Strip Mining Devastates Land and Destroys Communities in Colombia

Note: These dump trucks (see red arrow) are three stories high. The mine is 30 miles by 5 miles and is in the north of Colombia; it has provided coal for the Salem and Brayton Point Power Generating Stations in Massachusetts.  It has displaced entire communities. (see story).

Coal and Colombia: There is a global connection

Our local energy use links us to people in Latin America. 

Most of the coal burned in Massachusetts' power plants comes from South America:  northern Colombia, to be precise. 

Two giant foreign-owned mines there, the U.S.-owned Drummond mine, and the British/Swiss/Australian-owned Cerrejon mine, both export their coal to Massachusetts, and both have been implicated in serious human rights abuses.  Drummond is currently facing charges in U.S. court for the murders of three union activists at the mine in 2001. 

Near both mines, desperately poor Afro-Colombian, indigenous, and mestizo communities have no electricity, but suffer from the contamination of their land and water, and the destruction of their roads, forests and communities, by the mines.  Over the past five years friends of HealthLink have brought representatives from the Colombian unions and communities affected by the mines to the North Shore, and sent several delegations to Colombia to investigate conditions in these mines and in the communities. 

The Salem City Council, the Mayor, and local and state representatives have joined citizens in demanding that the mines respect international humanitarian law and the rights of their workers and the communities affected by their operations.  We have also worked to build people-to-people connections by bringing home and selling hand-woven shoulder-bags made by the women in the affected communities, to try to give something back to those who are the victims of our energy use.How can you help the victims of our energy policies?

Many people are surprised to learn that coal burned in the Salem power plant, and across the United States, is imported increasingly from Colombia. Low-sulphur coal is Colombia's third largest export.

Much of this coal is mined in Colombia's poorest province, La Guajira. Four times the size of Manhattan, El Cerrejón is the world’s largest open-pit coal mine. One by one, small indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities that have lived together, farmed, hunted, and fished for centuries, are being destroyed. Company agents illegally wiped the village of Tabaco off the map in 2001 to expand the mine and, on the expanding edge of the pit, the villagers of Tamaquito are being asphyxiated by the dust.

We learned first hand from local villagers and the mineowners about the terrible human impact of this mine when an international group of concerned citizens went on a Witness for Peace delegation to Colombia to visit the mining region in August, 2007.

Healthlink wants to give back something to the communities that have suffered so much in providing energy for our homes and businesses. The women of Guajira have a long tradition of weaving. They have asked us to help their communities survive by bringing their products to Americans.

We will be importing unique and colorful Columbian handbags. The money you pay for these bags goes directly to the women of Tabaco and Tamaquito whose lives, families, and villages are under siege from the impact of the gigantic Cerrejón coal mine.

To see a larger image of the handbags, click on the picture above. For more information contact HealthLink at or 781-598-1115 or the North Shore Colombia Solidarity Committee at or 978-542-6389

Alabama Coal Company Accused Of Bankrolling Colombia's
Killer Right-wing Militias

LA LOMA, Colombia, Jul. 9, 2007

(AP) The bus had just left Drummond Co. Inc.'s coal mine carrying about 50 workers when gunmen halted it and forced two union leaders off. They shot one on the spot, pumping four bullets into his head, and dragged the other one off to be tortured and killed.

In a civil trial set to begin Monday before a federal jury in Birmingham, Ala., union lawyers have presented affidavits from two people who allege that Drummond ordered those killings, a charge the company denies.

The Chiquita banana company admitted paying right-wing militias known as paramilitaries to protect its Colombia operations. Human rights activists claim such practices were widespread among multinationals in Colombia, and that Drummond went even further, using the fighters to violently keep its labor costs down.

The Drummond case, they say, is their best chance yet of seeing those allegations heard in court.

The union has presented affidavits to the Alabama court from two people who say they were present when Drummond's chief executive in Colombia, Augusto Jimenez, handed over a large sum of cash to representatives of the local paramilitary warlord. They claim the money was for the March 10, 2001, killings of Sintramienergetica union local president Valmore Locarno and his deputy, Victor Orcasita.

Union leaders, former army soldiers and ex-paramilitary fighters also allege that family-owned Drummond, which shifted most of its operations to northern Colombia in the 1990s as its Alabama veins gave out, paid and provisioned the paramilitaries as a matter of policy.

Drummond says neither charge is true.

"Drummond did not pay any paramilitary or illegal or unlawful group," it said in a written response to questions from The Associated Press. Senior company executives declined interviews.

Rafael Garcia, the former technology director of the DAS state security agency, says in an affidavit that he saw Jimenez give "a suitcase full of cash" to paramilitary commanders "to assassinate specific union leaders," naming Locarno and Orcasita. Garcia is in prison, convicted of erasing drug traffickers' names from DAS records.

Former paramilitary fighter Alberto Visbal says in an affidavit that he saw Jimenez pay his boss, who went by the alias "Julian," $200,000 in cash. Visbal, who has fled Colombia, said he understood from another fighter present that the money was in exchange for the killings. Visbal says he was later sent to confirm Locarno's death.

