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
©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

The Mountain Tops are Crying: West Virginia Coal

Gene Stoltzfus peaceprobe blog:  http://peaceprobe.wordpress.com

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

I am often asked by people how the struggle for “the mountains” is coming along. As we enter the New Year 2010, many of us might be pondering that question.

Ok? So how do we feel about the future, those of us who are activists struggling to save the mountains, the mountain culture, the mountain ecology, and integrity and civil society in the face of destructive coal extraction practices in West Virginia, eastern Kentucky, and adjacent areas of Tennessee and Virginia?

This past year has had its ups and downs.  The EPA in Washington may be buckling down on mountaintop removal.  Maybe.  The coal industry is “pouring on the coal” (so to speak) in high-priced propaganda to resurrect lagging investment in coal-fired power plants, all the while scapegoating environmentalists.  High tension exists between coal supporters and those fighting abusive coal  practices.  The Copenhagen talks illustrate the difficulty in getting meaningful change.  So what gives us hope for 2010 and beyond?

In the Christian Bible, Hebrews 11 speaks to the nexus of hope and faith.  The first verse reads, Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. For by it the people of old received their commendation.” This is followed by a listing of numerous named and unnamed biblical heroes who pressed on in faith against seemingly insurmountable obstacles.  Some of them saw the fruits of their faith, others did not.  Some were victorious, others seemingly failed.  Yet God commends all of them for their faith, and what God commends will ultimately have its triumph.

Hebrews chapter 12 begins, “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, 2 looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.”

Our hope ultimately cannot be in the government, although it is important to influence government to a better good. Our hope cannot be in popular sentiment, for we know popular sentiment can be whimsical and capricious.  Still we should seek to influence others to a better good. Our hope cannot even be in ourselves, for down deep we are weak and we falter. Even so each of us needs to work on developing and disciplining our own character.

We have a choice to make. Hope or despair.  And despair leads to inaction, cynicism, and paralysis.  Hope for a healed, restored, and harmonious creation, coupled with our conviction that God wills this to be, inspires us to faith in action.  God takes up and uses our faith-inspired action, often in a way we cannot fathom or see.  Thus our hope is in God.

We have much ahead of us for 2010.  Keeping hope alive and strong is essential.  Let’s all encourage one another to be strong in hope!

–Allen Johnson

Sandra Sleight-Brennan produced a three part series for the Environment Report on NPR about Mountaintop Removal which aired this week.  Part 3 of the series focused on the role that relgious groups play in the fight against MTR and features Christians for the Mountains.  Please check out the story.

On January 21, thousands of people from all walks of life are coming together to call the White House. On this call, we are going to ask President Obama to:

  • Say YES to renewable energy.
  • Say YES to energy efficiency.
  • Say NO to carbon capture sequestration (CCS).
  • Say NO to nuclear power.

This day of action is being organized by CLEAN, a collaborative movement of organizations and individuals with the common goal of implementing a new energy future. The goal is for 10,000 calls to be made to President Obama on his first  day in office.  Christians for the Mountains has pledged to make 400 calls. Please help us reach this goal! Let President Obama know how you feel about clean energy, the role of coal in our country, and the extremely  devastating effects that Mountaintop Removal is having on Appalachian communities, culture, and and environment.

Go to the CLEAN website, and choose Christians for the Mountains as the organization you pledge to call on behalf of. You will be sent an email reminder close to January 21st. There is a sample script on the website, but feel free to use your own words.  Let President Obama know that your faith motivates you to take action for renewable energy and why it is important to you as a Christian that the United States take giant steps in transitioning toward a clean energy economy.

Share this with you friends and families.  This is your chance to let the new president know that clean energy should be one his top priorities.

Slurry Impoundment break in Tennessee

Slurry Impoundment break in Tennessee

It looks like God is at it again. 8 years ago 300 million gallons of coal slurry broke through its impoundment to ruin drinking water for 25,000 people, kill fish and other aquatic life, and make a big mess. The coal company claimed it was an “Act of God.”

Just this past Monday December 22 about 500 millions of the coal goo broke through an impoundment 40 miles east of Knoxville, Tennessee. Thankfully no one died as about 22 homes were gunked. Dead fish were reported downstream in a watershed that flows into the Tennessee River. The spill is about 30 times that of the well-known Valdez oil spill.

Tennessee Valley Authority spokesman Gil Francis spoke with reporters on Tuesday.
GIL FRANCIS: The ash pond is approximately forty acres. It’s an area where once the coal is burned, you stack the ash in a pond. And we’ve had about five inches of rain. We think that perhaps the rain and the freezing temperatures may be a contributing factor to the ash pond slide.
REPORTER: What is that dike made out of, and when was it last checked?
GIL FRANCIS: It’s an engineering constructed pond that you take the ash from the plant once the coal has been burned, and you stack it in a pond. And that’s what we did. And apparently the dike that was there failed, and as a result, there was an ash slide, like a mudslide.
REPORTER: Has it been checked recently?
GIL FRANCIS: Yes, it’s checked periodically. There is a schedule of inspections that are being done. I’ll have to get you the exact time it was checked last, but it is checked regularly.

Back to me. It seems like if the pesky freeze and 5 inches of rain had not happened, then the well-constructed, regularly inspected dam would not have broken. Seems like God is at fault, huh?

Which means that places like Marsh Fork Elementary School in Sundial, West Virginia, that lies underneath a massive coal slurry impoundment might not be safe, either, from a capricious God who doesn’t even respect the upcoming Chrismas season.

Do I sound cynical? Or am I simply sarcastic because I am so angry that these monstrous slurry impoundments continue to threaten and damage communities because big coal is the god that rules these areas.

Now is the time to take strong action to stop this dangerous practice!

See link for Democracy Now transcript  here.  http://www.democracynow.org/2008/12/24/spill_at_tennessee_coal_plant_creates