By BROCK VERGAKIS
CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — An environmental activist locked himself to a barrel of dirty water that he brought with him to the front steps of the West Virginia governor’s mansion on Wednesday as part of a broader protest against Appalachian coal slurry impoundments.
Authorities charged Rock Creek resident David Baghdadi with trespassing and obstruction after taking him to a hospital so they could free his arm from a pipe that had been inside the barrel. Once at the hospital, authorities said Baghdadi voluntarily let go of the pipe.
Kanawha County Magistrate Julie Yeager set Baghdadi’s bail at $5,000 and he was told not to come onto statehouse grounds as part of the conditions for his release.
Slurry is the soupy waste created when coal is washed to help it burn more cleanly. Companies have disposed of the dirty water and solids in various ways over the years, injecting it into abandoned mines and damming it in huge ponds.
Federal officials say impoundment failures are a major threat to people and property, pointing to the 1972 collapse of a dam in Logan County as evidence. A 30-foot wave of sludge killed 125 people, injured 1,200 and left more than 4,000 homeless.
Baghdadi is a member of Radical Action for Mountain People’s Survival and wore a white haz-mat suit that said “LOCKED TO DIRTY WATER” in large letters on the back. He declined to answer questions from reporters about why he locked himself to the barrel or what he was protesting as firefighters worked to free him from the pipe.
Earlier in the day, two activists with the group paddled onto a slurry impoundment and displayed banners at Independence Coal’s Shumate Creek in Raleigh County. There were no immediate arrests.
Environmental officials planned to test the dark water inside the barrel, which sat only a few feet away from the mansion’s front door. Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin was not at the mansion during the protest, and his spokeswoman Amy Goodwin said in an email she was unaware of any official request Baghdadi’s group to meet with him or his staff.
“This was the wrong way to do things, and as a result we’ve had maybe a dozen Charleston firefighters on campus and at least two trucks that hopefully were not needed elsewhere in this city,” said Lawrence Messina, a spokesman for the Department of Military Affairs and Public Safety.
“It’s definitely a public safety concern.”
The governor’s mansion sits on statehouse grounds and there is no security gate restricting public access to it.
Messina said there have been discussions in the past about enhancing security on the Capitol campus and that those conversations are ‘ongoing.’ In 2009, the state solicited bids to build a security gate around the mansion. Four bids were submitted, ranging from $478,000 to $868,161.
Other security measures installed at the Capitol in recent years include a large number of security cameras that can zoom in on most any spot on the 54-acre campus.