Following is an Op-Ed written by acclaimed WV author Denise Giardina,  concerning the recent coal mine explosion tragedy.  Giardina is an ordained Episcopal deacon, and active in justice and environmental concerns.  (–Allen Johnson)

April 7, 2010

Op-Ed Contributor

Mourning in the Mountains


Charleston, W.Va.

PEOPLE in West Virginia had hoped that on Monday night we would gather around televisions with family and friends to watch our beloved Mountaineers face Butler in our first chance at the men’s N.C.A.A. basketball title since 1959. Men working evening shifts in the coal mines would get to listen thanks to radio coverage piped in from the surface. Expectations ran high; even President Obama, surveying the Final Four, predicted West Virginia would win.

Then, on Tuesday morning, we would wake to triumphant headlines in sports pages across the country. At last, we would say, something good has happened to West Virginia. The whole nation would see us in a new light. And we would cry.

Instead, halfway through Saturday night’s semifinal against Duke, our star forward, Da’Sean Butler, tore a ligament in his knee, and the Mountaineers crumbled. And on Monday evening, while Duke and Butler played in what for us was now merely a game, West Virginians gathered around televisions to watch news of a coal mine disaster.

On Tuesday, the headline in The Charleston Gazette read instead: Miners Dead, Missing in Raleigh Explosion. And we cried.

Despite the sunny skies and unseasonably warm weather, the mood here in southern West Virginia is subdued. As of Tuesday afternoon, 25 men have been confirmed dead, two are critically injured, and four are missing and presumed dead. Their fellow West Virginians work round the clock and risk their own lives to retrieve the bodies.

Already outrage is focused on Massey Energy, owner of the Upper Big Branch mine. Massey has a history of negligence, and Upper Big Branch has often been cited in recent years for problems, including failure to properly vent methane gas, which officials say might have been the cause of Monday’s explosion.

It seems we can’t escape our heritage. I grew up in a coal camp in the southern part of the state. Every day my school bus drove past a sign posted by the local coal company keeping tally, like a basketball scoreboard, of “man hours” lost to accidents. From time to time classmates whose fathers had been killed or maimed would disappear, their families gone elsewhere to seek work.

We knew then, and know now, that we are a national sacrifice area. We mine coal despite the danger to miners, the damage to the environment and the monomaniacal control of an industry that keeps economic diversity from flourishing here. We do it because America says it needs the coal we provide.

West Virginians get little thanks in return. Our miners have historically received little protection, and our politicians remain subservient to Big Coal. Meanwhile, West Virginia is either ignored by the rest of the nation or is the butt of jokes about ignorant hillbillies.

Here in West Virginia we will forget our fleeting dream of basketball glory and get about the business of mourning. It is, after all, something we do very well. In the area around the Upper Big Branch, families of the dead will gather in churches and their neighbors will come to pray with them. They will go home, and the same neighbors will show up bearing platters of fried chicken and potato salad and cakes. The funeral homes will be jammed, the mourners in their best suits and ties and Sunday dresses.

And perhaps this time President Obama and Americans will pay attention, and notice West Virginia at last.

Denise Giardina is the writer-in-residence at West Virginia State University.

Note: Richard Wills, a Bishop of the United Methodist Church  in the Nashville, Tennessee area, gives scriptural insight into the issue of Mountaintop Removal.  Wills essay is from Faith in Action: News and Views of the United Methodist Board of Church and Society. (posted by Allen Johnson)

How to treat our earth

Scripture gives insight
By Bishop Richard Wills Jr.

The first mandate given to humanity in Genesis after God created and pronounced creation good was for humans to take dominion over it and rule over it wisely.

Bishop WillsBishop Wills

As stewards of God’s creation, we must care for all the earth and place the value of creation over the temptations of power and greed.

Today, our state legislators will decide whether private coal companies should be allowed to destroy Tennessee’s mountains using an unnecessary extraction method known as mountaintop removal mining. I would encourage all members of the legislature to seek guidance from the Scripture as they embark on this decision.

Our elected leaders are under a great deal of pressure to make the right decision.

At times when I find myself in difficult situations, I need to be reminded of where I can turn to find the truth. As we look at the issue of mountaintop removal, scripture gives us clear insight into how we are to care for creation. Jesus himself reminds us that the whole of the law can be summed up through loving God and loving one’s neighbor.

Scripture gives us clear insight into how we are to care for creation.

Dynamiting mountain peaks, filling valley floors with discarded earth and poisoning our air and drinking water are not acts of loving one’s neighbors.

