Appalachia's Wounds: The biblical injustice of mountaintop removal
To see creation at its finest, visit the Appalachian Mountains in West Virginia and eastern Kentucky. A region of rugged beauty, the southern Appalachians are the oldest mountain range in North America and one of the most ancient on earth. They teem with more than 10,000 known species of flora and fauna, the richest biological diversity in the temperate world. Lovely beyond words, these green hills echo Eden.
To see what hell on earth looks like, visit the Appalachian Mountains—specifically, an active mountaintop removal mining site. Mountaintop removal mining is the epitome of environmental destruction. With violence comparable to the detonation of a nuclear weapon, ground-shaking explosives and massive earthmoving equipment blow and bulldoze away a mountain’s topsoil and hundreds of feet of rock to get at the coal seams below. Mining operations find it economical to shove the leftover rubble into nearby valleys. The result, even after so-called reclamation, is an ugly stump of a mountain—denuded of precious topsoil and timber and replaced by a thin-soiled plateau on which planted grass or trees struggle, and frequently fail, to survive.
Recently I visited this region with a group of filmmakers, writers, publishers, priests, ministers, teachers, entrepreneurs and activists. Our group came to witness the destruction firsthand, to hear from those whom it affects and to dream together of what a better Appalachian future might look like.
In the failing light of evening, we struggled through briars and thorns along an anemic stream tinged with orange, a sign of excess iron content. The stream’s source was a stagnant retention pond at the foot of a “valley fill,” the unholy burial ground of a neighboring peak that had been mined into oblivion. There, and in later gatherings, we heard story after heartbreaking story from local residents for whom mountaintop removal mining is a source of abuse and misery. They told us of the disappearance of their ancestral lands, of their homes choked with dust and debris from nearby mining operations and of house foundations cracking from the constant explosions. We heard about streams contaminated with chemicals or buried completely and of once-gentle streams that now flood destructively. We learned about wells dried up or made undrinkable because of heavy metals that have leached into the groundwater. In one case, well water contained so much methane that the homeowners had to keep windows open while showering or doing dishes to avoid an explosion.
Residents also told of mining companies using physical threats and intimidation, economic boycotts of local businesses and leverage against local politicians to prevent public objection to their practices. They said that some miners, eager to keep the few jobs highly mechanized mining provides, become foot soldiers in a neighbor-versus-neighbor campaign.
Despite the challenge of living amid soul-grinding poverty, some area residents—many of them nuns and priests—have risked their persons and property to face off with Goliath; their slingshot pebbles include community organizing, testifying at public hearings (which often requires police protection) and documenting mining abuses. Others, beaten down and hopeless, pleaded, “Tell our stories!”
What could possibly justify mountaintop removal? In this region of Bible-believing Christians, some mining company representatives quote Scripture in their own defense: “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” (Is 40:4). Such outrageous proof-texting belies the real narrative, far from sacred, being written on the Appalachian landscape itself. This story is about corporate greed and the culture’s willingness to sacrifice both natural and human capital for the short-term convenience of cheap energy.
Evil at Work
In the rage I felt after seeing the destroyed mountains and hearing of the resulting human misery, the word evil seemed—and still seems—the only fitting description of mountaintop removal mining. Evil is at work in the actions of individuals and corporations and in the structural failures of economics, politics and governmental oversight.
I resist pointing fingers too zealously, however, because I realize that everyone whose electricity comes from burning coal has a hand in this destruction. Rick Handshoe, an activist for Kentuckians for the Commonwealth and a local resident whose family roots in this area go back centuries, reminded our group: Whenever you turn on your light switch and write a check for your electric bill, “you’uns pay for this.” And as the author Wendell Berry, a Kentuckian, has written, whenever a bulldozer tears into a mountainside, it does so by proxy for all of us. We Americans enjoy the benefits of abundant, cheap and reliable electricity. Cheap electricity powers my neighbor’s dialysis machine, thank God, but is also wasted by inefficiency, always-on computers and television sets, and superfluous, power-hungry gadgets and luxuries. Coal companies do not ravage mountains for fun; they are driven by desire for profit. (To find out whether your electricity comes from mountaintop-mined coal, plug in your zip code to the database at www.ilovemountains.org.)
Evil works perniciously when cloaked in abstraction; it is far easier to destroy a place one does not know well and does not care for deeply. Ignorance helps, too. Since mining sites are not tourist hotspots, few people will ever witness firsthand the effects of the dirty work in Appalachia that keeps the nation’s lights on. Many coal industry executives live and work far from the mines they own and control. At a meeting of my local electric co-op, a co-op employee (a longtime salaried professional who has made a living touting the virtues of coal) admitted in conversation that he has never seen a mountaintop removal site.
A New Appalachian Story
What can people of faith say and do in response? First, they must comprehend the staggering scope of destruction caused by mountaintop removal mining, then name it, lament it and acknowledge complicity. Second, in faith and hope they must imagine a new Appalachian story of reverence and justice.
No Christian could deny that this region reflects the glory of the Creator. But unlike evil, reverence does not thrive on abstraction. Almost by definition, revering creation requires experiencing it firsthand, yet many of us will never visit Appalachia.
