BLAIR, W.Va. -- Hundreds of protesters reached the summit of Blair Mountain on Saturday, marking the end of a weeklong, 50-mile march to raise awareness of mountaintop-removal mining and labor rights in West Virginia.
The protesters came from far and wide to participate in the journey, hailing not only from West Virginia, but also Kentucky, Utah, North Carolina, Tennessee, Australia and Japan. The five-day march was an effort to preserve Blair Mountain as a historical site and to prevent coal companies from using it for mountaintop-removal mining.
Environmental attorney Robert F. Kennedy Jr., country music singer and West Virginia native Kathy Mattea, former congressman Ken Hechler and West Virginia activist Larry Gibson joined the protesters Saturday.
"This is the Gettysburg of the union movement," Kennedy said during a rally before the protesters reached the summit.
Kennedy, who just released the anti-mountaintop-removal mining documentary "The Last Mountain," said legislators and the state Department of Environmental Protection are too controlled by the interests of coal companies.
"Everything this industry does is illegal, it's a criminal enterprise," he said. "If you came to the Hudson River and you tried to fill 25 feet of a Hudson River tributary, we would put you in jail, I guarantee it. If you tried to blow up a mountain in the Berkshires, the Adirondacks, or a mountain in Colorado, California or Utah, you would go to jail."
Mattea said she was compelled to attend the protest because she is from South Charleston and has immediate family members who are strong supporters of coal miner unions and environmental protections. She performed a song by folk singer Jean Ritchie called "Black Waters."
"I came to stand here on this ground, on this day, with all of you because what we are attempting to save here echoes the values in my own life," Mattea said. "In 1921, thousands of people stood on this mountain, miners and ordinary people from all walks of life. . . . They stood together to say, 'No more.'"
In 1921, the march on Blair Mountain was the biggest armed conflict in American labor history. More than 10,000 union miners marched from Marmet to help organize non-union coal mines in Southern West Virginia. After several days of battles, federal troops arrived and ended the conflict.
In 2009, the site was added to the National Register of Historic Places. Nine months later, after pressure from coal companies on state agencies, it was removed from the register.
Today, labor and environmental groups are backing a lawsuit that seeks to restore Blair Mountain's place on the list.
Alpha Natural Resources, which bought Massey Energy last month, and Arch Coal now own much of Blair Mountain.
Joe Stanley, a retired United Mine Workers union miner from Prichard, said the state has been sucked dry of wealth by coal companies whose only concern is making money and not sharing it with the people of West Virginia.
"Why is it that West Virginia is the richest state in natural resources, yet we remain at the bottom of everything?" he asked.
Christian Torp, 31, of Lexington, Ky., said he felt called on by God to attend the rally, to represent those who have been impoverished by the coal companies. He cited a Bible verse from Micah 6:8.
"What does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly," he said.
The protest has been empowering and unifying to watch, said Kara Dotson, 21, of Blacksburg, Va. She traveled from Virginia to attend the march's final leg.
"We have to stand up for the environmental integrity of our community," she said, "because we can't live without clean water or air."
Psera Newman, 34, also of Lexington, held a sign depicting a barren coalfield with the message, "This is no future." Her 13-year-old son, Cosmos, painted it for her.
"The corporations take advantage of people in Appalachia, and this is happening all over Appalachia, not just West Virginia," Newman said. "We have to save one mountain at a time."