When I see the eternal scars and listen to stories of families left in the wake of the destruction, I can’t help but turn to Psalms 24:1 which says, “The earth is the Lord’s, and the fullness thereof.” Those words speak to the sanctity and sacredness of human life and the natural environment, and as servants we should not allow either to be destroyed in the name of corporate profit.

The United Methodist Church, along with every other major Christian denomination has taken a strong position against mountaintop removal mining.

In 2008, General Conference, [The United Methodist Church’s highest policy-making body,] issued a formal resolution calling for “the end of this economically, environmentally and socially destructive practice” urging all United Methodists to stand with residents of the communities hit hardest by this practice and to advocate on their behalf to their elected representatives.

Over 500 mountains and 2,000 miles of rivers and streams have been destroyed across southern Appalachia.

I would encourage all lawmakers to seek solace in prayer. This issue is much bigger than re-election or the desire to seek higher office. This issue is about serving as stewards of God’s creation and loving thy neighbor as thyself.

Over 500 mountains and 2,000 miles of rivers and streams have been destroyed across southern Appalachia as a result of mountaintop removal mining operations. The detrimental health and environmental effects of this mining practice have been unequivocally proven by the science community. All worldly evidence shows that this practice is unhealthy, unsustainable and its impacts are catastrophic to all living creatures.

I pray for our elected officials and hope that all citizens will join in the effort to ban this unnecessary form of coal mining.

Editor’s note: Richard Wills is Resident Bishop of The United Methodist Church’s Nashville Area. This article is based on a letter from Bishop Wills carried in the opinion section of The Tennessean newspaper, March 30.

The bill Wills encouraged legislators to support to ban mountaintop removal coal mining in Tennessee stalled for the fourth straight year in the legislature. The Tennessee House environment subcommittee decided not to address the issue although lawmakers said they will continue to study the issue, according to news reports. Dr. Dennis Lemly, a research biology professor at Wake Forest University, had presented water quality tests to the subcommittee that showed levels of selenium accumulated in runoff water from the Zeb Mountain coal mine had become “a substantial toxic threat” to humans.

On April 1, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued stricter guidance for enforcing the Clean Water Act when coal producers blow away mountaintops into valleys below them. Dawn Coppock, legislative director of the Lindquist Environmental Appalachian Fellowship, said the EPA’s water-quality enforcement could accomplish 90% of what the proposed bill would do protecting ridgelines. She offered a wait-and-see word of caution on the issue, however.

Date: 4/7/2010

Mourning the Deaths
(…Allen Johnson)

Hear my cry, O God; attend unto my prayer. From the end of the earth will I cry unto thee, when my heart is overwhelmed: lead me to the rock that is higher than I. (Psalm 61:1, 2)

A powerful explosion at the Upper Big Branch underground mine at 3:00 PM Monday April 5 has claimed 25 lives with four more workers missing.  This is an unspeakable tragedy….

George Matheson was a promising young scholar who went blind at age 20. His fiancé broke off their engagement. Matheson later became a minister.  He penned a powerful hymn now beloved by many, “Oh Love That Will Not Let Me Go.” Here are the words to the third stanza.

O Joy that seekest me through pain,
I cannot close my heart to thee,
I trace the rainbow through the rain,
And feel the promise is not vain,
That morn shall tearless be.

The world has come crushing down on families and friends of the dead miners. All seems lost in their immense anguish, despair, and soul pain.  May the love of God, and the love of everyone in their communities and across the nation, surround those whose loss is so deep.  And that one day the dawn of hope arise in each pained heart, so that life can go on…

Thomas Dorsey wrote the memorable song and prayer “Precious Lord” in the depth of inconsolable bereavement at the death of his wife, Nettie Harper, in childbirth, and his infant son in August 1932.

Precious Lord, take my hand
Lead me on, let me stand
I am tired, I am weak, I am worn
Through the storm, through the night
Lead me on to the light
Take my hand precious Lord, lead me home

When my way grows drear
Precious Lord linger near
When my life is almost gone
Hear my cry, hear my call
Hold my hand lest I fall
Take my hand precious Lord, lead me home

When the darkness appears
And the night draws near
And the day is past and gone
At the river I stand
Guide my feet, hold my hand
Take my hand precious Lord, lead me home

Precious Lord, take my hand
Lead me on, let me stand
I’m tired, I’m weak, I’m lone
Through the storm, through the night
Lead me on to the light
Take my hand precious Lord, lead me home

Lovers and advocates of God’s creation,

Please take a brief moment to contact the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement (OSMRE), the entity that is responsible for enforcing the law on mountaintop removal. They are asking for advice on how to enforce the law – and we need you to offer it!

