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UBS Backs Away From Mountaintop Removal Coal Mining - Victory for Grassroots Organizing, Campaigners Say More Action Still Needed from UBS

By Ricki Draper - Hands off Appalachia, August 13, 2014

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are not the official position of the IWW (or even the IWW’s EUC) and do not necessarily represent the views of anyone but the author’s.

Knoxville, TN — UBS, the world's third top funder of mountaintop removal in 2011, has taken steps demonstrating its commitment to significantly reduce financing of the mining practice. Last month, the bank confirmed to environmental campaigners that it will continue backing away from mountaintop removal financing. Moreover, UBS has declined to participate in the most recent transactions with its former clients Alpha Natural Resources and Arch Coal, which were among the top producers of mountaintop removal coal in 2013.

"UBS' statement is a step in the right direction on mountaintop removal, but it’s the bank's actions that show they’re following through," said Ricki Draper of Hands off Appalachia. "We have seen that grassroots organizing can make a difference in stopping the financing of this deadly form of mining that poisons coalfield communities and contributes to the destruction of Appalachia’s culture and heritage."

The victory comes after three years of grassroots organizing by Hands Off Appalachia and Mountain Justice targeting the financing of mountaintop removal. Starting in Knoxville, TN, the Hands off Appalachia campaign has organized dozens of actions and protests at local UBS offices across Appalachia and the southeast. In the summer of 2013, members of the campaign were arrested during a protest at UBS's Knoxville, TN office. Shortly afterwards, four members of the Connecticut-based group Capitalism vs. the Climate blocked the entrance to UBS's North American headquarters in Stamford, CT and were arrested.

On November 25, 2014, members of Hands off Appalachia, Radical Action for Mountain People's Survival, and Capitalism vs. the Climate took action in Stamford, sitting-in at the UBS office and hanging a banner from a nearby 20-story construction crane. Police arrested 14 activists in connection to the protest.

“This is encouraging news. The movement against extreme extraction is building, and mountaintop removal is clearly a bad investment,” said Matthew Armstead of Earth Quaker Action Team. Earth Quaker Action Team, a social action group founded by Quakers, has an ongoing campaign to get PNC Bank out of the business of mountaintop removal financing.

Mountaintop removal is an extreme form of strip-mining in which coal companies blast up to a thousand feet off the top of a mountain to extract thin seams of coal.  The resulting rubble is often placed in the valley below, burying headwater streams.  Over 1 million acres of forest in Central Appalachia have been destroyed and over 2,000 miles of streams have been buried by this practice.  Recent research has linked  mountaintop removal to increased rates of cancer, birth defects and cardiovascular disease in communities near these mining operations.

In 2010, UBS facilitated the merger of Alpha Natural Resources and Massey Energy, creating the country’s largest mountaintop removal company, responsible for 25% of the US’ mountaintop removal coal. This decision came only two days before UBS released a statement promising to reduce their exposure to mountaintop removal over time. Other actions taken by the bank since the release of that statement also highlight the inadequacies of UBS’ mountaintop removal policy.

In 2011, the Rainforest Action Network ranked UBS as the world's third top funder of mountaintop removal coal mining, after Citigroup and PNC. In 2012, UBS served as a financial advisor to Arch Coal’s $3.4 billion acquisition of ICG Coal. But recently, the bank has taken several steps away from mountaintop removal financing. In May 2013, the bank declined to refinance Alpha Natural Resources and Arch Coal.  On April 7, 2014, James River Coal, a coal company with financial ties to UBS, declared bankruptcy. Shortly after, UBS downgraded the stocks of Alpha Natural Resources and Arch Coal from "sell" to "neutral".

"All the signs point to UBS stepping away from financing mountaintop removal coal mining by reducing its exposure to these companies." said Amanda Starbuck of the Rainforest Action Network. “We have been tracking financing of this sector for the past five years and it is clear that the bank has been avoiding the biggest new deals.”

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