According to Wikipedia, an “Act of God” is a legal term for events outside of human control, such as sudden floods or other natural disasters. This term is used in litigation and in insurance contracts and can exclude a person or company from liability in an accident when certain unforeseen events occur. Coal companies and their attorneys have used this term to absolve themselves of culpability in recent catastrophes associated with the coal mining practice of Mountain Top Removal (MTR). One such “Act of God” was the sludge pond failure at a Massey Energy site in Martin County, Kentucky that resulted in a spill of 300 million gallons of toxic waste that buried wildlife and contaminated drinking water for miles downstream. Although I realize that the “Act of God” term is simply legal jargon and it is not meant to offend anyone or make any kind of assumptions about who God is or how God acts, it still bothers me that the term is used to describe such horrible destruction that is caused by coal companies and not by God.
On a recent trip to the coal fields of West Virginia, a small group from the Joliet Catholic Diocese encountered what I consider to be a true “Act of God”. One of the reasons we traveled to West Virginia was to view a major MTR site in person. MTR is a relatively new strip mining practice. First, the topsoil, plants, and trees are scraped off the top of a mountain and dumped into an adjacent valley. Then, the top of the mountain is blasted off with powerful explosives to get to the seams of coal hidden below. The rock, called overburden, is also pushed into the valley. This violent disturbance of the natural landscape obliterates streams, causes flash flooding, and leaves a scarred, lifeless wasteland in its place. We had seen photographs in books and on websites, but we were told seeing the destruction first hand would be more powerful and more action-inspiring. God had other plans for us on the drizzly and damp November day that we trekked up to Kayford Mountain. When we climbed over the gates, appropriately named “the Gates of Hell”, to view the site, a thick cloud settled into the gaping hole of the huge MTR site so that we could see nothing. The persistent drone of the dragline and the ominous rumble of massive trucks could be heard in the distance beneath the clouds, but we could not see any of the scarred land or the machines doing the damage. Perhaps with that cloud God was directing our attention away from the pain of the ravaged land and toward the pain of the people. Because of the lack of visibility, we focused our attention on the people we met, the people who are living this nightmare.
Maria Gunnoe led us in her cherry red pick-up truck up the narrow, winding roads to Kayford Mountain on that day. Maria lives in Bob White, West Virginia and when a mountain top removal site opened up near her home she began experiencing severe flooding. She has suffered the loss of property value, the loss of her fruit trees and other plants growing on her property, and the loss of her sense of security and peace of mind. With her Cherokee ancestry, Maria probably has more right to the land in this area than any one else. Most Americans are descended from immigrants to this country – her people lived here in harmony with nature long before the Europeans even arrived on the continent. Maria explained that her people had been forced to leave their ancestral lands in the region of the Carolinas when the Indian Removal Act was signed by President Andrew Jackson for reasons of national security. Rather than leave their homeplace, Maria’s ancestors fled north to the hollers of West Virginia to avoid the horrors of the Trail of Tears. Now, Maria feels her family is once again being forced off of their land by a new terror; this time it’s mountaintop removal.
Our minivan barely made it up the steep and bumpy dirt roads, but when we eventually succeeded in reaching Larry Gibson’s property up on the mountain we were greeted by Charles Stanley, Larry’s brother-in-law, and Chuck Nelson. Both had been underground miners and both had the health problems and black lung to prove it. Charles walked us across the property and later welcomed us into his trailer and served us hot coffee and cookies. Charles, Chuck, and Maria treated us like family as they shared stories about mining, local wildlife, hunting in the mountains, and the experience of living in the shadow of a mountaintop removal operation.
Charles told us how much he loved being a coal miner, despite the hard work and danger. He had worked on coal seams that were only about 40 inches thick, so he spent his days working on his knees. Chuck had worked in both union mines and non-union mines and he knew first hand that there were marked differences between the two in terms of safety, benefits, and health issues. Talking with these men and Maria was a wonderful experience. They truly helped us to understand their sense of loss by expressing some of the things they love about their lives in the mountains.
The beauty of the natural landscape in the mountains of West Virginia adds an additional element to this issue. One cannot be in the presence of those mountains without feeling their embrace. Even on a gray, foggy day, walking on Larry Gibson’s property on Kayford is a feast for the senses: the crunching sound of the leaves, the fresh aroma of the wet trees and soil, and the sight of the fog weaving through the tree trunks. It is not surprising that the Bible is filled with references to mountains, for experiencing the mountains is a spiritual event. Imagine growing up in the mountains and forming your family traditions based on experiences shared in this unique landscape. No place else could ever truly feel like home if you lived, worked, and played in these forests, streams, and hollers, surrounded by the comforting presence of the mountains. Now imagine the agony of watching your mountains, along with the rich traditions attached to them, being blown away one mountaintop at a time.
