go look up your roof.

And this is what is happening upstream. Two million acres of forest irreparably destroyed, more than a thousand miles of stream buried, dozens of communities bulldozed, thousands forced to flee their homes, and five hundred mountains turned into gravel to produce a fuel we don’t need and that is killing the planet. Shutting down coal fired power plants and convincing banks to divest from the coal industry is drawing much needed attention to the effects of MTR but it will not be enough to stop it as long as the export market remains strong. Coal production in Appalachia has slowed a bit from recent historic highs, but is poised to rise again due to increasing natural gas prices and the idling of less profitable mines elsewhere."

In the spring of 2005, there was somewhat of an 'uprising' in Appalachia that brought national media coverage to the local struggle against mountain top removal. People blocked mine entrances and chained themselves to the machines, much to the delight mainstream and indie media alike. Appalachia became the place to be for the executive directors of virtually every major environmental group visited for a photo op, a widely watched documentary was made,  complete with celebrity actor Woody Harrellson of 'Natural Born Killers' fame as narrator.

Politicians and corporations negotiated with the big greens, who virtually ignored the local grassroots movements that had been fighting the battle themselves for years. All kinds of promises were made, but no legislation has been passed fulfilling them, though the environmental NGO industry felt it's job was done.

As Roselle puts it 'Once again the attention of Big Green has shifted to another region and another crisis. If I were an oil or mining company I might take this to mean that if you can withstand the force of a campaign for a few years you will be rewarded when the big groups eventually roll up their tents and declare victory"

What the people there are demanding is a ban on mountain top removal mining. They have pushed for The Appalachian Community Health Emergency or 'Ache Act'. 

What the large, well funded environmental groups decided to campaign for was the 'Clean Water Restoration Act', which would incorporate itself into the Clean Water Act, from which West Virginia was exempted.

That's right. The coal companies lobbied because, they admitted, there was no way to do mountain top removal mining without polluting and blocking rivers and violating the clean water act, and elected officials decided that environmental laws work in harmony with economic concerns only when the biggest offenders are given immunity.

But change could be coming. Those who have been involved in various UN consultation processes on environmental as well as economic and social issues have been witnessing a change on the part of many world leaders, and the US and it's allies no longer have the stranglehold over control that they once had at the UN.

The potential for strong, binding international environmental standards is there. There is now open talk at the UN of a world court for major environmental offences. New possibilities may open up, for a new green movement with new potential for greater effectiveness. But the 'private sector' is also at work, spending a lot of money and hiring lobbyists to dominate the consultation processes in disguise as NGO's demanding more development for it's own sake as the cure for all the world's problems, and demanding 'incentives' for companies to behave in a more sustainable way, as though maintaining the planet's ability to support life is somehow not an important enough concern for them.

 The UN Climate Summit in September might mark the beginning of a new environmental consciousness on the part of world leaders. The People's Climate March, organized by and others,  will mobilize people leading up to the summit in the hopes that this can finally be the moment of change we've been working towards.

Or more of the same corruption witnessed in the American political processes transferred to the international stage.

Did the jar of coal dust you tried to deliver to the Governer ever get tested?

Roselle: "They refused to take the jar into custody and ordered our camera operator to remove it under threat of arrest."

I remember when you were first arrested, and they set bail at $20,000, then suddenly it went to zero overnight and you were released. What happened there, from your perspective?

Roselle: "The jail, the magistrate and the governor received over one thousand phone calls. My lawyer, Tom Rist, unknown to me at the time because I was not allowed a phone call, was also calling a lot. The jailers at that time wanted me out as I was creating a problem for them, especially with the phones tied up for almost a week."

Was there any resistance from the court when you asked for a jury trial? In Canada they make it difficult to get a jury trial.

Roselle: "Under West Virginia law, they have no choice if you are facing any jail time. They offered to give me no jail time if I plead guilty, but I refused."

Do you think the UN Climate summit in New York this September, or the demonstrations being set to lead up to it, will mark a real turning point?

Roselle: "The summit will be big news, and at this stage everything is a turning point. As for the demonstration, it will depend entirely on how many show up, and to a lesser extent, how they behave. I don't have a read on the possible turnout but it will need to be in the hundreds of thousands to have an impact on public opinion."

Has the movement become it's worst opponent?

Roselle: "The climate "movement" is a fiction, at least in the US. There is a huge disconnect between the leaders, mostly self appointed, and the community they claim to lead. Compare this to our opposition, the TEA Party, smaller in number, but still ascendent in political power, they can bring congress to its knees. We cannot stop ONE pipeline. Until the churches, unions and and other sections of civil society become involved, we are on the political fringe.

The leadership has called for non violent civil disobedience and had the gall to compare a one hour sit-in to Selma, Alabama, then went for a year and a half without planning, supporting or participating in any follow up non violent actions. Instead of encouraging non violent resistance, they have put a lid on it. Meanwhile they trot out the First Nations and Native American resistors at every rally but lend no support to their efforts on the ground. Message: Wear your traditional garb and you can speak at our rally. But don't expect anything else from us. They do this with representatives from Appalachia all the time. We call this the Dancing Hillbilly Syndrome.

I told Mike Brune (executive director of the Sierra Club) last year after his "Selma Moment" that if he wanted to be taken seriously he might read up on MLK Jr. and get his self arrested and go to jail his own comfortable high paid white self.".

Here in my home town of Regina, we recently had an actual oil spill, or what they called a 'free product release' from an Enbridge pipeline running through the south end of Regina, right by the university. It's waking a lot of people up, and now the pipeline debate has re-started here. Just thought I'd tell you that. Because of the pressure, it was 125 barrels released in 24 seconds, it came out as a mist.

Roselle: "Thanks, Dan. Looks like the WV public will not demand much for what they just endured. Maybe I'm wrong here but people seem to be accepting the fact that they are ruled by toxic overlords".

When's the next time you come through Canada? I remember you used to teach a direct action course in Alberta every year but I never got to go.

Roselle: "I have been banned from Canada for life..."

Perhaps we can find a way around that, thankyou. 


Tree Spiker By Mike Roselle

Climate Ground Zero site

Media Co-Op, Daniel Johnson, Nov 29, 2013, Breaking: Mike Roselle In Jail For Blasting Dust Demonstration In West Virginia

Earth Justice, Woody Harellson Profile

Ache Act Website

UN Climate Change Summit Website

People's Climate March

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Regina Sask
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