Religious Leaders Tour Kentucky Coal Mining Sites, Praying for End to Mountaintop Removal
VICCO, Ky. -- Amid a backdrop of bulldozers, warning sirens and mine blasts, demonstrators bowed their heads and prayed for the land, the water and mostly for an end to the practice of removing mountaintops to extract coal.
"Let's pray for a time when we can stop defiling the land," said Allen Johnson, co-founder of Christians for the Mountains in West Virginia and one of about two dozen religious leaders who signed a statement Wednesday against mountaintop removal.
The outdoor prayer ceremony wrapped up a two-day tour of eastern Kentucky's mountains where mountaintop removal brings difficult trade-offs: it damages the environment, but provides jobs for thousands of people in a region heavily reliant on coal as its economic engine.
The Rev. John Rausch, a Catholic priest from Stanton who organized the non-denominational tour, said the coal industry has created a "false dichotomy" between jobs and the environment.
When asked what he would tell miners who depend on mountaintop removal for their livelihood, Rausch said: "`What's good for you may not be good for the community.' I certainly appreciate workers being in that position, but they need to begin transitioning out of that."
The religious opposition reflects a trend of more people of faith taking stands on environmental issues. In some cases it has united traditionally conservative evangelists with liberal conservationists.
In February, 86 evangelical pastors, college presidents and theologians signed a letter calling on Christians and the government to fight global warming.
The Southern Baptist Convention, the nation's largest Protestant denomination, adopted a resolution in June denouncing environmental activism and warning that it could "become a wedge issue to divide the evangelical community."
The religious leaders, who included people from as far away as California and Washington state, said they signed the statement opposing mountaintop removal out of an obligation to protect God's work.
"People of faith are motivated by their belief in God, and God tells us to take care of creation," said Chris Elisara, executive director of the Creation Care Study Program in Julian, Calif.
Bill Caylor, president of the Kentucky Coal Association, said the religious leaders were drawing on emotions more than fact.
"They're wanting to do nothing and offer no jobs in return," Caylor said. "I find it frustrating when people use religion to justify their position."
He added that mountaintop removal affects less than 7 percent of Appalachia.
Brian Patton, president of James River Coal Co., which runs several surface mines and a mountaintop removal operation, said the demonstrators were taking a "narrow view of things."
"As a Christian, I've been taught to worry about saving souls as opposed to environmental issues," said Patton, a deacon at the Calvary Baptist Church in Lexington.
He added that it's "hypocritical to single out mining" because other industries and commercial development also affect the environment.
The leaders learned about the effects of mountaintop removal through fly-overs of surface mines and testimonials from local residents concerned about dirty drinking water and the loss of wildlife and vegetation.
On Wednesday, the group heard from McKinley Sumner, who has tried to fend off a Hazard-based mining company for years. International Coal Group has already blasted away roughly 25 feet of Sumner's 63 acres, according to a recent property survey.
The prayer ceremony was held along the scarred edge of Sumner's property, which overlooks bulldozers carrying coal and the daily explosions.
A loud blast stirred the predominantly Christian delegation as it opened the ceremony with the first few verses of "Amazing Grace."
The group meditated over small containers of water and soil before reciting and signing the statement which read in part, "Our voices will retell the testimony we have heard and the destruction we have seen through our sermons, writings and conversations."
Sumner said he appreciated the group's visit and efforts to bring attention to the issue.
"Sometimes prayers are answered, sometimes they're not," he said. "I think it will make an impact."
Source: Associated Press