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UPDATE: Judge denies St. Mary's Medical Center temporary restraining order against coal symposium picketers

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UPDATE, 11:03 a.m.:

Cabell County Circuit Judge Paul Ferrell denied the injunction St. Mary's Medical Center had requested.


Original story:

St. Mary's Medical Center is seeking a temporary restraining order this morning in Cabell County Circuit Court limiting the number and location of pickets outside a coal symposium being held on the hospital's property, but not sponsored by the hospital, later Nov. 12.

St. Mary's wants the court to ensure rally-goers don't impede patient care, educational activities or ingress/egress to the site when they rally outside the St. Mary's Center for Education, the hospital's attorney said.

The hearing is set for 10:30 a.m. Nov. 12 in front of Circuit Judge Paul Ferrell.

"We're not trying to prevent the protest, we're just trying to make sure it's done reasonably, so as not to prevent patient care, ingress or egress," said Marvin "Chip" Capehart of Nelson Mullins Riley & Scarborough, St. Mary's legal counsel. "That's our concern, to make sure operations are not impacted."

St. Mary's spokesman Angela Henderson-Bentley added that the hospital respects "the first amendment rights of the protestors and the fact that opposing viewpoints may exist on this issue."

"Our fundamental role is to protect the integrity of the health care and education services we've provided for nearly 90 years," she said. "That is why we have asked the court to intervene to make sure the picketing does not interfere with access to our 5th Avenue and 3rd Avenue campuses in Huntington."

Though it's being held on hospital grounds from 3-6 p.m. today, the symposium is sponsored by the Huntington Regional Chamber of Commerce, not the hospital. Now in its ninth year, this year's major sponsor is Natural Resource Partners, a major landowner at Blair Mountain, scene of an historic labor uprising in Logan County in 1921 and a point of contention with environmental activists battling to keep Arch Coal and other companies from strip mining the site.

This year's speaker is Robert "Mike" Duncan, president and CEO of the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity.

Janet Keating, executive director of the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, insists theirs will be a peaceful demonstration on public property, the sidewalk outside the education center, beginning at 4:15 p.m., and will not impact patients or hospital operations in any way.

Keating said the activists question the incongruity of a symposium on coal being held on hospital property, though she concedes the future of Blair Mountain "is kind of a side issue." An OVEC online petition calling for St. Mary's to cancel the symposium had garnered 677 signatures by 5 a.m. today, but only about a third of the signers – roughly 226 of them – were West Virginia residents.

OVEC's position is that "whether it's mining, processing, burning or disposing of waste, it's dirty, (coal is) hazardous and it hurts human health," Keating said.

Cathy Burns, president and CEO of the Huntington Regional Chamber of Commerce, said protestors were at last year's Energy & Natural Resources symposium, too. That event was held at a local hotel and featured a different speaker.

"I think their efforts here are misguided," Burns said."I read a blurb (on their website) that makes it sound as though the hospital organized the event and invited the speakers – that's not the case. It's a Huntington Regional Chamber of Commerce event talking about an issue that impacts the majority of our manufacturing base and St. Mary's has graciously allowed us to use their facility."

Burns maintains events like the symposium "are good for the region, good for healthy discussion."

"There needs to be a discussion of energy, not only in this country but in this region," she said. "We have a responsibility from a chamber perspective to hold discussions about energy and natural resources; Whether they want to protest or picket is certainly up to them, but you can't bury your head and not have a discussion about natural resources, particularly as it relates to our part of the country."

Burns pointed out there's a trickle-down effect in the local economy anytime the energy sector undergoes change.

"So many of our businesses are related to the coal and energy field," she said. "They make equipment, they make electrical parts or wiring, you name it. When public policy changes, when things happen at the federal certainly affects our local economy. We would be doing a disservice to our community if we didn't have a discussion about energy. You can't plan for your future unless you know what's (going to be) impacting your future."