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 has a great round-up of recent news surrounding the TVA spills in Tennessee and Alabama including various news articles, releases from TVA and other agencies, fact sheets on fly ash, coal waste, ecological risk, etc, photographs, and videos. Thank you ilovemountains for putting together this wonderful resource page.  Please check it out here.

Congressman Nick Rahall from southern WV, who also serves as the House Chairman of Natural Resources, is calling for federal regulations concerning coal ash dams.  Check out the Charleston Gazette article here.  But what good will this do? It is already painfully obvious that countless rules and regulation that are supposed to govern coal extraction and plants are not followed.  Furthermore, what use is a regulation with no one to enforce it?  Doesn’t the “P” in EPA and DEP stand for protection? Better yet, outlaw this sort of containment all together.  By using the dry-press method, there is no need for ponds that may potentially bust and release toxins. The slightly higher processing fee is worth protecting health and safety. Hopefully the tragedies in Harriman, Tennessee and at the Widow’s Creek plant in Alabama will serve as a wakeup call for policy makers, the new Presidential administration, and the American people that something needs to be done. Just think about the children that attend  Marsh Fork Elementary in southern WV. The school sits just “225 feet from a coal loading silo that releases chemical-laden coal dust and 400 yards from a 385 foot tall leaking sludge dam with a nearly 3 billion gallon capacity.” (Pennies of Promise) This is not the same material released at the TVA site, but is still extremely toxic and poses a tremendous threat.  Many of the children already suffer from nosebleeds, asthma, headaches, and much more. Just think of the unimaginable tragedy that would occur if this containment pond were to break as well.

In some cases, certain types of regulations create negative impacts on other ecological and health issues.  For example, The second TVA disaster in AL last Friday concerned Gypsum which is used as a “scrubber”, chemicals that are used in coal burning power plants to pull sulfur dioxide from the emissions in order to meet clean air standards. While this is good for the air, it creates a by-product that must be disposed of somehow, and in this case the gypsum spilled into the Tennessee river and damaged the water.  Regulations need to be formulated in a holistic manner and be truly enforced with severe consequences if not followed.

Is this what God had in mind when he called us to tend to his garden?  We must use what God has given us in responsible ways, and it is a possibility.  What is also very disturbing about these recent disasters is that they could have been prevented. There are methods in place to limit risk, but of course sometimes added safety  may mean an added cost. We must ask ourselves, what is best for the future of God’s creation- the environment and his children? In the long run, what has a higher cost, a small amount of money added to each ton to ensure, in multiple facets, a more ethical practice, OR the cost of cleaning up a major environmental disaster, the impact on health, safety, and ecosystems, and the cost of defiling God’s gift to humanity?

We must take action in order to protect our families, environment, and future.

  • Share this news with your friends and family.  Educate them and yourself about the TVA disasters.  Let them know that there are many other sites in similar danger.
  • Write or call your congressmen as well as those in affected areas.
  • Advocate for clean energy and responsible mining, processing, and containment behaviors.  One way you can do this is by pledging to make a call to the White House on Jan 21. the national call-in day hosted by CLEAN.  See previous post for details or just go here to sign up.

Both presidential candidates have made statements acknowledging that they support ending Mountain Top Removal Coal mining!  We are making progress in abolishing the destruction of the Appalachian Mountains, but our work is not over yet. Research both Obama and McCain’s stances on the issue. Inform yourself about the plans that each of them have concerning extraction practices.

Check out this article by Ken Ward Jr. in the Charleston Gazette that highlights what both candidates are saying about their position on coal mining pracitces.

Words are cheap, so ask them how they plan to stop Mountain Top Removal.  Find out how they will promote economic diversity in Appalachia and protect the health and heritage of the mountains and its people.  Let both of the know that you expect them to follow through with their promises.

Contact the Obama Campaign here

Contact the McCain Campaign here

Earth provides enough to satisfy every man’s need, but not every man’s greed.

Mahatma Ghandi

He makes springs pour water into the ravines; it flows between the mountains. They give water to all the beasts of the field; the wild donkeys quench their thirst. The birds of the air nest by the waters; they sing among the branches. He waters the mountains from his upper chambers; the earth is satisfied by the fruit of his work.

Psalm 104:10‑13

Boone Co. WV, Rt. 85, Lim White Branch and Big Branch Creek headwaters

Boone Co. WV, Rt. 85, Lim White Branch and Big Branch Creek headwater, courtesy Vivian Stockman, OVEC

Do you think this is what God had in mind for his creation?  Mountain Top Removal severely damages waterways in Appalachia.  Over 1000 miles of streams have been buried in valley fills.  This is an area longer than the Ohio River! (OVEC)  Just imagine, a vast area where fish and other aquatic life used to swim, where people used to fish and enjoy God’s beautiful work,  now filled in with coal rubble and gone forever.  Not only are streams destroyed, but local citizens must deal with contaminated water on a daily basis. Check out this video to witness a resident of Boone County, WV changing his water filter in Prenter Hollow.