MAC/20: Mines and Communities

Bid to halt mining protests fails - National Coal Corp. Says Activists Present a Threat

Published by MAC on 2004-10-16

Bid to halt mining protests fails - National Coal Corp. Says Activists Present a Threat

October 16 2004

By Duncan Mansfield, Associated Press

Knoxville - A coal company that touts its environmental appreciation failed yesterday to win a temporary injunction against activists opposed to "mountaintop removal" mining practices in northeast Tennessee.

Knoxville-based National Coal Corp., which announced in September that it was buying the 7,000-acre mining operation at Zeb Mountain, wants to halt escalating protests by Katuah Earth First!, an environmental activist group. The site is in Campbell County, south of Williamsburg, Ky.

In mountaintop removal, or "cross-ridge mining," ridges are flattened to expose the coal then rebuilt to approximate the previous contour. Large-scale blasting, timber clear-cutting and the potential for stream contamination are side effects.

After Earth First staged a small sign-waving rally outside National Coal's offices on Oct. 3, the company claims it was deluged with threatening letters, phone calls and e-mails.

National Coal's general counsel Charles Kite brought to Knox County Chancery Court yesterday a foot-thick stack of e-mails received in a single day. The repeated message: "Stop Mountain Top Removal!!!!"

He also brought an unsigned letter that was faxed to the company. "Your archaic, murderous behavior will be crushed by an uprising of angry citizens, of whom Earth First! is only a portion," the letter said. "Give up now. Or we'll see you in the mountains."

But Chancery Court Judge Sharon Bell repeatedly threw out the evidence, saying five protesters in court yesterday could not be linked directly to the letters and that Earth First was too loosely organized to be held accountable.

Midway through the hearing, Kite gave up. The company's request for a temporary injunction had failed. But a trial still looms perhaps months away seeking a permanent injunction against the protesters, plus damages for the extra costs to the business, including added security.

Meantime, Bell warned the protesters' lawyers, John Eldridge and Mike Whalen, that their clients "need to respect the legal rights of others -- and these are legitimate legal rights. ... And these plaintiffs will be back."

Ken Elder, National Coal's director of information technology, said he has tracked some of the e-mails to a computer lab at the University of North Carolina and notified university officials. The company intends to seek subpoeanas for other e-mail addresses.

"They are hiding behind the veil of identity," he said. "They have been very clever to use e-mail addresses that are difficult to penetrate, pay phones and courtesy phones."

Most of the defendants are known Earth First activists in East Tennessee. They are John Johnson, Chris Irwin, Amanda Womac, Meagan Carter and Debbie Shumate.

"We will continue to exercise our First Amendment rights to defend our mountains," said Irwin, a University of Tennessee law student. "As long as they are intent on blowing the tops off our mountains and dumping them into valleys, we are going to exercise our First Amendment rights."

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