A Catholic Bishop Speaks Out Against Mountaintop Removal

Reprinted from the Catholic Virginian. First published on January 16, 2004.

About 10 days before Christmas, I together with Steve Colecchi of our Justice and Peace Office traveled to eastern Kentucky to join a delegation of church leaders who wanted to experience the devastating environmental disaster of “mountain top removal.” Our delegation included Bishop Ronald W. Gainer of the Diocese of Lexington, Ky. and Bishop Joseph E. Kurtz of the Diocese of Knoxville, Tenn.

The group also included representatives from the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston, W.VA. All four of the participating dioceses are located in the central region of Appalachia and what is commonly called “mountain top removal” is taking place in all four dioceses.

I first heard about this latest coal mining technique when I was the keynote speaker at the Bishop Begley Appalachian Seminar sponsored by the Diocese of Charlotte. Father John Rausch, a Glenmary priest now working for the Diocese of Lexington, enlightened me about this environmental disaster. When I first heard about it, I presupposed that MTR (“mountain top removal”) was just another version of the strip mining which has for so long plagued the coal producing states of Central Appalachia.

I quickly realized that it is not sufficient just to read about this new mining technique to fully grasp its uniquely devastating nature. I had to see the effects for myself. I had to see, taste, feel and smell in order to experience truly what is occurring in the beautiful mountain region of Appalachia. I had to encounter firsthand the disastrous negative effects on the mountain people. I was determined to organize a delegation to – see, judge and act – on the proper response of the Church in our four dioceses.

On Tuesday, Dec. 16, we met at the airport in Hazzard, Ky. to rent a plane to fly over the mountains in the area for a bird’s eye view of what was being done to the mountain tops. It might have been fortuitous that the wind increased to a point that it became too hazardous to fly. I was somewhat uncomfortable about taking the flight and so I was somewhat relieved at the cancellation.

We then continued on with the rest of our plans and our party joined us at the Hindman Settlement School in Hindman, Ky. The school was founded in 1902 to provide educational opportunities for boys and girls with learning disabilities while keeping them in the area so that they wouldn’t lose touch with their heritage and could have access to community service activities. The facilities of a large meeting room and overnight accommodations were ideal for our gathering of around 30 persons, half of whom were local people.

Our program began with dialogue with representatives of the mining industry who emphasized that the “mountain top removal” approach to mining provides jobs for people of an impoverished area, contending also that flattening the mountains makes additional land available for industry. The mining companies claim to do quality reclamation for schools and industry and also emphasize that corporations involved in this kind of mining are paying a 100 million dollars in state taxes.
It all sounded quite credible because about half of all mined coal comes from Central Appalachia. After two hours of listening and some dialogue, our delegation drove to a site where “mountain top removal” is occurring. We saw for ourselves a huge area in which the top of a mountain had literally been lopped off. Rocks, debris, toxic chemicals and trees were simply dumped over the side of the mountain, adding to the devastation of the land and “hollers” below.
While money making and corporate profit provide an advantage to some people, the human costs and environmental degradation were never mentioned by our first groups of speakers.

That Tuesday evening we heard from those adversely affected by MTR at the foot of the mountains. Dynamiting is the chief way to level mountains. Blasting knocks houses from their foundations and causes contamination to existing wells and drinking water supplies. The clear cutting of trees causes rapid run-off of rain which fills existing creeks and streams with sediment causing extensive flooding in low lying areas. The impact of such mining on individuals does not receive a welcome response from the Federal Regulatory Agency, and there is no related law enforcement from the Clean Water Act. People find themselves helpless in making any effective response.

I should note here that when coal is predominant so is poverty in the lives of people. Central Appalachia is rich in natural resources but poverty and depressed lives exist side by side.

The hearings from local folks were certainly an eye opener and an ear opener for me and our delegation. People whose families have lived in the mountain areas for over a century can see that what once was a beautiful mountainside with trees and vegetation, plants and animal life is now a landscape of mud, rock and barrenness.

One person mentioned that in three years their family was flooded out nine times. Wells are now becoming toxic and drinking water is a health hazard, especially for children. Increasingly people are being forced to move from their homes with no place to go. Established communities are breaking up and people’s lives are being destroyed. Perhaps worst of all, nobody cares. As soon as people seek compensation for the harm caused them, companies simply declare bankruptcy.

People continue to pay the price.

Since becoming Bishop of Richmond in 1974, I have been actively involved with the people of Appalachia. The Church needs to stand with those who live lives of hopelessness and helplessness. The mountain culture and its way life are being destroyed.

Thankfully, the Catholic Committee of Appalachia (CCA), under the direction of Sister Robbie Pentecost and the many Church workers in the area, are willing to stand up and be counted. “Mountain top removal” is just another example of profit taking preference over the lives of people, where the powerful wage a different kind of war against the powerless.

This moving piece by Bishop Emeritus Walter Sullivan was originally printed in the Catholic Virginian, the official newspaper of the Catholic Diocese of Richmond. To learn more about the Catholic Virginian newspaper and the Diocese of Richmond, visit: http://www.richmonddiocese.org.

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