Coalfield communities are suffering as a result from the lack of enforcement of these laws and because of coal industry greed and corruption that permeates the system. As God’s children, Appalachian citizens deserve to live in healthy communities free of toxic water, harmful dust, blasting, and the tyranny of industry.

Please send your comments right now! The deadline is Wednesday Jan. 19th. We encourage you to write your own message (write about your experiences with OSM if you have any), or  click on this link for more information and to send an email.

Don’t forget to pass this information on to your friends and faith communities!

The Mountain Tops are Crying: West Virginia Coal

Gene Stoltzfus peaceprobe blog:

My Lord, what a mourning,
My Lord, what a mourning,
My Lord, what a mourning,
When the stars begin to fall.

You’ll hear the trumpet sound
To wake the nations underground,
Looking to my God’s right hand,
When the stars begin to fall.

– The Books of American Negro Spirituals,1925-26 by James Weldon Johnson and J. Rosamond Johnson

I slowed down for the curves and watched for signs to Hawk’s Nest Park as I approached Ansted. The State Park was established near Gauley Mountain on the New River where local people told me between 470 and 700 mostly African American miners died while working for Union Carbide from 1927 to 1933. The workers contracted silicosis in the mines while tunnelling through a mountain to build a hydro electric plant, one of the worst industrial disasters in the history of the Americas.

As I approached the mountain top on Highway 60 in my Ford Ranger I found myself humming the old Negro spiritual that I sang as a child, “My Lord, What a Mourning when the stars begin to fall” except in my version mourning had become morning. It was dark as I approached Ansted. The mountains were only remote shadows as snow began to fall. In the version of the song of long forgotten slaves I hum the lines that had been morphed as they travelled voice to ear over the decades..

“We’ll cry for rocks and rocks and mountains when the stars begin to fall,
Rocks and mountains they’ll not save you when the stars begin to fall.”

I searched for an hour along unlit one lane roads for Allen Johnson who would host me at a Christians for the Mountains facility. Modest homes that once housed mine workers were plentiful. As I searched for the guest house I listened to public radio for reports on the Copenhagen meeting. Finally, I gave up searching turned off the radio and called Allen. He met me at the Ansted Pharmacy and led me to the rented guest house beside a century old Baptist church. The old spiritual was still echoing from my unconscious.

As I approached my lodging I could see the outline of Gauley Mountain in the distance and Allen told me that just over the edge I would see mountain top coal removal but that would have to await the daylight. Allen had warned me that 500 mountain tops have been dynamited layer by layer in West Virginia, Kentucky, Virginia and Tennessee – Appalachia – to reach the seams of coal. The coal is carried by train, barge and truck to power plants to generate electricity and to factories where steel is fashioned.

Rocks from the blasting have buried a thousand miles of streams and destroyed 12 percent of West Virginia forests forever. The Appalachian mountains that once reached heights equalling the great Himalayas of South Asia rose 300 million years ago when coal was formed from trees, swamps and other vegetation. Part of the energy for the light that illuminates my screen as I write may come from this coal.

The price for coal is rising. Surface mining permits the only efficient access to thin seams of coal formed 50 million years before dinosaurs, that traditional underground mining can not reach. With the use of large machinery and explosives two and a half times as much coal per worker can be extracted as in underground mines.

My own life has a connection to Appalachia coal. Sixty years ago when my Northeast Ohio family used coal for heating, 125,000 people worked in the mines. Today that number has fallen to 15,000 because of mechanization. Already then, Appalachian miners with their children fled homes due to joblessness, health problems and poverty. Their special accent was a matter of curiosity in my second and third grade class. Later when I lived in Chicago the north side Uptown neighbourhood was populated by people seeking refuge from the coal fields, many suffering from black lung disease. Today Ansted is more than 60% retired people. Few residents now work in the coal mines. However, coal dust, sounds of dynamite, coal trucks, and plans for more mountain levelling threaten the town’s new vision, to transform itself into a tourist center.

On the day after I arrived people were loath to travel the mountain roads due to snow so I stopped by the Redeemer Episcopal Church. I cautiously entered the annex of the 120 year old church where ladies were holding a fund raiser. My caution was formed by a belief that an Episcopal Church like this one would have been founded to serve the owners of the mines. No sooner did I park myself in front of one of the lady’s cookie tables than I was asked, “Are you here to work to stop Mountain Top Removal?” in a tone that definitely suggested that I would be much more welcome if I would answer, “Yes”.

I asked the ladies selling cookies for more information about the mountains. Over hot cider and cookies a woman from the kitchen informed me that their church goes out to the mountains regularly where their priest leads participants from surrounding churches in BLESSINGS for the mountains. She inferred that these events were not popular with the coal companies. “I hope you are here the next time we do a Blessing.” said another woman.

