The Common Good

King Coal: Ruling Principality and Power in West Virginia

In this month's Sojourners, Onleilove Alston takes a spiritually inflected look at coal country, where last month's EPA decision to ban much mountaintop removal mining was only one step in a much longer journey of healing -- for people's bodies, communities, and environment -- that needs to take place. Here's a meditation on the subject from one of Alston's interviewees, Christians for the Mountains co-founder Allen Johnson:

"King Coal" is the proud nomenclature for the coal industry that rules West Virginia. For the past 130 years King Coal has been my state's driving economic, cultural, political, and (I will contend) spiritual force. Coal is omnipresent, eternal, and (so it purports) omniscient. Like Egyptian pharaohs of old, the coal industry wrings its pound of flesh from lung-choked workers, blighted communities, and once lovely mountains and clear-running streams.

Yet the coal industry and its lockstep political and business allies keep promising that my state's future is with coal. "Coal is wonderful for us," we are incessantly told, "Our great present blessing and our black diamond future."

Black diamond? Take a drive through the heart of the coal mining communities where enormous wealth carts out every day on endless coal trains and barges. Like Boone County, West Virginia, where massive mining operations decapitate mountains for thin seams of coal, then shove the 97% remaining overburden rock into the adjacent valleys. Boone County coal severance fees are a cash cow for the state's coffers. Yet formerly bustling towns are ghosted. Housing by and large smacks of poverty. If this is the prosperity coal brings communities, spare us, please!

West Virginia drags along the bottom of state rankings of many important "quality of life" indices. Forbes online magazine, the redoubtable capitalist booster band, has ranked West Virginia #50 in life satisfaction, physical health, emotional health, and quality of environment. A wide array of statistical findings places the state dismally near the bottom in categories ranging from obesity to college educated populace to library funding to business climate to smoking.

How does this square with blaming coal? West Virginia University professor Michael Hendryx recently concluded a study, "Mortality in Appalachian Coal Mining Regions: The Statistical Value of Lives Lost." The findings show "the heaviest coal mining areas in Appalachia have the worst socioeconomic conditions." Those conditions include poor health and morbidity. The positive economic gain of coal is vastly outweighed by the excess deaths attributable to coal pollution.

Meanwhile local, state, and national political leaders bow their knees low, long, and submissively to King Coal. As coal's servants, their jobs become defending their king from the insults and threats of environmentalists and alternative energy proponents. I often watch in stunned disillusion as various statesmen, many of whom I admire and appreciate for excellent work on other social issues, roll over for coal. For example, meaningful proposed legislation to roll back climate change faces stiff resistance from coal state politicians, whose acquiescence will at minimum require many billions of funding dollars for unproven "clean coal" technology.

"Coal keeps the lights on," I'm told whenever I have the audacity to challenge King Coal. I have to admit that truth, since over half the electric power generated in the United States is coal-fired (including the electricity I'm using as I write). Coal employs workers. True enough, although mechanization has reduced the mine work force from a high in West Virginia of 120,000 to about 15,000 today. Coal jobs pay well, especially since many coal-producing regions offer no other comparable employment. King Coal is jealous of competition. "Thou shalt have no other industries beside me."

What does one do when enmeshed within structures whose benefits are at the price of our enslavement? Jesus teaches us to pray, to cry out, "deliver us from evil."

Allen Johnson is co-founder of Christians for the Mountains.

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