By Jordan Fifer and Jeff Sturgeon | The Roanoke Times
A group of protesters who unfurled a large banner criticizing coal magnate Jim Justice and the practices of his Roanoke-based mining company caused a spectacle in downtown Roanoke on Thursday morning, prompting a large police and fire response to take down the display.
Five people were brought away in handcuffs after the sign was strung between two midrise buildings shortly after 9 a.m., spanning busy Jefferson Street.
The sign was in protest of Justice, who lives in West Virginia but bases his company Southern Coal Corp. in Roanoke, three doors down from where the banner was hung. Southern Coal has been the target of state and federal regulators and activists for numerous documented environmental problems at 30 company mines in five states, including Virginia.
“JIM JUSTICE PROFITS APPALACHIA PAYS,” read black letters on one side of the large white banner, while the reverse claimed, “JIM JUSTICE: TOXIC SPILL BILLIONAIRE.”
The five — identified as Rebecca Marie Holmes, 23, of Wise County; Heather Glasgow Doyle, 30, of Blacksburg; Kyle Scott Gibson, 28, of Wise County; William E. Blevins, 32, of Wise County; and Catherine Ann MacDougal, 27, of Gloucester, Massachusetts — were charged with interfering with the property rights of the building owners, a misdemeanor, police spokesman Scott Leamon said. Each was granted a $1,500 secured bond but remained in jail as of Thursday afternoon.
Three groups with an environmental bent, two of them Appalachia-focused, claimed to have had a role in the banner incident. One, Mountain Justice, describes its goal as to “seek to save our mountains, streams and forest from greedy coal companies,” according to its website.
Another group, Radical Action for Mountain People’s Survival, also known as RAMPS and based in West Virginia, describes itself as “a non-violent direct action campaign” against strip mining. The third group that said it had a role, Rising Tide North America, based in San Francisco, is “confronting the root causes of climate change,” its website says.
D. Steele, a 23-year-old from Matewan, West Virginia, who gave only his first initial, said he was with RAMPS. As the demonstration wrapped up, he said the group aimed “to make Jim Justice be accountable for his unfair business and environmental practices.”
As of July, federal regulators were tracking 277 unabated or uncorrected environmental violations dating to 2011 at Justice company mines in Virginia, West Virginia, Alabama, Kentucky and Tennessee, said a spokesman for the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement, a federal agency that polices mine operators. “Civil penalties are piling up,” Chris Holmes said.
The Virginia Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy has begun proceedings to seize money placed in safekeeping by the company to guarantee reclamation of disturbed mined land at four Wise County locations. The Justice companies are appealing that state action, and Justice has said reclamation of those mines would be premature.
Justice, who could not be reached Thursday, has said most of the 277 violations were paperwork-related. “I’m cleaning it up,” he said in July.
In the view of the Roanoke protesters, Justice is an environmental scofflaw.
“He chooses the cheapest practices at the expense of his own employees,” said 32-year-old Erin McKelvy of Lee County, who said she belongs to Mountain Justice and came out to support the cause. “For somebody who’s a billionaire, you would think he would be able to do a good job, pay off his debts and clean up the messes he’s made.”
Police and fire crews closed about a block off Jefferson Street between Campbell Avenue and Church Street for about 90 minutes while they removed the banner and escorted the protesters down from atop two buildings.
The protesters “had attached themselves to the base of the banner, using their weight to anchor it, and declined to move,” Leamon said.
The owner of one of the buildings asked police to remove the sign, he said.
Roanoke Fire-EMS Deputy Chief Jeff Beckner, who was on one of the roofs, said the protesters offered no resistance during their arrests.
Police confiscated climbing equipment in bookbags including carabiners, yellow safety vests and rope, police Sgt. J.H. Bowdel said. A photo posted on Facebook showed the protesters wearing the vests on the roof.
“Everyone made sure to take all the necessary precautions to protect themselves and everyone else,” Steele said.
No one was injured, he said, describing the incident as a deliberate public act to try to create public pressure without regard to what he called “the legality of the tactics.”
The protest became a midmorning spectacle, with perhaps 60 to 70 workers and pedestrians milling about and stopping to take photos.
Some said they supported the protesters’ efforts but were unsure what the cause was about. A few said though they supported the right to protest, it should be done in a safe way.
“You got to realize that you got this hanging up right here and it’s caused a lot of businesses problems, and also you got the law involved over something stupid hanging up,” said Roger Simmons of Roanoke. “If that thing falls down and lands on a car, you’re going to have a big accident right now.”
Asked about any public safety risk of the protesters’ efforts, McKelvy said people should be more worried about the message the group was spreading.
“The public safety concern is what Justice and his company is doing,” she said.
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