Allen took me to visit his friend Larry Gibson at Keyford mountain twenty miles west of Ansted as the crow flies. “Thanks for finally coming to see me” said Larry who met Allen and me with a big hug and a hot cup of coffee. The use of the word “finally” in his jovial greeting was unmistakably firm. I knew it was meant for me. “We need your support.”

Larry’s family line traces its roots in Keyford mountain back 200 years and the evidence lies silently in the nearby cemeteries at least the graves that have not yet been dynamited away. Along the winding road to his mountain top memorial hide way I see the remains of another mountain that has been blasted away, a valley blocked with land fill, huge coal trucks and shards of chimneys from long burned out homes that once housed 10,000 people who lived off mining. Larry cares for the pristine property of his ancestors as a sign of resistance to dynamite, and power shovels. Five times a year on key holidays he invites hundreds of people to festivals like of celebration and remembrance of Keyford mountain.

But not all of Larry’s guests are friendly. Drunken thugs show up to frighten visitors away much like company hired goons once tried to break union organizing in the coal fields. He describes 15 years of struggle, the offers of millions to buy him out, intimidation, arrests and speaking tours before leading us out over his 59 acre mountain top spread, a living trophy to persistence and survival. We pass several cabins where distant relatives come for retreat. He points to bullet holes, a long closed store and finally we pass Hell’s Gate, the property boundary beyond which we begin to view the empty disappeared mountain top beyond.

Below I can see layers of coal and massive power shovels loading coal trucks for delivery to a processing site and later shipment for power generation. In another direction bulldozers slice off rock that has been loosened with blasts of dynamite for disposal in the valley below. A hardy but bland grass has been planted on the mountainside next to his property where mining was terminated. There are no trees, shrubs, mice or deer, just grass. I see the town of Dorothy in a hazy valley beyond, named a century ago in honour of the wife of a mining company owner.

Visiting with Larry Gibson was good preparation for the rally at West Virginia’s state capital, Charleston, called to stop mountain top removal at still another site, Coal River Mountain. The Monday, December 7 protest brought together hundreds from West Virginia and neighbouring states. Everyone gathered in front of the West Virginia state Environmental Protection Agency which has rubber stamped so many company mining initiatives. Cordoned off about 100 feet behind the rally and adjacent to the agency building were 150 counter protesters, some hired by mining companies from the village of Dorothy. Greeting many of the speakers as they rose to challenge the crowd were blood curdling blasts from the horns of coal trucks programmed by the coal industry to cruise just a block away but loud enough to be heard maybe as far away as Copenhagen,. Rally speakers creatively co-opted the horns with long chants that transformed their irritating noise barrage into future friends, “Hoooooonk if you love the mountains.”

As I departed a voice inside told me to go to wake the nations. The descendants of coal miners who live in the hollows and valleys believe that Appalachia can be saved. The industry claims that rallies like the one in Charleston are the result of outsider manipulation by tree huggers. In spite of the charges I found an expanding conviction in West Virginia that the dust of coal pollution and lakes of slime, artificial polluted reservoirs created from crushing and cleaning coal, will be stopped. When people work together to change things they create a culture for transformation.

Several days later as I pulled out of Ansted I flipped on the radio to check developments in Copenhagen. The sombre reports of disunity among the nations reminded me to be realistic but thankful for the people, some diplomats, demonstrators and lobbyists who by their actions remembered the coal fields and disappearing mountain tops. The snow had ended and the fog had lifted. I could see the mountains and knew there was hard work ahead beyond the mourning or was it morning. It’s a new year. It’s a new decade.

Gene Stoltzfus with the Dustbusters

Note: Gene Stotzfus has 45 years experience as an activist and advocate for peace, justice, and joy.  He is the founder and director (retired) of Christian Peacemaker Teams.  His visit to West Virginia inspired us.      —Allen Johnson

Paper Mill

Print media relies upon the paper industry and ink industry to package its product.  Historically these have been (and are) some of the more polluting industries in the country.  Yet some companies are producing much more benign products.  All of us as consumers should make every effort to use “green” eco-friendly paper products.

The following article written by Willow  Cook is several years old.  More recent technologies and companies are springing up.  This article is published by Tech Soup ( which is a bonanza of services and products for nonprofits.  The following is some excerpts from her article.  Follow the link for the full version.

