One Saturday this fall, six members from the Center for Religion and Environment’s “Earthkeepers” campus group (Suzanne Cate, Emily Ezell, Robin Gottfried, Derrick Hill, Sr. Madeleine Mary, and Bran Potter), loaded up a university van and headed for West Virginia to see mountain top removal (MTR) up close and to talk with people affected by it. Sage Phillips-Vekasi of Christians for the Mountains organized the group’s itinerary. Along the way, they walked along the creek and cooked supper in Camp Creek State Park. The next morning, the group attended the Eucharist at the Church of the Redeemer in Ansted, where they talked with parishioners about coal and jobs in the area and their concerns about MTR.
They also had the opportunity to speak with the Bishop, who was there for a baptism, about “fraccing,” a new issue facing much of Appalachia from Alabama to New York. Fraccing, or hydraulic fracturing, involves drilling thousands of feet into the earth and then drilling laterally to allow high pressure injection of fluids into shale. This fractures the shale and releases natural gas trapped in the shale, gas which then is piped to the surface. While offering great potential for energy in the U.S., the process also may threaten water supplies by disrupting aquifers and possibly contaminating them with chemicals. Fraccing also provides landowners potentially highly profitable leases and royalties. How should churches and churchgoers in depressed areas of Appalachia respond to highly profitable leases, which can provide sorely needed income, when the environmental effects are uncertain but potentially serious and the energy reduces our dependence on oil and coal?
During a hike in the New River Gorge National River area, Potter shared information about the geology of the region and the basis for the mining that went on in the gorge.
After the hike the group met Stephanie Tyree in Fayetteville to learn about the Sludge Safety Project. After coal is mined, it needs to be cleaned before it can be sent to the power plants to be used. The sludge that results either gets pumped into earthen impoundment dams or injected into old underground mines. Some dams have leaked or failed, polluting streams with heavy metals and destroying downstream communities via disastrous floods. When injected into mines, the sludge all too often has entered well water, causing serious health issues. Because for years no one monitored the location of these injection wells, citizens worry that fraccing may release even more sludge into aquifers.
The next day the Sewanee group visited Tamarack, a state-sponsored economic development project that sells crafts from around the state, then we headed for Kayford Mountain to meet Larry Gibson at his home. Gibson is an eloquent man whose remaining 50 acres of ancestral land is surrounded by a 12,000 acre MTR site. He spoke from the heart about what the loss of the mountains means to him and to others, and about the conflicts and violence that MTR has generated in the community.
Next was a visit to Whitesville, a struggling mining town that was the site of the Upper Big Branch mine disaster last spring. There the group met with members of the Coal River Mountain Watch, who described why they have gotten involved in local environmental issues and the programs they have instituted to address them. These projects include a successful multi-year campaign to move an elementary school out from under a coal sludge impoundment that still threatens Whitesville, a campaign to substitute a wind farm for a MTR project, and SEED, “a community organizing effort to develop alternative economic options and community-owned renewable energy.”
A visit followed to the Boone Raleigh Community Group and its director, Lorelei Scarboro. Scarboro, who has been outspoken in her opposition to MTR, came to realize that the issue had divided the Coal River community. She and others established this Center to provide neutral ground where those for and against the mining can work on projects that start healing the community and that provide the basis for job creation and a more diversified economy.
Dinner that evening was in Rock Creek at the “Campaign Houses,” small houses shared by a number of grassroots groups focused on MTR issues. The program staff members live in the houses and share cooks who provide food for the entire group. The scene was of active, socially conscious young people living and creatively working together to address social problems. The group returned to Sewanee with the task of digesting all that they saw and heard.