Witness to Appalachian Apocalypse: Coal Mining Process Blasts the Tops off Mountains

By Heffern, Rich | National Catholic Reporter, April 16, 2010 | Go to article overview

Witness to Appalachian Apocalypse: Coal Mining Process Blasts the Tops off Mountains


Heffern, Rich, National Catholic Reporter


Glenmary Fr. John Rausch has led tours in the Appalachia region for several years to call attention to a devastating method of coal extraction called mountaintop removal. A recent tow-ended on a mountaintop in eastern Kentucky where an assortment of interfaith leaders signed a joint statement calling their respective faith communities to act to stop the practice of mountaintop removal.

They also pledged to examine how their own lifestyles are driving this environmental disaster--and global warming--by the constant demand for cheap electricity from coal.

Rausch directs the Commission for Justice and Peace for the Lexington, Ky., diocese and the Catholic Committee of Appalachia, and he writes a syndicated column on faith and economics that appears in over 20 Catholic newspapers reaching over a half-million homes each month. Rausch has taught locally and internationally on sustainability, social development, worker rights and Catholic social teaching. In 2007 he received the USA Teacher of Peace Award from Pax Christi USA.

NCR: How did you get involved in activism to counter mountaintop removal?

Rausch: I'm a member of the Glenmary Home Missioners. We minister to rural America. My territory is eastern Kentucky

In 2002,I got a call from a minister in McRoberts, which is a small coal town located in the Cumberland mountains in eastern Kentucky. That town was built for only One reason, that of housing the men brought in to mine the coal field. The mines themselves long since gave way to the new coal mining process--mountaintop removal.

McRoberts hadn't had a flood since 1927, then there were five major floods in 18 months.

In 1998 Tampa Energy Company began clear-cutting all the vegetation then blasting away the mountain ridges above the town, filling the nearby valleys with debris. Deforestation and constant blasting from the mountaintop removal operations had sent the community into severe economic decline. Foundations of homes that had been stable for decades were cracked; homes and gardens were washed away in flash floods. Families were displaced. Insisting that it was an "act of God," the energy company and government inspectors took no responsibility for the suffering of the people of McRoberts.

In response to this, in December 2002, representatives of the faith community and environmentalists across Appalachia gathered atop a mining site in Letcher County near McRoberts to voice our concern over the loss of mountains and community. The protest site overlooked the wreckage of the recently flooded town. We called it the "Prayer on the Mountain."

The event was aimed at educating folks that protecting God's creation by stopping mountaintop removal is a spiritual duty of the faith community. Six months following the first "Prayer on the Mountain," a second prayer event was initiated. Twenty-five participants prayed and planted flowers at dozens of "stations" throughout McRoberts and the nearby town of Fleming-Neon. Each "station" was a home, building or other landmark affected by the flooding resulting from mountaintop removal.

Our aim was to pray the mountains back into life. We also got four bishops in Kentucky to sign a proclamation. We made the connection between human rights and the environment by holding the event on International Human Rights Day.

At the end of the service I gave everyone a handful of wildflower seeds. It was a cold and blustery day Instead of flinging the seeds and then getting in their cars, they intentionally went around that moonscape where not a blade of grass grew and they put the seeds in carefully selected places. It was sacred time. People didn't giggle or speak in loud tones but in whispers. One of the women said, "I'm sowing my community back."

What is mountaintop-removal coalmining?

Mountaintop removal is strip-mining on steroids. It's decapitating, blowing the head off a mountain.

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