On a visit to the town of Rawl near Williamson, West Virginia, our group met Pastor Larry Brown of the Church of God in Jesus’ Name. Pastor Brown is a striking example of determination, inspiration, and courage. He eloquently spoke of his calling to do God’s will and to stand up for his community’s right to clean water. Using the imagery of the mountains in a manner befitting an inspired preacher, he stood up and explained how God had asked him to climb the higher mountain, to conquer the tougher obstacles. He has taken the challenge to stand up for what is right and he now finds himself to be a target of one of the most powerful and infamous coal barons in Appalachia, namely Don Blankenship, CEO of Massey Energy.
Dianne Bady, a founding member of the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition (OVEC), introduced us to pastor Brown and explained the situation in Rawl. Massey Energy has an MTR site just over the ridge from Rawl and on that site is a large slurry impoundment. A slurry impoundment is basically a large pond holding the by-products of the coal washing process that goes along with MTR. The coal is treated with a liquid containing various chemicals such as selenium, barium, lead, cadmium, arsenic, and other toxic materials to remove certain impurities. The left over material is a thick black sludge that is stored in a pond held back by an earthen dam. This toxic “soup” can seep into cracks in the rock and contaminate ground water and wells. This is what has apparently happened to the well that supplies water to the residents of Rawl and the surrounding towns.
Pastor Brown and his wife Brenda told us about the problems they have had with their water. Many folks have skin sores from bathing in this water. All kinds of health problems have surfaced in the people who had been drinking the contaminated water, including kidney stones, thyroid problems, loss of teeth, and various stomach ailments. OVEC helped to bring about a court order requiring Massey Energy to provide Rawl with an alternate water supply from the nearby city of Williamson, and to provide bottled water to the people listed in the law suit until the new system is operational. Pastor Brown and his wife now work to distribute the bottled water. His biggest challenge is that he is only allowed to give water to those listed on the suit; if he gives water out to others in need, he will be in violation of the order. Thankfully, one of the attorneys in the case has donated some water to be given to other people who show up at Pastor Brown’s door asking for water. Pastor Brown and his wife Brenda demonstrate the bravery and determination to climb the higher mountain everyday – they are not afraid to defend their community against the rich and powerful Massey Energy.
As you travel the winding roads through the mountains, you will see train loads of coal with car after car filled to capacity. Seeing such vast amounts of coal shows in a concrete way that we as American consumers are demanding huge amounts of coal to feed our ravenous appetite for energy. The coal companies see the potential for huge profits. We all want cheap electricity to feed our ever-increasing hunger for technology, but what we fail to recognize is that our use of coal is actually anything but cheap. Just talk to the people of West Virginia. Everything has a real cost and when one group pays less, inevitably another group will have to compensate. Appalachians are paying for our cheap coal with their health, their homes, their heritage, their children’s futures, and sometimes with their lives. Although we don’t realize it, we are all paying high hidden prices for coal-generated electricity across the country. Pollution from coal-fired plants is poisoning us all with mercury and adding particulate matter to our air causing an increased incidence of asthma and other respiratory ailments. The high amount of carbon dioxide generated is significantly adding to global warming that affects all of us on the planet.
Destruction of the Appalachian Mountains is a tragedy for all Americans. The beauty and the culture that grew up there is an integral part of the spirit of this country. It is sinful to tear these mountains down. There must be a more responsible way to get the coal we need and, if not, the coal should stay buried and we should use alternate energy sources. Carol Warren, the Director of the Justice and Life Office for the Charleston Diocese and our mentor on the trip, has found a way to live more responsibly. She and her husband have installed a unique system at their mountain home which combines a windmill and solar panels. The technology is already available; we just need the will and dedication to utilize it. In the words of Maria Gunnoe, “People have said that God put the coal here in these mountains for us to mine. I disagree. I think he buried it up here because it’s so nasty!”
During our time in West Virginia, we saw and experienced so much more than the panoramic view of death and destruction we expected to see. We felt the warmth and hospitality of the people of Kayford Mountain and of the town of Rawl; we heard their stories, we saw their pain at the loss of their home place, we experienced the connectedness and oneness we share. We met amazing, strong, articulate people who are only asking for what should rightfully be theirs; namely clean water and life without fear of flooding, flying debris, and destruction of land and property. We were witnesses to the strength and pride of the courageous citizens working for justice. Our eyes were opened to our own culpability in the destruction of the unique and irreplaceable mountains and the exploitation of the local citizens. We came home from West Virginia with a renewed commitment to spread awareness about the true cost of coal mining and to encourage energy efficiency and the use of alternative energy sources. To our small group from the Joliet Diocese, it was truly an “Act of God” that we were given the opportunity to “see”, to learn, and to know the people we met on our journey. Our challenge and responsibility now is to act and to be used for God’s purposes armed with our new knowledge and understanding of the issues faced by the people of the Appalachian Mountains.