MAC: Mines and Communities

Taking On a Coal Mining Practice as a Matter of Faith

Published by MAC on 2006-10-28

Taking On a Coal Mining Practice as a Matter of Faith*


28th October 2006

HALE GAP, Va. — The windswept ridge that Sharman Chapman-Crane hiked to on a recent fall afternoon is the kind of place, she said, that she normally would avoid. From there, she could see what she loved about Appalachia and what it had lost, and she wanted her visitors to see it, too.

The old rounded peaks of the mountains encircled the ridge, dense with trees smudged red and gold. But in the middle of the peaks, several stood stripped bare and chopped up, a result of an increasingly common and controversial coal mining practice called mountaintop removal.

"Doesn't it say in Scripture, 'Who can weigh a mountain, measure a basket of earth?' " Ms. Chapman-Crane said, recalling descriptions of God's omnipotence in Isaiah 40:12. "Well, only God can. But now, the coal companies seem to be able to do it, too."

Ms. Chapman-Crane, her colleagues at the Mennonite Central Committee Appalachia and other Appalachian Christians are trying to halt mountaintop removal, and at the heart of their work, they say, is their faith.

They are part of an awakening among religious people to environmental issues, said Paul Gorman, executive director of the National Religious Partnership for the Environment, an interreligious alliance. Increasingly, religious people across denominations are organizing around local issues, like preventing a landfill, preserving wetlands and changing mining.

"People of faith are thinking afresh about human place and purpose in the greater web of life," Mr. Gorman said. "They are asking, What does it mean to be present in a crisis of God's creation made by God's children?"

Although Christian environmental activists speak out against mountaintop removal at different levels of government, many believe that showing the practice's toll will persuade others to join them in seeking stricter regulation of it, if not an outright ban.

A new group, Christians for the Mountains, urges religious people to take up mountaintop removal "as a spiritual issue," and it has made a DVD that it is distributing to churches and individuals, said Allen Johnson, an evangelical Christian and a founder of the group.

The Rev. John Rausch, director of the Catholic Committee of Appalachia, has led tours of mountaintop removal sites since 1994. Mr. Rausch estimates that 400 people have taken his tour. They learn of the tours by word of mouth or from their churches, pay a few hundred dollars to stay in simple accommodations, hike several miles through forests and mined lands and talk to people whose lives have been affected by mountaintop removal.

The Mennonite Central Committee Appalachia, based in Whitesburg, Ky., gave its first tour in October, focusing on a corner of southeastern Kentucky and southwestern Virginia rich in coal and diverse forests.

On the second morning of the four-day tour, the trip's leaders, Ms. Chapman-Crane and the Rev. Duane Beachey, marched their three-member group up the mile-long trail to Bad Branch Falls. Poplars, beeches, hemlocks and magnolias thatched together a canopy above the trail, and the rain of their leaves made a soft ticking sound. Wild ginseng and wintergreen lined the path. Cottage-size boulders leaned forward over a rushing stream below the trail.

"Not every place on the mountains has waterfalls like Bad Branch," Ms. Chapman-Crane said. "But this is pretty much what it's like on the mountains here. The forests of the Appalachian range are like a northern rain forest."

Mary Yoder, who had volunteered to come on the trip for her congregation, Columbus Mennonite Church in Columbus, Ohio, asked, "So this is the kind of place that gets blown up in mountaintop removal?"

Mr. Chapman-Crane replied, "This is what would be lost, is lost, when they blast a mountaintop."

The United States is rich with coal, and mountaintop removal has begun to replace underground mining in Appalachia as the preferred method of extraction because of its efficiency and lower cost. Mountaintop removal involves leveling mountains with explosives to reach seams of coal. The debris that had once been the mountain is usually dumped by bulldozers and huge trucks into neighboring valleys, burying streams.

The coal industry asserts that mountaintop removal is a safer way to remove coal than sending miners underground and that without it, companies would have to close mines and lay off workers.

Luke Popovich, a spokesman for the National Mining Association, a coal lobbying group, said that by fighting mountaintop removal religious groups might find their priorities colliding.

"They find themselves in a difficult position," Mr. Popovich said, "because they're expressing support for those who purport to protect nature, and, at the same time, that activism carries implications for the human side of the natural equation. Human welfare depends on the rational exploitation of nature."

Organizing to Stop Mountaintop Removal Christianity runs wide and deep in Appalachia. At the Courthouse Cafe in Whitesburg, Mr. Beachey explained that as a Christian concern for his neighbors drove his desire to rein in mountaintop removal. But as in much of Appalachia, pastors and churchgoers here are reluctant to stir up trouble: many work for coal companies, or the people next to them in the pew do. Others believe stopping mountaintop removal would eliminate the few jobs that remain.

Many understand their faith differently than Christian environmentalists do. One night, Darrell Caudill and several friends gathered to play their guitars for the environmental tour and sing traditional songs and hymns. Mr. Caudill, 57, works for a coal company and believes in being a good steward of the earth. But to him, he said, being a Christian means being saved and spreading the Gospel. There is no tension between being committed to his faith and supporting mountaintop removal.

"Why did God produce coal then and put it underground?" said Mr. Caudill, who attends a nondenominational evangelical church. "He produced things that we need on this earth. Without coal, you wouldn't have the warmth and light you have right now."

Late in the trip, the tour group drove Lucious Thompson, 63, a former coal miner, to the horseshoe of peaks above McRoberts, where he lives. The peaks have been leveled. The woods where he had hunted are gone. The new grass on the new plateaus barely clings to the soil, which means that McRoberts often floods now after hard rains, he said.

"I've been flooded three times since they started working on the mountaintop," Mr. Thompson said.

He talked of neighbors whose house foundations had been cracked because of the daily blasting, of a pond lost to sludge and of respiratory ailments because of the coal dust flying from the coal trucks.

"The coal company says it's God's will," he said. "Well, God ain't ever run no bulldozer."

People like Mr. Thompson and the woods and mountains of Appalachia seemed to make the point the tour's organizers hoped for. After the tour, Ms. Yoder returned to Columbus to tell her congregation of about 200 what she had learned.

"My comment to the church was that I would do the tour with an open mind," she said, "and my conclusion is there is no room for mountaintop removal in our country."

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