BLAIR, W.Va. (AP) - Robert F. Kennedy Jr., country singer Kathy Mattea and more than 1,000 environmental activists, labor union members and Appalachian coalfield residents capped a 50-mile march to the foot of historic Blair Mountain with a rally Saturday against large-scale surface coal mining.
Marchers who had set out Monday to walk from Charleston to the mountain fear it could be destroyed by surface mines. They cherish the steep, tree-covered slopes for their role in U.S. labor history. Kennedy and many in the crowd want to protect the mountain from mining to extract the rich coal that it holds.
The path taken by the marchers is rich with history: Some 10,000 unionizing coal miners marched the same route in 1921 to battle authorities and coal company officials. The fight ended when federal troops were summoned to put down the largest armed uprising in America since the Civil War.
Kennedy is also pushing a documentary film that presents an unflattering view of mountaintop removal mining, a technique that involves clear-cutting trees and blasting away rock to expose multiple coal seams. Excess material is deposited in nearby valleys, typically burying streams. Kennedy calls the technique illegal, though it is allowed under federal mining and water quality laws.
"The only way they can do this is if the public doesn't know what they're doing," Kennedy told The Associated Press.
Kennedy told those who attended the rally that the fight is broader than Appalachia, where mountaintop removal is used in West Virginia, Virginia, Kentucky and the region's smaller coal producing states.
"Strip mining is not just destroying the environment in West Virginia and eastern Kentucky, but it is permanently impoverishing people," Kennedy said. "The coal industry is not bringing prosperity."
The coal industry disputes that, saying that surface mining provides thousands of jobs paying an average of $60,000 or more, well above the region's median income.
To Kennedy, the fight is really about democracy: "The biggest threat to American democracy is the ascending of corporate power," he said. "This is the Gettysburg of the union movement in our country ... These companies want to dismantle it."
Many in the crowd participated in the rally, the march or both in sympathy with those sentiments.
Union organizer and former West Virginia miner Jim Branson traveled from Texas for the event.
"I think this is critical for West Virginia," Branson said. "The coal companies have spent 100 years trying to keep every industry out that's not coal ... They will do this mountaintop removal until we stop them."
Retired underground coal miner Joe Stanley was among a handful of retired United Mine Workers union members who came in honor of their heritage and see that the mountain is preserved. The UMW led the 1921 marchers. Stanley also came as a protester.
"I oppose mountaintop removal," he said. "I am not opposed to coal. I believe in underground mining."
Jim Lloyd, a barber who grew up in southern West Virginia before moving to southwestern Virginia, had two great uncles who participated in the 1921 march.
"I'm not much of an activist," Lloyd said. "I really don't like the idea of tearing it down."
But Lloyd said there must be a middle ground to allow surface mining and better protect the environment and places such as Blair Mountain.
"That's something that a lot of people here don't see that this is these people's livelihood," Lloyd said. "I think you should see both sides."
Unlike past big anti-mining rallies, Saturday's event drew just a small number of relatively quiet counter-protesters.
Miner Mike Brown, who drives heavy equipment at the state's largest surface mine, said the protesters - many from out of state and far from the coalfields - should go home.
"That lady right there, she hasn't got a clue," Brown said of one of the protesters. "How can you talk about mountaintop removal if you haven't gone up there and done it yourself?"
Brown, who grew up in Blair, believes there's no problem with leveling the mountain layer by layer, then returning it to its approximate original appearance, then topping it with a monument.
"What they do here, this can be put back," he said.