In Appalachia, there is a growing struggle between two formidable forces – the coal industry that provides jobs in this impoverished region and the religious leaders who knit its rural communities together.
As with everything here, the mountains and the coal they hold are at the heart of the conflict.
When the mines were underground, faith and mining could co-exist. But then the coal giants found a cheaper way to get at the wealth: They began blowing the tops off mountains and scrapping out the coal, contaminating streams and ravaging the landscape in the process.
“God put humanity in the garden to care for and cultivate it. We forget that,” says Father John Rousch, who takes anyone willing to listen to witness the devastation.
Rousch’s Catholic Committee of Appalachia is one of several religious groups that have begun speaking out in Appalachia’s churches, communities and state capitols against a practice they see as an outrage against creation: mountaintop removal.
Half a dozen major religious denominations have issued statements opposing mountaintop mining in recent years, but the strongest voices in this fight are coming from the local churches.
Unlike activists who sweep in from the cities, these religious leaders belong to coal country. They have the trust of the people, and they understand that when it comes to jobs here, coal is still king.
The Challenge of Poverty
The war over mountaintop mining is tightly intertwined with the region’s extreme poverty.
In McDowell County, W.Va., a leading coal producing county, the poverty rate is nearly 38 percent. Coal is a big employer, and mining taxes contribute 8 percent of West Virginia’s general fund, so lawmakers are loath to oppose the industry. The same scene plays out in the eastern Kentucky and parts of eastern Tennessee.
Coal’s economic hold on the region makes it difficult for many people – even those victimized by mining – to speak out. If they oppose coal, they threaten their neighbors’ jobs and, in some cases, their own safety. They can’t count on their political representatives – most are coal-industry funded and staunchly pro-coal in their votes.
The strongest voices, then, have become a few brave victims and the preachers who speak for those who can’t.
“Coal is so intertwined in the economy, people feel like it’s coal or nothing. People are nervous about pulling the last bit of rug they have left,” explains Allen Johnson, founder of Christians for the Mountains, a leading voice in the fight to protect the mountains.
The industry’s pressure to stay quiet about the destruction wrecked by mountaintop mining is intense, says Truman Hurt, who leads the Kodak Church of the True and Living God outside of Hazard, Ky.
In coal country, the voice of the industry is everywhere: advertisements, radio talk shows, pro-coal rallies at the capitol. Kentucky even has a “Friends of Coal” license plate.
Hurt, whose own wells have been contaminated by mining “overburden”, used to offer his church as a meeting hall for Kentuckians for the Commonwealth in their fight against mountaintop removal. But church members asked him to stop for fear they would lose their jobs.
“They’ve seen it’s a possibility they may have to shut down or change things grossly, and they don’t want to. They’re fighting,” Hurt says of the industry. “Coal pushes against anything that we do. The ones with jobs are getting a lot of pressure from their fellow workers. The only people who can speak out are those who don’ t depend upon coal.”
Others who have spoken out have been physically threatened. Maria Gunnoe, who became an activist against mountaintop mining after her West Virginia property was devastated, says her son was beaten up at school and two of her family’s dogs were killed – one at the corner where her daughter catches the school bus. Larry Gibson, another victim and activist, says his home has been shot at.
Mary Ann Hitt, deputy director of the Sierra Club’s coal campaign, recognizes the dangers:
“Most of the people who are outspoken are doing that at great risk to themselves and their families because people on the other side see their paycheck as directly threatened, and the industry knows how to exploit that.”
In the past few weeks, there have been encouraging signs from outside Appalachia that pressure on the coal industry could be increasing to move away from mountaintop mining. Three coal-buying states are considering banning purchases of mountaintop coal, the Obama EPA promised to more closely review mountaintop mining permits, and Congress is considering stream-protection laws that would greatly limit mountaintop removal.
People are begining to see that while mountaintop mining may provide jobs in the short term, the practice is destroying the region for future generations and damaging communities in the process.
Heavy metals from the “overburden” that mountaintop mining pushes into stream beds leach into the water and poison wells and cause deformities in fish. Once-safe properties now flood because of the changed landscape. The valley fill process is even threatening some of the top white water rivers in the country – West Virginia’s New and Gauley Rivers, says Johnson, who spent last week in Washington, D.C., lobbying for the federal action to both stop mountaintop mining and to replace it with better jobs in a sustainable green economy.
