Five Minutes With
Five Minutes With Tree-Occupying Coal Activist Catherine-Ann MacDougal
America is addicted to coal.
We get 45 percent of our electricity from the stuff, and use more of it than any other country besides China (which boasts a population more than four times larger than ours). As America’s addiction to coal continues, the most easily mined coal fields have been exhausted. Coal companies have to dig deeper and more aggressively than ever before to satiate consumers’ needs and must rely on increasingly radical techniques.
Mountaintop removal is probably the most infamous of such techniques. The practice is exactly what it sounds like: Coal companies rip the peaks off of mountains to access the coal seams within. The resulting detritus is dumped into the adjacent valleys and clogs and poisons waterways. Nearby communities become unlivable and their populations scatter. The impact on both human and environmental health is devastating (including higher rates of cancer). Check out this interview with West Virginia activist Julia Bonds for a personal account of the malicious impact of mountaintop removal.
A variety of advocacy groups have taken up the fight against mountaintop removal: Coal River Mountain Watch, Appalachian Voices, Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, and Mountain Justice, and others. But despite the hard work of dedicated activists, the drilling practice continues largely unchecked by federal or local lawmakers.
So activist group Radical Action for Mountain People’s Survival (RAMPS) decided traditional forms of political organizing haven’t made enough headway against the entrenched opposition. Now they’re supplementing the protests, letter writing and other legal means of resistance with non-violent, direct action.
RAMPS’ latest effort placed Catherine-Ann MacDougal, a 24-year-old Warren Wilson College alumna, in a strategically-located tree on a mountaintop blasting site. After infiltrating the company’s territory, MacDougal and her compatriots climbed the tree in total darkness, without the use of lights or communication with the ground. After 30 days of fever, thunderstorms, legal threats, and a monotonous diet, she plans to return to solid group today (Thursday), where she will likely be promptly arrested.
But before she surrenders her post, Campus Progress spoke with her about her motivations, civil disobedience, and what books to read while living in a tree for a month.
Can you walk me through the planning requirements and how this tree-sit action unfolded?
I can talk about anything that only incriminates myself. We planned for weeks before the action. We had to buy food and other supplies. We had to practice night climbing without lights or communication with ground support. [The night of the action] we had to sneak in, because a lot of the way up here we were trespassing. We tried to do the night set-up as silently as we could and not use any lights. I had to practice climbing weeks before hand. And then we needed someone on the ground to mediate, explain why we are here, and tell the companies where we are, so they aren’t able to blast.
How did everything unfold once the action was in motion?
Two members went up the hill, explained what RAMPS was doing, and got arrested. After that a helicopter kept [buzzing by], but no one actually came down here. A day later there were shouts that we were trespassing. It wasn’t until a week ago that security came down and occupied a post at the base of my tree.
How have you liked living in a tree for a month? What do you do with your time?
I’ve become accustomed to it. I can climb to the top, where the tree has a big crop of acorns, and the sun shines through. But there is dust everywhere from the mine site and there is the trauma of the noise. It’s a combination of a peaceful location, in this beautiful hollow, but in the distance I can still hear the blasts. I’m pretty sick of the food I have. I don’t want to eat soybeans ever again. I’m sick of peanut butter and jelly. There have been other challenges too. Once I got in the tree I couldn’t come down, couldn’t get medical attention [when she got a fever]. That was hard. And there have been thunderstorms while I am up here. They come on in these great big gusts that toss my hammock, where I sleep. The rain was blown underneath my [protective tarp]. But there is the immense pleasure of living in a tree and getting to read and think and write all day.
What are you reading?
A book called Bringing Down the Mountains [by Shirley Stewart Burns] on the impact of mountaintop removal on southern West Virginia. I am also reading Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire and Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States.
You mentioned earlier that you can hear the mine operation. Your tree-sit restricted the company’s ability to run the operation, but it hasn’t been able to shut the process down?
Like all mountain top removal sites, this is a very huge site and there are a lot of very distant parts of the mine and they are blasting on many different parts of [the mountain]. They aren’t blasting in close proximity to me.
What inspired you to do this kind of work and how long have you been involved in the anti-mountaintop removal movement?
I heard about the practice in high school and I really wanted to do something. I wrote letters to my congress people to support the Clean Water Act. I found out about Mountain Justice in college and that opened me up to this whole new world of activism.
Do you think the kind of direct action that RAMPS utilizes is more effective than your typical demonstrations in the street kind of protest?
I think we should use all forms of protest, but I definitely think that direct action is particularly important in our overall strategy. Direct action and civil disobedience have been a part of very many movements, especially when the legal system is incredibly corrupt, as it is in West Virginia. The courts and the Legislature are [largely] owned by coal interests. There is a revolving door phenomena where [lobbyists] will serve in office and then return. I’ve seen justice fly out the window in many hearings. I have friends who have lobbied against underground slurry injections, which nobody should be for, but [the practice continues]. At that point, when you realize what a travesty the legal system is you have to act outside of it in order to create change.
It’s very hard though because of the pervasive nature of the coal companies’ power. They know how to make people simultaneously dependant on them and at their mercy. The coal economy has kicked out any other potential jobs. So people are afraid of speaking out. Almost everyone has a relative who works for a coal company. Even when people are suffering and their health and property are being destroyed it is hard for them to speak out. While coal is impoverishing this area, it is also keeping people from protesting it.
How have locals responded to the RAMPS campaign?
There are a lot of local folks who support us and unfortunately there are a lot of folks who support us in secret. There are immense social pressures against [critiquing the coal companies]. It is very politically and emotionally charged. There are people who get angry and feel threatened and think that we want to take away their jobs. Even though it’s the coal companies that are taking away their jobs by using this highly mechanized and low labor form of extracting coal.
Right. And, I imagine mountaintop removal is impoverishing the region’s future. It destroys mountains, valleys, and waterways, and makes everyone sick. Basically, creating an environment where other industries wouldn’t want to invest.
Definitely. Also, the money does come from coal; it doesn’t go back to the communities that are dealing with all the flooding and the dust in the air. It goes to the absentee landowners and the big corporations.
How long are you planning on staying up there?
I am planning on coming down tomorrow [Aug. 18], due to limited resources. I have limited water and food. I can’t stay up here forever.
Jake Blumgart is a freelance reporter-researcher living in Philadelphia and a former Campus Progress staff writer. His work has been published by the American Prospect, Alternet, the Philadelphia Inquirer, The Stranger, and the New York Daily News. Follow him on Twitter @jblumgart.