If Appalachia can be destroyed from a distance by underwriting energy companies, perhaps it can be revered from afar through an encounter with the tapestry of human life—the stories, poetry, music, art and photos—woven into these mountains. Perhaps we can begin to see that this place, like any place, has its own God-given dignity and integrity, which can stoke the contemporary religious imagination in the same way that Mount Horeb, the Temple Mount and Mount Tabor did for biblical writers.
One cannot revere a place and its people without desiring that both be treated with fairness and respect, for justice is reverence with legs. In This Land Is Home to Me (1975) and At Home in the Web of Life (1995), the Catholic bishops of Appalachia celebrate the land and people of this region and call vigorously for justice. These pastoral letters rehearse the concerns of Catholic social teaching: the dignity of the human person, the common good (across generations), solidarity, subsidiarity and care for creation, among others.
What would justice look like in relation to mountaintop removal mining in Appalachia? As I see it, justice in Appalachia would take three forms.
First, consumers of electricity and other citizens (including energy company shareholders) must demand immediately that energy companies stop using coal from mountaintop removal mining and that the federal government stop issuing permits that allow such mining. But since coal-fired power plants provide almost half the electric power used in the United States, they cannot be shuttered readily or converted quickly to run on alternate fuels. In the short term, more electricity should come from coal mined in a more environmentally responsible manner (though no form of coal mining is without adverse environmental effects). In the long term, however, low-carbon and renewable sources must be developed, including storage capacity to even out the intermittency of wind and solar power. Electricity will cost more. Subsidies to help those with low incomes pay for electricity must be expanded, as well as programs to help all consumers use power sparingly and efficiently.
The second form of justice would require reparations for damage done in Appalachia. Mined-away mountains are destroyed forever, but the land itself can be reclaimed more effectively than is now the case. Communities can be compensated for property damage and county water lines can be run in areas where groundwater has become undrinkable. Costly, yes, for both the mining companies and the government (taxpayers), but when damage is this egregious, justice is not cheap. Just ask BP.
Third, justice would mean that Appalachia would become economically and socially sustainable, as the Catholic bishops of Appalachia call for in At Home in the Web of Life. Decades of exploitation have left the local people in crushing poverty, with the accompanying social woes like drug and alcohol abuse, crime, domestic violence, poor education, welfare dependence and hopeless resignation. For the region to thrive, the extractive economy must be replaced with a regenerative one, based on sustainable forest products and agriculture, local business, tourism and appropriate technologies, including renewable energy. But these require a strong social fabric. The biggest challenge for Appalachians is to educate themselves, become healthier and to dream new dreams, freeing their energies to create a new, sustainable future where they live.
How? Although government must play a role, Appalachia’s own residents must finally say no to an industry that has taken so much from them and given them back a dwindling number of jobs and a wrecked physical and social landscape. Local Protestant and Catholic churches and church-sponsored organizations could stop ignoring or legitimizing the status quo; they could inspire and organize the community, support efforts of resistance and positive change and provide encouragement and pastoral care during any long, uphill fight.
No one who has witnessed Appalachia’s wounds can pretend such reversals would be simple or quick. Out of the deep soil of grief and lament, however, the stubborn, disciplined hope Appalachia needs can grow. I have seen such hope in some residents, like Rick Handshoe. Not optimism, it is rather a patient insistence that this place and people so crucified can, through God’s grace and human effort, be resurrected. Then the story of these mountains will be one of resplendent natural beauty, and God’s image will be reflected in a flourishing human community that has learned to live peaceably in its place.
Author’s note: The mountaintop removal witness tour was organized by the Center for Interfaith Relations, which sponsors the annual Festival of Faiths in Louisville, Ky. (see www.interfaithrelations.org).
Every two seconds 100 tons of coal are extracted in Kentucky, West Virginia, Wyoming, Pennsylvania and about 15 other states.
Between 1979 and 2006 in West Virginia and Kentucky, employment in mining dropped 60 percent, mainly because of an increase in less labor-intensive surface mining. In West Virginia a total of 62,500 workers declined to 22,000; in Kentucky the number of workers declined from 47,000 to 18,000.
More than 500 mountains and 1.2 million acres of hardwood forests (about the size of Delaware) have been destroyed in the United States by mountaintop removal.
Only 35 percent of reclaimed mine land can support fish and wildlife.
Wind-industry jobs jumped 70 percent in 2008 in the United States. The total number of wind-industry jobs nationwide now surpasses the number of coal miners.
For each $1 million spent retrofitting buildings for energy efficiency, 19 jobs are created. Spending on coal, by contrast, creates 9 jobs; developing oil reserves creates 6 jobs.
Fine-particle pollution from coal-fired power plants causes more than 20,000 premature deaths a year in the United States.
More than 60,000 babies in the country are overexposed to mercury in utero from coal-fired plants; such mercury overexposure has been linked to poor academic performance later in life.
In 2006 the United States produced 1.16 billion tons of coal, 70 percent of which came from surface mining.
Statistics gathered by the Catholic Committee of Appala-chia (www.ccappal.org)
Listen to an interview with Kyle T. Kramer.