Battleground West Virginia!

Coal is a controversial topic in West Virginia. (Photo: Joseph Sohm/Shutterstock)

When Mike Brune, executive director of RAN (the Rainforest Action Network) says "I can't remember a more charged atmosphere," you know it must be bad.

Brune has been arrested dozens of times and has faced off with lumberjacks, oilmen and multinational corporate behemoths alike. But there is a general feeling from everyone I've spoken to about the protest this week against mountaintop removal mining in West Virginia that things are heating up in coal country.

On Wednesday, Daryl Hannah along with 30 others including NASA scientist James Hansen, Brune and 94-year-old Congressman Ken Hechler were arrested while protesting the Massey Coal operation near the Marsh Fork Elementary School.

The school site just 300 feet away from a coal slurry impoundment containing 2.8 billion gallons of toxic sludge held back by unreinforced earthen walls. Sound familiar?

It should. Last year what was arguably the largest environmental disaster in U.S. history occurred when just such a wall failed in the coal ash spill in Tennessee.

This is the kind of thing that happens when the EPA is not allowed to enforce federal laws protecting both the environment and the welfare of the people.

As I posted earlier, the Bush administration allowed coal operations to apply for permits directly to the Army Corps of Engineers, circumventing the EPA and violating long-standing federal water protection laws.

Sadly, Obama has failed to overturn this loophole. For a blow-by-blow of coal lobbying efforts and the administration's sudden pro-coal change of heart read the Obamboozled blog.

A crowd of over 800 protesters including both environmentalists and laid-off mine workers came together to attempt a blockade of the road leading to a Massey prep plant. Massey assembled a crowd of hostile taunters to greet the protesters. Though no blows were thrown, they did manage to drown out the speakers with refrains of Twisted Sisters “We’re not gonna take it" (which I think could almost be considered an act of violence).

The immense irony of this situation is that the nearby Coal River Valley happens to be one of the few places on earth where enough wind blows to fully power the region. The many peaks and valleys actually CREATE the wind, peaks and valleys which Massey Coal has been leveling.. permanently. And the wind industry creates farm more good long-term jobs than does the coal industry.

The choice seems clear -- permanently destroy the natural resources and economic security of the most biodiverse temperate forest on earth, all for a few more years of coal. OR preserve the valleys of Appalachia and create an industry that will harness free energy for a lifetime and provide the region with a much-needed source of income.

The correct path is obvious, but with a now-weakened EPA and no end in sight for the illegal practice of mountaintop removal mining, it looks like civil disobedience may be the only way out.

To watch video footage of the protest check out the West Virginia Gazette.