Frontline Dispatch from the War on Coal | Sojourners

Frontline Dispatch from the War on Coal

Allen McDavid Stoddard /
Allen McDavid Stoddard /

Like sifted coal, the dust is settling after the recent election in the “War On Coal” zone in West Virginia and Kentucky. Ungloved fisted hands lifted high in victory, King Coal. Knocked out cold on the canvas, contenders misleadingly accused of having President Obama and his dreaded coal-killing EPA in their corner.

The campaign propaganda was drearily repetitive. The syllogistic script for Republicans, “My opponent is a Democrat. President Obama is a Democrat whose EPA is killing coal jobs. Therefore my opponent will kill your coal jobs.” Democrat candidates protested vigorously, “As top priority, we will fight to bring the EPA to its knees, and bring coal jobs back!”

It’s been decades since any semblance of a coal boom economy. Comparable coal tonnage is still coming out of Appalachian ground. Machines and explosives began replacing most of the miners in the 1950s. In recent years, Appalachian coal commerce has been facing competitive market realities of cheaper coal mined further west along with a natural gas surfeit. With thicker, accessible Appalachian coal veins long mined out, profitability can still be realized by shaving environmental and safety corners and restoring market demand. The Environmental Protection Agency stands in the way, or so mining communities are told.

I turn to the EPA website and read, “the mission of EPA is to protect human health and the environment.” The first listed EPA purpose is that “all Americans are protected from significant risks to human health and the environment where they live, learn and work.”

Virtually unchanged for the past five consecutive years, the annual Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index ranks Kentucky at 49 and West Virginia at 50 in physical health. Nonetheless, many of these states’ congressional leaders vow their “extreme aggression” to weaken and curtail what they allege is an “out of control EPA.” Meanwhile, two dozen peer-reviewed studies in mountaintop removal communities show markedly elevated rates of respiratory, cardiovascular, and cancer diseases, and significantly higher birth defects.

On Dec. 1 some of us “Friends of the Mountains” huddle together in a church basement in Charleston, W.Va. Do we see any light? Most of us are long-time veterans in this struggle. We discuss strategy on the Appalachian Community Health Emergency “ACHE Act” (HR 526), which calls for a freeze on new mountaintop removal permits along with a federal health study on communities impacted by this massive coal extraction process. Someone reports that a Republican congressman is considering cosponsoring the reintroduction of the ACHE Act. That would be huge. We decide to hold community meetings to educate people about the deleterious effects of mountaintop removal pollution. In October researchers at West Virginia University’s Mary Babb Cancer Center reported that coal-dust particulates blown into the surrounding community from mountaintop removal mining cause cancerous changes to human lung cells. “Epidemiological studies suggest that living near mountaintop coal mining activities is one of the contributing factors for high lung cancer incidence,” the study stresses in its introduction. We ourselves yo-yo between cynicism and resolve. If policymakers ignore the suffering of sick people, maybe they will understand the dollars that sick people cost government?

Several mornings later I stealth out from my house into the dark countryside. A faint misty rain freshens my lungs and softens the ground under my shoes. I walk into a friendly neighbor’s pasture, then cross to the woods’ edge on the far side. A white-tail deer jumps out beside me; in the semi-darkness, I glimpse its ghostly form before it melts away. I sit at the edge of the woods and watch blue-ink night shade into pre-dawn gray. Dark silhouettes of fog-wisped mountains now shoulder the eastern horizon. The unbroken meadow lays out before me, its browned grass resting in winter sleep. All is still.

In this stillness, a long-ago memorized Scripture song, composed in King James Bible language, surprisingly comes to my mind.

Arise, shine; for thy light is come, and the glory of the Lord is risen upon thee.
For, behold, the darkness shall cover the earth, and gross darkness the people: but the Lord shall arise upon thee, and his glory shall be seen upon thee.
And the Gentiles shall come to thy light, and kings to the brightness of thy rising.
Lift up thine eyes round about, and see: all they gather themselves together, they come to thee…(Is. 60)

“How does this exegete?” I ask myself. It doesn’t matter; the scripture refuels my hope in God. I ponder the term “gross darkness.” Gil Bailie writes, “The theological virtue of hope – is hope against hope. (Romans 4:18) It begins after worldly hope has died of disappointment.”

A new day is dawning. Soon the fog will melt in the burn of the rising sun. It is advent season. “Always,” I remind myself, “It is advent. There is work to do, to prepare the way of The Lord.” I arise to walk.

Allen Johnson lives in rural West Virginia. He coordinates an advocacy organization, Christians For The Mountains.

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