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.”
Another Christian school moves to divest – this time, a Catholic university
Just one week after Serene Jones, President of Union Theological Seminary, announced their decision to become the world’s first seminary to divest from fossil fuels, another first announced. The University of Dayton, a Catholic, Marianist university, will divest fossil fuels from its $670 million investment pool. This is the first Catholic university in the world to do so.
Just as divestment makes sense for Union Theological Seminary and its history of engaging social justice, this choice is in line with Catholic social teachings and the Marianist values of leadership and service to humanity. Marianists view Mary, the mother of Jesus, as their model of discipleship, and their mission is to bring Christ into the world and work for the coming of Christ’s kingdom.
Union and the University of Dayton are the newest schools joining the growing list of U.S. colleges and universities divesting from fossil fuels as a way to stop financially supporting the climate pollution and the public health implications of coal, oil, and natural gas as the dominant sources of energy in the country. Their announcements are unique because they speak not only of the moral choice, but of the Christian choice on matters of financial investment.
At the Presbyterian Church (USA) General Assembly this past week, in addition to the denomination’s decision to divest from three companies in relation to conflict in Israel/Palestine, a decision was made to begin the discernment process on fossil fuel divestment. The fossil fuel divestment conversation is happening in many churches and religious institutions across the country, and Union Theological Seminary and the University of Dayton are clear that they see this as an act of Christian witness for protecting God’s creation and people.
Information is from The University of Dayton’s website.
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.”
David vs. Goliath: Residents in a Colorado city are fighting their local coal monopoly for the chance to move their city to clean energy. The coal company has more money – a LOT more money – but the organizers have more heart. This short 6-minute video is well worth watching.
40,000 jobs sound pretty good: According to the new 2013 second quarter clean energy report form Environmental Entrepreneurs (E2), clean energy and sustainable transportation projects launched this year created close to 40,000 green jobs in the U.S.
After years of opposition from coal industry lobbyists, the Environmental Protection Agency has issued the first national standards for mercury and air toxin pollution.
The standards will slash emissions of these dangerous pollutants by relying on widely available, proven pollution controls that are already in use at more than half of the nation’s coal-fired power plants.
The EPA estimates that the new safeguards will prevent as many as 11,000 premature deaths and 4,700 heart attacks each year. The standards also will help America’s children grow up healthier — preventing 130,000 cases of childhood asthma and about 6,300 fewer cases of acute bronchitis among children each year.