Faith A Factor On Both Sides Of Appalachian Coal Debates

Way back in December, I was very intrigued by a Louisville (KY) Courier-Journal headline: "Religion shaping mountain-top removal debate in Appalachia coal country." The crux of the article was basically that there are faith activists on each side of Appalachia's coal debate. Fortunately, recent developments are more encouraging. From the article:

On a remote slope in Floyd County in November, about 50 people gathered for a late-afternoon worship service alongside a pond designed to catch sediment from a surface coal mine. As coal trucks rumbled over the ridge above them, the worshipers sang hymns customized for the occasion - extolling the beauty of nature and its vulnerability to "folks with wealth" who "slash and burn and clear the ground."

Participants poured out vessels of water and soil to bless "the soil that has been damaged by this activity," said Sister Robbie Pentecost, a Roman Catholic nun who has worked for years on poverty and the environment in Appalachia...

But mining advocates also are drawing outside religious help to advance their cause. Jeff Fugate, pastor of a large independent Baptist church in Lexington, has launched a high-profile campaign in favor of coal, linking it to his opposition to expanded gambling.

"We have environmentalists today that are shutting down the working of coal mining in the mountain region, deciding that we must save the streams and the animals there," he said in a November sermon at Clays Mill Road Baptist Church, which draws more than 1,600 a week. "... Then that same crowd wants to bring about predatory gambling to a state that is hurting financially and is struggling to provide jobs already."

Pastor Jeff's worries about unrelated gambling issues are completely beside the point. Not one of the pro-coal activists in the article talked about the 24,000 Americans killed each year by coal soot, the 25 pounds of mercury produced by 100mw coal plants, or the streams and drinking water destroyed by mountaintops pushed into valleys. Forget good stewardship of the land; this is a health issue we're talking about here.

Fortunately, the tide does seem to be turning towards justice. Restoring Eden, once of several major faith-based environmental groups, announced in their monthly newsletter today that their latest hire will focus almost exclusively on ending mountaintop removal mining.

Restoring Eden is excited to welcome Anna Jane Joyner to our team... Anna Jane is excited to lead Restoring Eden's efforts to end the tragedy of mountaintop removal in Appalachia. Hailing from the mountains of North Carolina, this issue is particularly near to her heart. To learn more about the destructive practice of mountaintop removal, visit our website.

As Christians we are called to be good stewards of God's creation and to protect our vulnerable neighbors. Mountaintop removal is destroying God's creation and hurting God's people. We are called to be the hands and feet of God - enactors of ways of living and being that reflect Christ's love; protectors of the poor and vulnerable; and stewards of God's creation.

The new position at Restoring Eden follows pushes for clean energy legislation from groups like Interfaith Power & Light and Earth Ministry.

The Sierra Club and other national non-profits have done great work fighting new and expanded coal plants over the past few years, but the fight against this deadly energy source won't be won in conservative, "traditional" places like Appalachia without the support of local faith communities. These are very encouraging developments.

Help Robert Byrd Stop Mountaintop Removal Mining

Today is all about health care, as well it should be - but I want to take a minute to look not at how we can cure sick people, but at one way we can help prevent them from getting sick in the first place. According to the NRDC, "Coal-burning power plants are the largest U.S. source of carbon dioxide pollution -- they produce 2.5 billion tons every year. Automobiles, the second largest source, create nearly 1.5 billion tons of CO2 annually."

From the Clean Water Act violations caused by mountaintop removal mining to the hurricanes and droughts that global warming will cause to the thousands of lives shortened every year by coal-fired power plants and mines, there's no two ways around it: coal kills. And yet because of the thousands of jobs coal provides in West Virginia, Kentucky, Pennsylvania, and Wyoming, coal is also king. Legalized prostitution and drug markets would also create thousands of jobs, and yet they stay banned, as well they should. Job creation is not a valid excuse for destroying the lives of children and the future of the planet - something coal state politicians seem to have forgotten.

Until now. Politico had this jaw-dropping story yesterday:

In an early December op-ed piece released by his office -- also recorded on audio by the frail 92-year-old senator -- [Senator Robert] Byrd argued that resistance to constraints on mountaintop-removal coal mining and a failure to acknowledge that "the truth is that some form of climate legislation will likely become public policy" represent the real threat to the future of coal.

"Change has been a constant throughout the history of our coal industry," Byrd said in the 1,161-word statement. "West Virginians can choose to anticipate change and adapt to it or resist and be overrun by it. One thing is clear: The time has arrived for the people of the Mountain State to think long and hard about which course they want to choose."

In almost any other state, Byrd's remarks might not have caused such a stir. But in West Virginia, where the coal industry -- even in its currently diminished form -- accounts for 30,000 jobs and more than $3.5 billion in gross annual product and provides roughly half of all American coal exports, according to the state coal association, his statement reverberated across the political landscape.

Earlier this month, I suggested donating to the Senate campaign of Kentucky Attorney General Jack Conway as a way to help stop mountaintop removal mining, given that his primary opponent, Lt. Gov. Dan Mongiardo, is an unabashed supporter of the method that creates floods and destroys drinking water. I've made my (small) contribution; have you?

Here's another, easier way you can help stop mountaintop removal mining. A new Sierra Club action alert says that the Interior Department is poised to reverse some Bush-era coal regulations but is facing pressure from the coal industry and asks readers to send the Department a public comment urging them to proceed with strengthening the rules. Please take the ten seconds to forward the Sierra Club's comments to the Department, or to write your own.

The Department of Interior and its Office of Surface Mining have publicly stated that they intend to revise the "Stream Buffer Zone Rule," a decades-old prohibition on surface mining activities within 100 feet of flowing streams, which was gutted by the Bush Administration.

But Big Coal is already pressuring the Obama Administration to keep the destructive Bush policies in place. We need your help to flood the Department of Interior with messages supporting the restoration of these necessary safeguards.

Interior Secretary Salazar needs to hear from you before the December 30th deadline for public comments.

Communities throughout the Appalachian region suffer daily from contaminated drinking water, increased flooding, and a decimated landscape resulting from the damage and destruction wreaked on thousands of miles of streams by mountaintop-removal coal mining.  Reinstating and enforcing the 100 foot prohibition in the Stream Buffer Zone rule will rein in the reckless mining that has ravaged Appalachia.

There's more...

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