This is the third blog post in a series leading up to the UUA General Assembly in Louisville, Kentucky from June 19-23. We are exploring issues of environmental justice and we are standing on the side of love with communities that have been adversely affected by fossil fuel extraction. Click here for more information on this year’s public witness at GA. To learn more, you can also check out previous installments of this series: “There is a Sustainable Way” and “Grateful for Everything, In Spite of Everything.”
The West Virginia hills are part of our spiritual geography. We love the mountains in all seasons–in spring with their special, tender greenness and the happy sound of melting streams; in summer with their deep green and flowery finery; in autumn with their crisp evenings, crackling bonfires, gloriously colored leaves; in winter with the clarity of their trees etched against blue skies and snowy whiteness. In all seasons they nurture our soul. We love them and feel that they love us, too. We want them to be here for generations to come.
We also grieve the mountains. It hurts to see them blown up and to hear that blowing them up is the only way to meet our nation’s energy needs. It hurts when free-flowing streams are buried and clean water is destroyed. We believe the mountains and the streams know we grieve their passing because we are interconnected, part of the same web of life.
We live with the paradox of love and grief–that even as we work to save mountains we benefit from the injustice of their destruction; for we consume the electricity that comes from coal deep inside the mountains. We enjoy the comfort and convenience of everyday living–turning on a light, using our computer, etc. The hard truth is that our everyday lives are intertwined with the grief of destruction. But it doesn’t have to be this way. Coal can be mined differently.
The common necessities of life for us humans–unpolluted water for drinking, unpolluted air for breathing, unpolluted land for raising food–don’t have a price tag, but is that supposed to make them expendable? In Prenter, West Virginia, an entire town has only brown water coming from the faucets, thanks to the reverberations from mountain blasting that ruined the wells. The water is absolutely unusable. People cannot drink, cook, or even wash with it without being in some way poisoned. The town of Prenter sued, and after many years, the suit was settled in favor of the town in fall 2012.
Residents in and around coal mining communities fear for their health and their economic security. Miners fear for their jobs and worry about supporting their families. They also fear for their safety while mining. Health concerns are exacerbated by carbon dust and silica that are now blown above ground, along with residue from the explosives and dust and rocks that make up mountains. The particulate matter of the air we all breathe–even if we’re miles from a blasting site–increase asthma, bronchitis, and respiratory irritations. Even black lung disease, which can be prevented, is increasing among surface miners.
We even fear visiting our loved ones buried in cemeteries that have been declared off limits by coal companies. Some cemeteries have been blown to smithereens as part of mountain top removal mining. We’re still trying to pass a bill to protect family cemeteries and allow families to visit their dead. It is unjust for the mining companies to disrespect the dead, some of whom served these companies faithfully all their working lives.
With so much fear, there is a lot of anger and confusion. For too long, those who cared about the environment were portrayed as tree-hugging environmentalists, pitted against miners who think we’re out to take their jobs away. Although coal can be mined without blowing up mountains, many believe it when the coal company tells them that saving mountains means no jobs. Because others have presented us as being on opposing sides, miners are often skeptical when environmentalists support their calls for safety on their job sites.
We aren’t on opposing sides. We care about the health and safety of our community as much as we care about our earth. We are on the side of love and justice–for the environment and for miners.
We need laws as if life matters–yours, mine, and the critters and plants that are part of the mountains and streams. If they are alive and healthy, so are we. We need laws that respect our earth, the water we drink and the air we breathe, written to include all industries that extract our state’s resources. We need laws that protect the health and safety of all workers and job training programs to create new economic opportunities that are sustainable. We firmly believe that we can afford both to respect life and figure out energy needs–from a variety of sources. Such diversity would promote health for us and our planet.
We are heartened that federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) officials visited our state for the first time a couple years ago to see mountain top removal and its effects. They met at our UU Congregation in Charleston (UUC) with representatives from environmental grassroots groups in West Virginia and Kentucky. We are proud that the UUC is seen as an accessible, trusted place where environmental justice concerns can be worked on.
We are excited that GA 2013 is in Louisville and that so many UUs will be able to join together for public witness. We will be led by UUA President Rev. Peter Morales, Tim DeChristopher, and local UU clergy and interfaith and community partners including Wendell Berry in a rally entitled Energy for Change: Interfaith Action for Clean Energy and Healthy Communities. Won’t you join us?
This post was written by Rev. Rose Edington and Rev. Mel Hoover, co-ministers of the UU Congregation in Charleston, West Virginia.