–Allen Johnson

A Nonprofit’s Guide to Green Printing

Do more to reach out to constituents and less to damage the earth

–by Willow Cook (Tech Soup, 2006)   For entire article, use the following link:

It’s no secret that paper production taxes forests, water, and energy supplies. In fact, eco-advocacy group Environmental Defense estimates that producing one ton of virgin uncoated paper — which accounts for 90 percent of the United States’ printing and writing paper — requires three tons of wood, 19,075 gallons of water, and generates 2,278 pounds of solid waste.

Moreover, many white papers are bleached via a chlorination process that releases dangerous chemicals and pollutants into the water, according to sustainable-design Web site Renourish.

“The printing industry is the single largest air polluter and the third-largest consumer of fossil fuels in the world after automobiles and steel manufacturing,” said Renourish Founder and University of Illinois Design Professor Eric Benson. “On a typical day, [printers] use trillions of gallons of water that must be treated for its toxic chemical content and released back into our waterways.”

Meanwhile, adhesives, bindings, and foils used in printing and packaging can render the final product unrecyclable, virtually guaranteeing that it will end up in a landfill. There, petroleum-based inks can cause lasting damage to the environment, leaching volatile organic compounds (VOCs) — which can cause cancer and birth defects — into the ground, contaminating soil, groundwater, and, upon evaporation, the air.

The printing process itself is equally hazardous: Many of the solvents, shellacs, driers, and other solutions employed in producing film, printing plates, and cleaning the presses are toxic pollutants that can cause chronic health problems — including kidney and liver damage, and even death — among press operators, according to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.

It’s Easy Printing Green

Among Dynamic Graphics and Renourish’s recommendations:

  • Choose paper that is 100 percent post-consumer waste (PCW), processed chlorine free (PCF), uncoated, Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certified, made by renewable energy sources like wind or solar power (Mohawk Paper is a leader in this area), or even treeless (hemp and kenaf are two options).
  • Use vegetable-based inks or soy inks instead of petroleum-based inks. These alternatives are both low in VOCs and competitively priced. When using Pantone colors — an industry standard — avoid colors (mostly metallics and warm reds) that contain barium, copper, and zinc, which can cause health problems in humans. (Renourish offers free downloadable PDFs showing which Pantone colors are safe in its ink section.) Not all soy inks are created equal, however: Ecoprint’s Telschow advises using those with less than 2 percent VOCs.
  • Look for a printer that uses renewable energy sources. Telschow points out that Monroe Litho in New York operates solely by wind power; Ecoprint itself has gone 100 percent carbon neutral by buying renewable energy credits for the emissions they aren’t able to eliminate in the shop.
  • Try waterless printing, which eliminates the dampening systems used in conventional printing. Digital printing, which avoids the film and chemicals in traditional printing processes, is another good alternative.
  • Avoid using bindings, adhesives, or foil stamps in packaging.
  • Reduce the amount of inks you use by going with one- or two-color designs; you can also save paper by asking your designer to use standard press sheet sizes.
  • Familiarize yourself with industry standards. The Environmental Protection Agency mandates that federal agencies must use uncoated printing and writing papers containing at least 30 percent PCW content; coated papers must contain 10 percent, notes Dynamic Graphics.

Doing the Lord's Work, according to the Kentucky Coal Association (Isaiah 40:4)

A few years ago the Kentucky Coal Association got wind that “some religious leaders are railing against mountaintop mining and, as we hear it, invoking the Almighty to bring an end to the mining method.” We suspect the KCA would rather Christians stay inside their church buildings enjoying their stained-glass windows and contemplating the after-life, and leave the nitty-gritty business of running the world to the experts, namely those who know how to make money.

But not to be outdone, the KCA has come up with its own scriptural backing that proves mountaintop mining is biblically mandated.  Yes, blasting mountains down and filling valleys up is in the Bible. So as the tried and true saying goes, “The Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it.”  KCA quotes Isaiah 40:4-5.  Although not stated by the KCA, this same scripture is also quoted by the fiery prophet John the Baptist (Luke 3:4-6).  Even Martin Luther King, jr. quoted the same scripture in his famous “I Have A Dream” speech. KCA has a dream, too.

The KCA posts this following piece on religion and its profound biblical exegesis about half-way down its “Mountain Top Mining Issues & Responses” section of its website,

Mixing Religion and Mining

Under most circumstances, we are of the opinion religion should not play a role in political debate.  Recently, however, 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?  Mountaintop mining employs thousands of people and makes it possible for them to provide for their households, (see 1 Timothy 5:8, below).  It also can spur economic development, creating even more jobs in areas where people desperately need work.  The reclaimed flat land is and can be used for building factories, schools, recreational and tourist-based businesses, and housing in areas where flat land is a premium and land development costs very high.

We, therefore, even though reluctant to inject them into the debate, enter this scriptural citations 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)

–Allen Johnson