“There won’t be anything left for economic development” if mountaintop mining continues, Johnson says. “And the legislatures are letting it happen.”
Pushing Legislation to Save the Mountains
Across Appalachia, religious groups including the West Virginia Council of Churches, Catholic Committee of Appalachia, Christians for the Mountains, and the Lindquist-Environmental Appalachian Fellowship (LEAF) have all started publicly advocating mountain protection.
LEAF picked up the flag of mountain protection four years ago as ridge mining began encroaching on the northeast corner of Tennessee. Today, the group is leading the legislative charge, lobbying Tennessee lawmakers to restrict mining above the 2,000-foot elevation and anywhere within 100 feet of a stream. A bill that would do both is up for a committee vote on Tuesday.
In theology, there is deep vein of religious belief running back to St. Augustine and the Old Testament that humans have a responsibility to care for all of God’s creations, including the Earth. That belief in creation care was pushed aside by economics during the Industrial Age, but it is welling up again as people watch mountaintop mining lay waste to Appalachia in the name of cheap energy.
Creation care resonates in faith communities, particularly in the conservative churches that anchor rural communities throughout Appalachia, says LEAF co-founder Pat Hudson.
It gives people who are wary of politics a foundation for action that is rooted deep in their own beliefs, and with national religious leaders such as Rick Warren beginning to support it, the faithful and their ministers are becoming more comfortable identifying with its message.
“If you show people a path they can support without having to change everything about themselves, people will step up,” Hudson said. “Scripture is absolutely full of references to the need to respect the land and treat it carefully and hand it down to future generations in as good or better shape than we found it.
“It’s not something you can look at and say, ‘oh never mind’.”
Father Rousch spends his Sundays traveling to churches throughout Appalachia and giving guest sermons that often involve creation care. He says he occasionally sees people walk out when the topic turns to mountaintop mining.
As a guest speaker, though, Rousch can upset people’s view of mountaintop mining. He provides cover for the local ministers by raising the subject in a way that the local ministers can then step in and start a deeper discussion based in theology.
Coal’s Attempt to Co-opt the Message
Detractors have also tried to harness the power of religion to advance their own motives, but when it comes to mountaintop mining, they have a tough battle.
The ultraconservative Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, headed by talk radio voice Richard Land, joined the economic argument against a federal cap on greenhouse gases, telling listeners that the proof for man-made global warming is a “questionable science.” But even Land still recognizes that Christians “should take every reasonable step to care for God’s creation.
The coal industry has tried issuing its own religious talking points, as well. From the Kentucky Coal Association web site:
“We’ve learned some religious leaders are railing against mountaintop mining and, as we hear it, invoking the Almighty to bring an end to the mining method.
“While these folks are certainly within their right to do so, it made us wonder, should we call for the same help to continue this mining practice, which is, after all, a temporary use of the land?
“We, therefore, even though reluctant to inject them into the debate, enter this scriptural citation for reflection: “Every valley shall be filled in, every mountain and hill shall be made low; The rugged land shall be made a plain, the rough country, a broad valley. Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all mankind shall see it together; for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.” Isaiah 40:4-5, (New American Bible).“
That didn’t sit well with Johnson of Christian for the Mountains.
He points out that Martin Luther King, Jr., used that passage in his “I have a dream” speech – it’s about social justice. “To carry out the horrendous destruction of God’s creation for profit and then try to use scripture to justify is unconscionable,” he said.
Roush has gone toe-to-toe with coal executives before, and he has a standing invitation to anyone in the industry to debate him on that any time.
“There are certain methods that are inherently wrong, and mountaintop removal is such an exaggerated destruction of the ecosystem,” he said.
“Obviously they have the formal legal arguments on their side, property rights. But I would say to them: You are in danger of losing your spirit if you continue to be impervious of the suffering that you are inflicting on these people and onto creation. Know that coal is ultimately a sundown industry. There is no way that you can clean coal so that children don’t get asthma and it doesn’t pollute our rivers and streams.”