In a filing in an Atlanta circuit court Thursday seeking more time to gather depositions, plaintiffs for the union also alleged that former union treasurer Jimmy Rubio saw a Drummond official _ they didn't specify which one _ pay a paramilitary leader for the killings. Rubio went into hiding when his father-in-law was murdered just before he was to give a deposition in the case, they said.

Affidavits from Rubio, Visbal and Garcia have all been entered into the public record in Birmingham.

Drummond challenged the accounts. "We have evidence that some (of the witnesses) are being paid and/or offered assistance by the United Steelworkers Union," it said in its written response.

The union said the only assistance provided to witnesses was helping some of them leave the country after their lives were threatened.

The lawsuit, filed under a U.S. statute that lets foreigners sue U.S. corporations for their conduct abroad, seeks hundreds of millions of dollars in damages, alleging Locarno, Orcasita and Gustavo Soler _ who was killed after he took over for Locarno _ "were direct victims of Drummond's plan to violently destroy the union."

"I think they thought they could get away with anything, literally get away with murder," United Steelworkers lawyer Daniel Kovalik said.

Drummond's relationship with the Sintramienergetica union, which represents a third of its 6,200 local workers, has long been tense. The union accuses the company o unsafe conditions it says contributed to 13 accidental deaths since 1995, of forcing injured employees to work and of indiscriminately dismissing workers.

Drummond said: "We have a good relationship with our rank and file workforce."

The landowner-backed paramilitaries arose in the 1980s to counter kidnapping and extortion by leftist rebels but grew into terrorist organizations in their own right, killing more than 10,000 people, stealing land from peasants and taking over much of Colombia's drug trade.

As the paramilitaries demobilize under a peace pact with the government, many former fighters are coming forward to describe the groups' ties with business leaders and politicians in revelations that are shaking the nation.

The U.S. Justice Department fined Chiquita Brands International Inc. $25 million this year for giving $1.7 million to the militias from 1997-2004. Chiquita said the regular monthly payments by its wholly owned subsidiary Banadex were "to protect the lives of its employees."

Colombia's chief prosecutor, Mario Iguaran, has opened criminal investigations into both the Drummond and Chiquita cases. Last month, the families of 144 people killed by paramilitaries operating where Chiquita harvested bananas sued the company in U.S. federal court in Washington.

And Rep. Bill Delahunt, D-Mass., said a congressional hearing that he called on the subject last week would be the first of many.

"We don't want American companies to fuel the unacceptable level of violence that exists in Colombia today," he said.

While the Birmingham trial focuses on the union leaders' murders, witnesses will also accuse Drummond of employing paramilitaries to protect its operations, which exported more than 25 million tons of coal last year from Colombia to the United States and Europe.

Previous efforts to use the Alien Tort Claims Act to make mulitnational corporations accountable for actions in other countries have failed. To win this case, the families must show the slayings amounted to war crimes sanctioned by state officials. Their attorneys say they can prove this since union activists have been systematically slaughtered in Colombia. l Three people unaffiliated with the union told The Associated Press that Drummond paid paramilitaries to guard its 25,000-acre La Loma mine and its coal trains against leftist rebel sabotage. They said the company supplied the mercenaries with pickup trucks and motorcycles and routinely fed them and let them gas up on mine property.

Two of them have offered testimony to Colombian and U.S. authorities: Edwin Guzman, a former army sergeant who later joined the paramilitaries, and Isnardo Ropero, who worked as the personal bodyguard for Drummond's community relations director. Both have fled Colombia.

The third is a former midlevel paramilitary member who worked in the region until early last year and spoke on condition of anonymity because he remains in Colombia and fears for his life. He said paramilitaries guarded Drummond's coal trains on the 120-mile rail line from La Loma to the coast. Every few miles, a motorized team shadowing the train on a parallel dirt road would hand off to another team, he said.

In an affidavit, Javier Ochoa, an ex-paramilitary who is serving time for murder, named the people he said collected "taxes" from Drummond, including between 20 and 32 cents per ton of coal produced. His affidavit was provided to the AP by Llanos Oil Exploration Ltd., which has sued Drummond separately for alleged theft of oil rights in an Orlando, Fla., federal court.

Rubio, the former union treasurer, said in an affidavit that he saw the mine's community relations director, Alfredo Araujo, hand over two checks to a known paramilitary member on mine grounds. Araujo denied the claim.

"That's false and will be so proven in court," he said in a telephone interview.

Mountaintop removal

Mountaintop removal is a radical form of coal mining in which entire mountains are literally blown up -- and it is happening here in America on a scale that is almost unimaginable.

Mountaintop removal is devastating hundreds of square miles of Appalachia; polluting the headwaters of rivers that provide drinking water to millions of Americans; and destroying a distinctly American culture that has endured for generations.

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Domestic Coal: They flattened this mountaintop to find coal - and created a wasteland

A ravaged US state is fighting back against mining bosses who backed Bush

Paul Harris Sunday January 16, 2005, West Virginia Observer

Maria Gunnoe sits at the top of the valley her family has called home for three generations and points to the artificial moonscape that has replaced the once wooded and rolling hills.

