02/15/2011 03:48 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Inside the Governor's Office: With Wendell Berry and Other Anti-Mountaintop Removal Protestors

FRANKFORT, KY, Feb. 11, 2011 -- Wendell Berry, Kentucky's most famous author and one of America's most respected essayists, is among sixteen protesters spending the weekend in the governor's office to demand an end to mountaintop removal.

After decades of opposition to the blasting of mountaintops and pollution of water in the eastern part of this state, Berry and others say that the ongoing damage to people, land, and water as a result of these practices leaves them no choice but to take the next step of civil disobedience.

"If our grievances were to be heard and redressed now, that would already be half a century too late," Berry, 76, said to Governor Steve Beshear early Friday. The damage, he added, has been widely documented. "But about these damages and these threats, this government has remained officially silent -- a silence that has become intolerable."

The protestors -- academics, writers, and several residents of eastern Kentucky, including a retired coal miner -- arrived at the governor's office at 10 a.m. Friday morning. They explained that they had sent a letter announcing their intention to visit, but had received no response.

At 10:20 a.m., the governor's receptionist asked them to move to a room down the hall to wait.

"I think we'll just stay here and wait for the governor," said Teri Blanton, a longtime activist whose brother died in a coal mining accident.

At 10:40 a.m., the governor's chief of staff, Mike Haydon, came out and offered to meet with them.

"I think we'll just wait for the governor," said Blanton, who added later, "We're tired of being shoved aside. We told him in advance we were coming."

Shortly after 11:00, the media began to arrive.

"We're concerned," Berry explained, "because the official policy of this government is to identify with the coal industry and stand up for them in court."

In response to reporters' repeated questions about whether the protesters really thought their opposition would work with a governor who has supported the coal industry and recently filed suit against the EPA, Berry said: "I don't know if it will work or not. The question is, 'Is it right?' I know it's right."

Ninety minutes later, Haydon returned and said the governor was ending a meeting early and would meet with them shortly.

Meeting with her fellow protesters, Blanton said: "Remember to stand tough. It's not just about meeting with us, but meeting our demands."

Those demands were stated on a sign held by 80-year-old Patty Wallace, who said she used to think she'd be making quilts at her age:

1. Stop the destruction of land, water, and people by mountaintop removal.
2. Support the economic transition with good jobs for miners and communities.
3. Engage in sincere, civil, public conversation about how we solve these serious issues.

At 12:40, the governor arrived and was instantly surrounded by the protesters (who made it a point to say they had gathered as Kentucky citizens, and not as an organization) and by reporters.

Berry began by reading from prepared remarks in which he said that the protesters had had repeated meetings with government officials in which they had presented an agenda of grievances that they considered urgent, but had received no acknowledgment that a problem exists.

"Instead, and far to the contrary," he continued, "the government has publicly identified with the coal companies, and has undertaken, with public funds, to support their interests in a court of law. We are here to say, as citizens and as taxpayers, that this is not acceptable."

Bev May, a nurse practitioner, held up a jar of visibly polluted water that she said was from the city water system in her community in eastern Kentucky.

"Does that look like the state has done its job?" asked Stanley Sturgill of Lynch, Kentucky. "I worked in coal mines for 41 years. Now, you know and I know and everybody here knows that mountaintop removal is a whole lot cheaper than coal mining. But it doesn't make sense when you end up with water like that."

"I have children and grandchildren. I don't want to see water destroyed," he added. "I don't want to see mountains destroyed. I want them to be there forever."

Several others spoke -- about methane in an elderly father's drinking water, fears of building a home for a daughter on property that had been in the family for 200 years, and the pollution that has killed the resident crawdads and frogs in streams on which residents are still dependent for their drinking water.

The governor listened, then responded that he could respect their difference of opinion but thought mountaintop removal could be conducted in a responsible way, adding: "I am dedicated to the enforcement of the law and protection of the environment."

As the governor excused himself for other meetings, Blanton said: "We're not satisfied with the communication we had here today. We need clean water and a governor who will stand up for the people, not the polluters."

Asked how he felt afterward, Berry said: "I feel good about the meeting because it made the differences clear-cut. He thinks surface mining can be done without harm to land or streams. It's clear that nobody on our side thinks that that's true because we've seen the results, or experienced them in our own families and homes. The idea here that there are two sides that can legitimately disagree is simply wrong. You can't rationally argue that the Earth ought to be destroyed."

A little while later, Berry checked with his fellow protesters: "Is it OK with you if I say we think there is no justification for the permanent damage of the world?"

"Yes, Wendell, you're safe with that," several said.

By mid-afternoon, the head of security arrived and said that if the protesters insisted on staying, they were welcome to remain in the governor's office through the weekend.

This surprised a dozen of the protesters, including Berry, who had prepared to be arrested.

But after a few minutes of discussion, they decided they would remain. A few volunteers ran out to pick up pillows, toothbrushes, and sandwiches. Then they released a statement asking the governor to return to his office over the weekend to continue the conversation.

Even if he doesn't, they said, they plan to remain in his office until Monday, when at least 1,000 people are expected to show up on the capitol steps for "I Love Mountains Day", a rally organized annually by Kentuckians For The Commonwealth to call for clean water and energy.

For the moment, the "Sweet 16" are spread out across the governor's office, enjoying six pizzas someone following the story ordered in support.

Lisa Bennett is the communications director for the Center for Ecoliteracy and a former fellow at Harvard University's Center on Press, Politics, and Public Policy in the John F. Kennedy School of Government. She is a contributor to the Center's most recent book, Smart by Nature: Schooling for Sustainability (Watershed Media/University of California Press, 2009.