JUST A FEW YEARS AGO, Dan Conant was living a life familiar to generations of West Virginians. Born and raised in the state’s Eastern Panhandle, he’d gone to college and left West Virginia to build a career for himself. But Conant, who was working on community solar panel projects in Vermont, couldn’t shake the feeling that he was needed back home, where the shuttering of the coal industry threatened the few employment opportunities that remained.
“It was almost too easy in Vermont,” he recalled. “I needed to be back in West Virginia.”
In 2013, he and his wife, Laura Nagel, a Pittsburgh native, returned to Jefferson County and “Solar Holler,” a crowd-funded venture that installs solar panels for no cost at nonprofits, was born.
“Free, local electricity allows [nonprofits] to put resources toward what matters—including taking care of our neighbors—and creation,” the organization explains on its website.
Solar Holler’s unique crowd-funding model is designed to function within the restrictions of West Virginia’s power industry legislation that, unsurprisingly, favors coal. Nationally, the solar industry relies on tax credits, for which nonprofits in West Virginia are ineligible. Solar Holler’s early efforts to circumvent this barrier—by selling solar panels directly to a church—were shut down by state lawmakers.
ON A HOT DAY in summer 2015, Michael Iafrate stared in distress out the window of a tiny Cessna flying over his native West Virginia.
“What I felt,” he said later, “reminded me of what it’s like when you’re driving along a highway and come upon a bad crash. That twist in your gut, knowing that death is happening here.”
Below him was the Hobet Mine site, 10,000 acres of what was once thickly forested mountains but is now a flat and desolate moonscape—the result of three decades of mountaintop removal mining and one of many such sites that now dot the Appalachian landscape.
“It just kept going and going, mile after mile after mile of blank, ravaged land,” said Iafrate, a 39-year-old doctoral student in theology at the University of Toronto’s St. Michael’s College. Flying so close over the scarred landscape that unrolled below the plane, Iafrate thought of the apostle Thomas touching the wounded side of Jesus. “It felt like an encounter with some wounds of Christ on the earth.”
Iafrate’s flight—provided by SouthWings, a small nonprofit group of pilots that advocates for environmental preservation by providing bird’s-eye views of the results of inaction—was one step in a project he’d been engaged in for several years. But it effectively brought many hours of research and writing into a harsh and visceral focus.
There was more to Iafrate’s anxiety than topography. There was also history, because the text he was working on would become a follow-up to one of the most significant ecclesial statements in U.S. Catholic history. Both the land and the past insisted: He had to get this right.
Listening to the poor in This Land
Back in 1975, the Catholic bishops of Appalachia—a swath of territory, marked by intransigent poverty, that stretches from the northern sections of Mississippi and Alabama up to central New York state—published a major pastoral letter on “powerlessness” in the region. This Land Is Home to Me was the fruit of much groundwork by a group of committed laypeople, religious, and clergy called the Catholic Committee of Appalachia (CCA).
WEST VIRGINIA’S coal-addicted economy is busted. Dozens of bankrupt coal companies are busted. A coal company CEO is busted for flagrant safety violations that contributed to an explosion killing 29 miners.
Boom-and-bust cycles have a jagged history in the central Appalachian coal basin of southern West Virginia, eastern Kentucky, and southwest Virginia. America’s industrial revolution prospered on Appalachia’s steam and coking coal. Hard-gained union struggles brought miners and their communities an improved living standard. Yet as time marched on, machinery replaced miners, the coal industry busted unions, Appalachian coal seams played out, and cheaper Western coal and fracked shale gas outcompeted.
Coal-dependent economies are now tanking. Miner layoffs have skyrocketed. Policymakers have long ignored forecasts of coal’s impending decline. The West Virginia legislature, facing a major state revenue shortfall, is considering drastic budgetary cuts—such as closing state parks, college branch campuses, and state police detachments—while, incredibly, introducing bills to attempt to bring back the coal industry by reducing its severance and worker-compensation taxes.
Coal will not bounce back. From coal’s perspective, the national debate on coal and climate change has largely been lost.
The Clean Power Plan announced by the EPA in June 2014 seeks to reduce climate-warming CO2 emissions 30 percent by 2030. Projected air quality improvement will also deliver significant financial and life-protecting health benefits. However, since West Virginia politicians dance to the strings of their coal-industry puppet masters, State Attorney General Patrick Morrisey is leading a coalition of 25 states asking a federal court to strike down the Clean Power Plan, calling it a “war on coal.”
Two weeks ago in Soma, Turkey, a coal mine explosion left 301 people dead. It was the country’s worst mining disaster, but it wasn’t the first — and it wasn’t the last, as multiple fatal accidents have happened in the two weeks since. The last time a mining disaster caught the world’s attention, we watched and waited and prayed during the rescue operation for the miners in Chile.
In Turkey, people protested in the streets of Soma — protested against Soma Mining for letting this happen, against their government for loopholes in safety rules. In response, the police issued a ban on protests and locked the city down. The ruling political party proudly announces that it has inspected that mine 11 times in the past 5 years; Soma Mining denies negligence. And the families of 301 persons mourn their losses.
This isn’t a faraway problem. In the United States, we don’t do as much traditional mining as we used to — instead, we do mountaintop removal. This has a human cost, too, in more insidious ways. The people living in Appalachia have higher rates of respiratory illness, cancer, kidney diseases, skin ailments, and more. And the landscape, which has the fingerprints of God in it, is being blown apart.
Psalm 95:4-5 says:
“In [God’s] hand are the depths of the earth; the heights of the mountains are [God’s] also. The sea is [God’s], for [God] made it, and the dry land, which [God’s] hands have formed.”
HOT SPRINGS, N.C. — The 50th anniversary of President Lyndon Johnson’s launch of the War on Poverty, which falls today, reminds us how intractable that effort can be, despite the hope and determined idealism when the legislation was signed.
Appalachia was one of the targets for the newly established Office of Economic Opportunity, utilizing programs such as Head Start and Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA). The anniversary also recalls how religion has motivated, shaped and sustained this effort, in many ways prefiguring the campaign, in both its successes and failures.
For more than two centuries, these Southern mountains have been a magnet for missionaries, both religious and secular, all determined to wipe out poverty, hunger, and ignorance — whether the region’s benighted folk wanted them to or not. Their too-common failing, local people say, is that the erstwhile do-gooders have not respected the strong beliefs and culture that already existed.
With the best intentions, altruists and uninvited agents of uplift have come with their social gospel of “fixing” local people. That is to wean them from violence and the debilitating use of alcohol, while bringing their brand of faith, along with education, nutrition, and improved living standards. Invariably well-meaning, these efforts have typically ended in disappointment and failure in places such as Madison County, N.C.