Activists trying to stop mountaintop removal coal mining in Appalachia are furious over a Nike Inc. promotional ad for a new West Virginia football uniform designed in tribute to the 29 victims of the Upper Big Branch mine explosion.
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The problem is not the color of the gear – off-white that appears coated in coal dust – or the number 29 on the coal-black helmets. It’s the depiction of a mountaintop removal mine behind the image of a player, complete with flat, treeless mountaintop, the sound of an explosion and the image of falling rock.
The ad appears to be a tacit endorsement of the controversial form of strip mining, activists argued Thursday, and it should be yanked immediately.
”WVU football is a uniting force for a small state that lacks a professional team, and to seemingly take a side with this ad is pissing people off,” said Danny Chiotos of Charleston, youth organizer for the Student Environmental Action Coalition.
”I’m largely amused by it and kind of bewildered by it,” Chiotos said. ”They should come up with a better ad that actually promotes WVU football and the memory of the miners and mine safety.”
By depicting a surface mine that also resembles the open pit mines of western states like Wyoming, the ad also misses a key point about Upper Big Branch: The Massey Energy Co. mine that exploded April 5 was an underground operation.
A West Virginia spokesman did not have an immediate response. Oregon-based Nike did not immediately respond to telephone and e-mail messages Thursday.
The ad plunges both the school and the world’s largest athletic shoe and clothing maker into one of West Virginia’s most emotionally charged and political divisive issues.
Mountaintop removal was the sole issue of a candidate who ran in last week’s special primary to fill the seat of late U.S. Sen. Robert C. Byrd, and both industry and environmentalists are lobbying the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency over the practice.
The coal-themed Pro Combat gear will be worn for one game only this season, the Nov. 26 Backyard Brawl at Pittsburgh.
Naoma activist Bo Webb demanded the immediate removal of the ad and apologies to the people in the southern coalfields who have been hurt by mountaintop mining.
”I am so angry. I love football, and I will not watch WVU again,” said Webb, who was in Washington, D.C., with other activists on Monday, urging President Barack Obama’s administration to outlaw mountaintop removal. It was a prelude to a much larger ”Appalachia Rising” rally planned for Sept. 27.
”I hope the players understand that they’re being used and rise up. I’d like them to say, ‘I’m not being pimped out by Nike and the state of West Virginia and the coal industry,” he said, ”and I would like to see WVU admit, ‘We made a huge mistake.”’
Webb said it’s possible the ad was designed by an artist who didn’t realize the implications of using strip mine imagery, but he’s skeptical of Oregon-based Nike.
”Maybe they’re naive, but I doubt it,” he said. ”I seriously doubt it.”
Mountaintop removal is done mainly in West Virginia, Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee. Forests are clear-cut, explosives blast apart the ridgetops, and massive machines scoop the exposed coal from multiple seams. The debris left behind is dumped into valleys, covering streams with what are called valley fills.
Coal operators say it’s the most efficient way to reach some reserves, but people who live near the mines say it’s too destructive, ruining their home values, their environment and their health.
The industry, too, is planning a rally in Washington. Its Sept. 15 event will focus on what it considers unfair regulations and the need for jobs.
WVU senior Joe Gorman said Nike and the school should honor underground miners ”without glorifying the mountaintop removal that’s destroying West Virginia’s heritage and the mountains that make us the Mountaineers.”
"The ad says, ‘It’s just the way things are done in West Virginia,”’ Gorman said, ”but miners and residents of the southern coalfields have been fighting strip mining and mountaintop removal since before I was born, and that’s something to be proud of, too.”