Above her home there now sits a huge strip mine. Two more strip mines are eating away the hills on the opposite side of the valley. 'I'm being attacked on all sides,' she said.

This is not ordinary strip mining. This is mountaintop removal - activists dub it 'strip mining on steroids'. It is the stuff of science fiction and it is booming in the Appalachian mountains, bringing with it environmental degradation and human despair. It is fuelled by a mining industry that has paid millions of dollars into Republican campaign coffers and received in return an unprecedented relaxation of rules.

Mountaintop removal mining does exactly what it says - in order to get at thin seams of coal that lie within, like cream through the middle of a sponge cake. Millions of tons of rock are blown up, scraped away and poured into surrounding valleys, filling them to the brim. What was a mountain range is turned into a flat and almost barren desert of rock.

The streams that once flowed through the valleys around Maria Gunnoe's house lie underneath hundreds of feet of boulders. 'It breaks my heart,' she said.

All over Appalachia, a series of mountain ranges running from Pennsylvania to Georgia, there are similar stories. Already 1,200 miles of streams have been buried and 400,000 acres have been blasted away. At current rates, over the next decade 2,200 square miles of land will be affected. That is an area larger than the state of Rhode Island. In order to shift the mountaintops more than 3,000 tons of explosives are used each day.

Across Appalachia, resistance is growing. The Coal River Mountain Watch, a group of activists in the scruffy West Virginia hamlet of Whitesville, has on the wall of its office a map of three West Virginian counties it covers. Large splodges mark the mountaintop mines. Julia Bonds, a coalminer's daughter, is the group's community outreach co-ordinator. She claims it is only because Appalachia is one of America's poorest communities that the mining is allowed. 'They deal with us by dehumanising us and calling us just hillbillies,' she said.

It is the damage to their water system that is the biggest disaster, added Bonds. The mining has been blamed for a massive increase in flash floods that wash away people's homes. It is also blamed for cancer-causing selenium in water and other pollution that has poisoned fish. West Virginians have been advised by the government that locally caught fish are too dangerous to eat more than once or twice a month.

For Gunnoe the issue is an immediate one. Since the mountains and valleys went, her property has almost been washed away. Her home is now isolated behind a deep gorge that cuts her off from any road. 'It used to be just a little stream you could step over,' she said. The stream has now cut a gully 20ft deep and 67ft wide. Gunnoe's house has lost all its value. She cannot get insurance. She knows that she will eventually have to leave.

Not only the floods are contriving to drive her out. Since she began to speak out publicly last summer, the tires on Gunnoe's truck have been slashed, she has been verbally threatened by mineworkers, her dog has been shot and its body dumped at a shop frequented by her two children.

As she travelled with The Observer last week, a man driving a white SUV closely tailed her, its driver making an obscene gesture at her before forcing her to swerve as he overtook. But she will not be intimidated. 'They have already taken away my future,' she said. 'I guess I am just pushing the envelope to see if they take away my life.'

It was a meeting on an airport runway in August 2000 that paved the way for the mining boom in West Virginia. George W Bush met local mining executives as he prepared to fly out from the state capital, Charleston. They complained mining permits were becoming hard to get because of environmental measures. Bush said he understood their problems.

In 2002, after Bush became President, regulations governing mountaintop mining were loosened. It was as simple as changing a word. The rubble produced by scraping off mountaintops was defined as 'fill', not 'waste'. Fill can legally be dumped into valleys, waste cannot. The effect was immediate. In 2002 just three sites were approved in West Virginia. In 2003 the figure was 14.

Critics say the rule change was the payback for massive financial support given to Bush and other Republicans by the coalmining industry. In the past six years mining firms have given $9 million to Republican candidates.

James 'Buck' Harless, West Virginia's main coal baron, raised $100,000 for Bush in 2000. In 2004 he at least doubled that sum, earning the Bush Ranger title given to top fundraisers. Jack Gerard of the National Mining Association and Irl Engelhardt of mining firm Peabody earned the designation of Bush Pioneer in 2004 after giving at least $100,000 each. Bush has also brought senior mining figures into his administration, including David Lauriski, a former coalmining executive who is now head of the Mine Safety and Health Administration. Since Lauriski took over, numerous safety and health regulations have been relaxed.

Above Blair in West Virginia towers a huge blue dragline, like a gigantic crane. It is one of the biggest vehicles on earth and locals have dubbed it Big John. A dragline can be as high as a 10-storey building. Its excavator bucket can shift the equivalent weight in rock of 40 cars in a single scoop.

Activists now fear that removing West Virginia's mountains is going to get even easier. A Reagan-era regulation forbids mining in a 100-yard 'buffer zone' around streams. The Bush administration wants to 'clarify' the rule. Coalmining executives say making mining easier means America will no longer have to rely on foreign oil reserves for its energy needs. But for people who have to live with the impact, the prospect of yet more mining is nightmarish.

'When the coal is gone, it is gone,' said Bonds, her voice rising with anger. 'Why would any sane person put all their energy in a single fuel? And they call us ignorant hillbillies.'