The Preacher and Mountaintop Removal

Another good reason not to pollute the land. God lives in the same neigborhood!

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Sunday morning my friends who had gone to the Fellowship Hall for coffee and donuts after church service asked me, “What happened to you after the sermon?”
I told them, “I stayed to talk to the preacher about mountaintop removal.”
My friends were a little surprised that I thought the sermon was about abolishing mountaintop coal removal. The minister was preaching to a congregation generally made up those employed by NASCAR or Bank of America. The closest mountaintop removal coal mine was four hours and 230 miles due north.
You see, I am a temporary transplant from the center of mountaintop removal, the coalfields of West Virginia, to the outskirts of the Queen City (Charlotte) on Lake Norman in North Carolina. I was brought up in church, Southern Baptist, so one of my first duties when I arrived was to find a place to worship.
It came down to location. Williamson United Methodist Church has become my visiting church. The church is conveniently located on the main drag, meaning I could find my way to church and back home even before I bought a Garmin GPS. My small, rural hometown has a population of about 5,000 and one stoplight. We suffer few traffic jams. Mooresville, however, has become one of the favorite residential areas for those working in Charlotte and the dread of traffic jams has even become a prayer topic. My home church in West Virginia has a membership between 250 and 300 worshipers on holidays and when kids are home from college.   Williamson has a membership of more than 1200. That’s a lot of Methodists to please when preparing Sunday sermons but even a Southern Baptist can appreciate a sermon delivered by a Circuit Methodist Preacher, if it is good.
That happened this Sunday.
The Preacher, Rob Fuquay, announced that Williamson United Methodist Church would be conducting a three-week experimental series called “Church without Walls.”  The first sermon of this series was delivered Sunday.  I was sure the Rev. Fuquay had West Virginia, mountaintop removal, and me in mind when he began quoting scripture. It didn’t seem a problem that I had not met the Preacher personally, that he didn’t know my name, or even that I was a Southern Baptist. I had talked to God about mountaintop removal.  I had also written to our new President. I didn’t know who would answer first.

Minister Rob Fuquay

One of the first Bible verses the Preacher quoted was from Numbers 35:34: “Don’t desecrate the land in which you live. I, God, live in the same neighborhood with the People of Israel.” The Preacher said that according to Biblical teachings we are in charge of the earth.

We do not own it, but it is our responsibility to care for our environment. Again he quoted scripture, Psalm 24:1, “The earth is the LORD’S, and everything in it, the world and all who live in it.”
Following hymns, taking up the offering and introducing a new church member, the Preacher told us he was deviating from the sermon as originally planned. Instead, Michael Lindsey, a church member and member of the church’s Green Team, joined the Preacher on the pulpit for discussion of the environment.
They talked about the protection and preservation of clean water.  Lindsey explained the devastating effects of the number one problem to streams and rivers — runoff.  He illustrated his point with a local example. Lindsey told the congregation that the Catawba River (from an Indian tribe, meaning “river people”) is the most endangered river in the U.S. The Catawba River rises in the Blue Ridge Mountains in western North Carolina about 20 miles east of Asheville. The river flows north of Morganton, then southeast through Lake Norman reservoir and on to South Carolina.
While he talked of the Catawba, my thoughts turned to two rivers near my West Virginia home, the Gauley and New rivers. I could see the breathtaking Appalachian Mountains densely covered with hardwoods and pines rising steeply on the sides of both rivers. The New River   (the western hemisphere’s oldest river) and Gauley River have some of this country’s best whitewater rafting, bringing in millions of dollars to the state and our small rural communities each season. The Gauley’s complex stretch of whitewater, featuring more than 100 rapids, is ranked number seven in the world.

Photo by Betty Dotson-Lewis
The New River near Ansted

I spent five days back in the coalfields during Easter. I learned from friends and neighbors that 600 coal miners had been idled from their jobs, 300 in Boone County and 300 in Wyoming County. Market conditions were the cause for the layoffs in Boone County.
I also learned that Powellton Coal, a subsidiary of Consol Energy, has a permit pending before the state that would allow the company to remove the top of Gauley Mountain in Fayette County. To tear down Gauley Mountain for its coal is like blowing the cap off the Taj Mahal to retrieve a gold coin to spend at the local market.
Gauley Mountain is one of the most ruggedly beautiful areas you will see in West Virginia or any other state. As you wind around the switchback curves to the top you come to the small town of Ansted, population 1,600. Ansted rests on the high bluffs on U. S. Route 60 overlooking Gauley Mountain. Far below the New River rushes around the bends in the mountain to merge with the river at Gauley Bridge.
 Ansted, once the hub of coalmine activities, was left high and dry in the ‘50s when the coal market slumped. Ansted remains an important part of West Virginia’s coal heritage, with a mining museum and more than one historical marker. Stonewall Jackson’s mother lies in a grave in the local cemetery, there’s a preserved antebellum mansion in town and Ansted is the site of the Hawk’s Nest Tunnel tragedy, where hundreds of African-American migrants workers died from silicosis while digging a tunnel through Gauley Mountain for a Union Carbide contractor. Ansted promotes its cultural heritage through the Ansted Historical Preservation Society.
Mountaintop removal mining is nothing new in the Appalachian coalfields. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that by 2012, after two decades of this type mining, sludge, rock and other mining waste will bury more than 1,000 miles of trout and other fresh water fish streams in West Virginia, Kentucky, Virginia and Tennessee. Mountaintop removal mines truck out about one ton of coal for every 16 tons of terrain displaced.
Mountaintop removal mining is nothing new to Ansted, but the Ansted Historical Preservation Council, along with the Sierra Club have elected to fight mountaintop removal of Gauley Mountain, one of West Virginia’s natural treasures. The two groups have filed an appeal with the state of West Virginia asking that Powellton Coal’s permit application for the 463.8-acre mine site on the mountain is denied. Their appeal claims the another strip mine operated by Powellton Coal has repeatedly exceeded water pollution limits, violating the Clean Water Act by dumping illegal levels of toxic aluminum, iron and suspended solids into Rich Creek, a trout stream that feeds into the Gauley River.
So Mr. Preacher, thank you for addressing the importance of protecting and preserving our environment — our clean water and our Appalachian mountains.   
One more thing, Mr.   Preacher. The last note I scribbled down from your sermon on the environment Sunday says it all:  “If we follow God’s direction in taking care of the Earth, it will take care of us.”
Amen.

Betty Dotson-Lewis

B. L. Dotson-Lewis (Betty Dotson-Lewis), West Virginia author, was born in the coalfields of Southwest Virginia and grew up in the coalfields of West Virginia.  Dotson-Lewis is the author  of  numerous articles and three books  on Appalachia.   The Sunny Side of Appalachia:  Bluegrass from the Grassroots (2008); Sago Mine Disaster (Featured Story) Appalachian Coalfield Stories (2007); Appalachia:  Spirit Triumphant (a cultural odyssey of Appalachia) (2004)

 

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