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Viewing Mountaintop Removal Mining Devastation in Appalachia

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View of Mountaintop Removal Mining Site from Black Mountain
Looking straight down into it, the scene reminded me of a childhood picture of hell based on something I’d heard in Sunday school class.  Something about a pit and desolation and being devoid of life.
“As Christians, this is the opposite of stewardship. This is foolishness and greed in its simplest form,” preached the Russian Orthodox-raised, evangelical minister from an overlook atop Black Mountain at the border between Kentucky and Virginia.  Rev. Peter Illyn had just preached a sermon that morning at the First Baptist Church on the Carson-Newman University campus in Tennessee.  Now he was leading a visiting film crew, Christian college students and concerned citizens on a tour to see the devastation of mountaintop removal mining.
Rev. Peter Illyn of Restoring Eden with visiting film crew
The practice of literally blasting off a mountaintop to obtain coal for power plants has changed hundreds of mountains and thousands of miles of streams forever.  It creates unprecedented damage to the ecosystem that environmental scientists say cannot be healed in decades or even centuries.  Entire forests are removed along with the wildlife that depends on them.  Illyn calmly and patiently explained that this level of land, air and stream pollution is allowed because the laws of the land were rewritten to make it acceptable.  Illyn, his nonprofit group Restoring Eden, and other concerned people of faith see the destruction of God’s creation and potential health consequences as violating laws of nature and morality.
James “Tug” Smith
“They’ll tear that whole damn mountain off for that few inches of coal,” explained James “Tug” Smith, who lives in one of the nearby communities.  Smith has been an outspoken community leader in calling for moderation and care.  He’s an avid supporter of underground mining and local jobs, but sees MTR as bringing fewer jobs with more devastation.
Tina Durham
In the valley below, a stream appeared to run clean and clear.  But a local grandmother warned me that it’s not safe for kids to play in.  Concerned citizens had tested the water, and they were worried about contaminants from the MTR. Laws allow byproducts of MTR to go directly into streams, a major loophole in the Clean Water Act.  Tina Durham is proud of her family, including a beautiful little granddaughter born and raised in the area.  The granddaughter is doing well, although at just a couple months of age, diagnostic tests discovered she had a mild birth defect.  “They said she has one kidney that’s smaller than the other,” explained Durham.
Valley residents often live in houses that were original to mining camps built decades earlier, when every worker was an underground miner.  Sandy Thomas lives in one of those houses, where she often babysits her grandkids.  Thomas says upper respiratory problems are commonplace, particularly for kids, “they keep snotty noses and real congested.” Both grandchildren had suffered bouts of what she called bronchitis, with one being hospitalized with pneumonia last fall and needing the extra help of a nebulizer.  Thomas shares a common complaint with residents that the coal trucks spread dust and dirt along the roads, although some coal facilities now provide truck washing,  “summer hits and that mud dries, it’s nothing but a Dust Bowl!”  Thomas says she uses an inhaler for herself every day, no matter what season, and she works to keep her blood pressure under control, especially after having a heart attack at age 40. She’s trying to quit smoking but is careful to never smoke around the grandkids. She says a doctor told her kids in the area would probably always have breathing problems.
Rev. Robert Sage Phillips Russo
Robert Sage Phillips Russo is doing his pastoral internship while also working for Christians for the Mountains and is a recent graduate of Eastern Mennonite Seminary in Virginia.  Russo has helped get sustainable logging plans in place and is also watchful of how MTR is affecting communities.  “When I saw what happened with the mining and heard neighbors, the people  that lived around it, complain, and then I got brought up to West Virginia and saw more, saw how it was affecting school kids  and all ages…and just the blight across the land, I knew we were looking at sin — just straight up human arrogance and short-term  focus!”

Young lives lost, at risk in MTR communities…


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