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Coalfields as Mission Fields for Young Christians

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Pulse Oximeters and Spirometers
Used in Appalachian Health Surveys

They assembled from evangelical Christian colleges around the country.  They paid their own room and board.  Their alternative spring break was no feel-good trip to paint a church or school then spend the rest of the time relaxing.  They prayed, studied the scriptures, and set out with determination for long days in the coalfields of Appalachia.  Their tools were clipboards and pens, plus fingertip pulse oximeters and spirometers that they’d been trained to use.

Student Volunteers Organize for
Appalachian Health Surveys

On this third year of health surveying with the nonprofit Christian group called Restoring Eden, students went beyond asking people and households about their health.  They gathered real-time health data in the field about blood oxygen levels and pulmonary function so scientists can get a better picture of community health near mountaintop removal mining.  No matter who you talk to in the coalfields these days, sickness is the new norm. Everybody knows somebody with cancer or heart disease, all the kids know what an inhaler is, and studies show birth defects are more prevalent than in other communities.  In the second year of health surveys, the group found an unusually high rate of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease being reported.  Organizer and evangelical minister Rev. Peter Illyn with Restoring Eden said, “the question we’re trying to ask is, ‘is living close to open strip mines causing greater lung illness and lung damage?’  We’re trying to find the science that demonstrates this is unhealthy to communities.”

Alex Garrish volunteered for this unconventional spring break from Samford University in Alabama.  She was astonished at what the devices revealed.  “To see some of the numbers, the age of people’s lungs and their pulse rates and their oxygen levels, to see how their health has been affected negatively…later on the data can be used to show the ways people are suffering in quantifiable ways.”

Tessa Davis came from Anderson University in Indiana.  “There was a time when we were interviewing a coal miner and he had soot all over his face. And I see his face.  And I just thought it was surreal seeing it all over him…and just writing down some of the ways his own health was affected and some of those who live in his house were affected, it was kind of heartbreaking in a way because we see the physicality of it all.  It’s so real and so I think that was pretty shocking for me.”

Wesley Rieth had traveled from Hope College in Michigan.  As a student of both political science and environmental studies, he’s also interested in how people’s lives are affected.  “I think this is really important work, from a policy standpoint, from an economic standpoint, down to the level that we’re looking at which is impacting people’s livelihood and their health.”
Sarah Yonts from Carson-Newman University in Tennessee shared, “what this trip means is really a hope for the community.”
The student volunteers worked in small groups, traveling from house to house, sometimes stopping to pray for those whose lives they’d touched for just a short while.  Sometimes, the reality of why they’d been called to this unusual mission work hit too close.  Some students related that in revisiting houses to conduct more surveys, they were told that a toddler who’d struggled his whole life with a heart problem, had recently died.

Mountaintop Removal Mining near Black Mountain in Virginia

Volunteers and a few staff on a limited budget have been working to bring health survey information to the public and policy makers.  Meanwhile, a well-funded energy industry research group called the Appalachian Research Initiative for Environmental Science or ARIES is also hard at work.  Its industry researchers caution against trying to link mining as a cause of community health problems, and it has publicly refuted independent research that shows health differences in communities near MTR and those farther away from it.  ARIES spokesman John Craynon stressed to “No one wants to see impacts on babies or anybody, actually.  I think we all value human life and the quality of human life.”  Craynon talked about a balanced approach and went on to say about his energy clients, “if they need to change the way they do business, that’s what they’re committed to.”

Christians for the Mountains spokesman Rev. Robert Sage Phillip Russo has been advocating for coalfield residents for several years.  While scientists crunch the numbers that come in from health surveys, Russo stresses that there’s long been a pattern of people getting sicker and sicker in areas near mountaintop removal mining.  “We’ve heard it said that it’s okay for an area to be a sacrifice zone for the nation’s energy.  We say it’s not okay for the land to be used as a sacrifice zone and it’s not okay for people to be used as sacrifice for the nation’s energy.  We’ve got to care for them as whole people.”  Russo say faith motivates him to want to help. “We really hope that people would be recognized for who they are that live here.  That people in Congress and industry say, ‘oh, there’s people here and these are the effects.'”

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