Pilgrims listen to Maria Gunnoe, a local activist against Mountain Top Removal
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice, for they shall be satisfied.” (Mt 5:6)
A delegation from our diocese recently journeyed to West Virginia in Appalachia. The seeds for such a trip were planted over a year before when Sr. Robbie Pentecost, chair of the Catholic Committee on Appalachia, spoke in the Joliet Diocese about “Mountain Top Removal Mining.”
Carol Warren, Director of the Justice and Life Ministry Office of the Charleston, West Virginia Diocese, arranged meetings with leaders in coal industry, unions, local grassroots organization, church leaders, as well as those living where the mountain top removal continues to harm them and their environment. Each story we listened to immersed the group further into the reality of death and destruction, and of the resourceful, wise, loving, persevering persons working every day to end mountain top removal, despite overwhelming odds, relentless anger and deep, deep pain.
The level of courage and commitment evident in the grassroots leaders was remarkable. Rev. Larry Brown, pastor of Rawl Church of God in Jesus Name stands in the forefront in advocating for safe water for the people of the community there. Other pastors are reluctant to publicly appear with him. Water from the nearby well contains mercury, lead, arsenic, selenium, chromium, cadmium, and boron and fifty-three other toxins. The contaminated water has caused children and adults to lose their teeth, to contract pancreatic and other cancers, stomach and digestic tract disorders, auto-immune liver disease, osteoporosis, rashes and boils. The clergyman is the object of a lawsuit initiated by the owner of the coal company who says he has defamed his character and ruined his good name.
Because of a pending lawsuit against the coal company, Pastor Brown distributes bottled water to those named in the suit. However, some residents, afraid of countering the coal company, are not named in the suit, and therefore cannot receive any of that water. Fortunately, Larry’s lawyer donated water for the other residents. However, neither the residents named or unamed in the suit receive enough water for bathing, so the toxins still penetrate their pores. (Monetary donations to assist the people of Mingo County may be sent to : Rev. Larry & Brenda Brown, c/o Church of God in Jesus Name, P. O. Box 185, Rawl, W. Virginia 25691).
Maria Gunnoe, a resident of Bob White in Boone County, has opposed “Mountain Top Removal Mining” for the past six years. Since that time she has lost two access bridges, the use of her water, five acres of land and the ability to grow and harvest nuts, fruits, and vegetables as she did in the past. Further, she has endured severe damage to her home and property because of explosions and flooding, and seen her children harassed (because of her advocacy), her family breathe in dust and toxic gases from the mountain top explosions, had sand put into her truck’s gas tank, and two of the family’s dogs shot dead. Maria wrote, “I went from crying-sobbing-to being very mad. This was three years ago, and I’m still mad. And honestly, I’m a little madder than I was then because I realize how many tentacles this evil has.”
When she spoke to us at Kayford Mountain, the site of one of the largest “Mountain Top Removal”areas, I looked into her pain-filled eyes and asked her how she copes. Ms. Gunnoe replied, “I think of my children and their future. You don’t give up on that and walk away.” Maria remarked that her Cherokee ancestors hid in the Appalachian mountains many years ago, avoiding the US government, and now they have found her family and want to take the land from them once again.
We also met Charles and Chuck, two former union coal miners. Charles spoke of how much he loved coal mining. He worked for Bethlehem Coal Company until it was bought out by Massey Coal. The takeover occurred shortly before he would have received retirement benefits. Chuck was a union miner. He contracted black lung and also had to return to the usual coal mining work load only four weeks after triple bi-pass heart surgery. They even made him wear the thick belt which irritated his incision. Today, despite his breathing difficulties, he cannot get health benefits. He told me that he continues each day to advocate on line and to e-mail people. His anger gives him energy to spread the word and enlarge his network daily.
All of us were very impressed with the Appalachian people we met. As Carol Warren wrote in her introduction to Like Walking on Another Planet: “The people with whom I walk are not voiceless. They speak with eloquence, grace, and an unusual clarity. Their words, their stories have a power all their own, reflecting the wisdom gained through years of struggle.”
We can take action in a spirit of “mutuality” with them. Some of the coal from West Virginia is purchased by energy suppliers here in Illinois. If we can reduce our consumption of electricity, we encourage a reduction in mountain top removal. Also, when our schools, churches, and public buildings are being built or remodeled, we can encourage energy efficiency, use of alternative, clean energy sources, LED’s, recycle. Jeff Barrie’s documentary, Kilowatt Ours is a great resource for energy saving tips. You can order a copy at www.kilowattours.org
Be aware of these addresses for more information:
Legislative and other action updates: www.paxjoliet.org
Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition (OVEC): www.ohvec.org
Sludge Safety Project: www.sludgesafety.org
Sierra Club-Environmental Justice, Charleston, W. V.: firstname.lastname@example.org
Coal River Mountain Watch (CRMW): email@example.com
Keeper of the Mountains Foundation: firstname.lastname@example.org
Christians for the Mountains: www.christiansforthemountains.org
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