PEACE PROBE by Gene Stoltzfus

The Mountain Tops are Crying and West Virginia Coal by peaceprobe
January 5, 2010, 10:12 am
Filed under: Getting on the Way to Peacemaking | Tags: ,

My Lord, what a mourning,
My Lord, what a mourning,
My Lord, what a mourning,
When the stars begin to fall.

You’ll hear the trumpet sound
To wake the nations underground,
Looking to my God’s right hand,
When the stars begin to fall.

– The Books of American Negro Spirituals, published in 1925-26 by James Weldon Johnson and J. Rosamond Johnson

I slowed down for the curves and watched for signs to Hawk’s Nest Park as I approached Ansted. The State Park was established near Gauley Mountain on the New River where local people told me between 470 and 700 mostly African American miners died while working for Union Carbide from 1927 to 1933. The workers contracted silicosis in the mines while tunnelling through a mountain to build a hydro electric plant, one of the worst industrial disasters in the history of the Americas.

As I approached the mountain top on Highway 60 in my Ford Ranger I found myself humming the old Negro spiritual that I sang as a child, “My Lord, What a Mourning when the stars begin to fall” except in my version mourning had become morning. It was dark as I approached Ansted. The mountains were only remote shadows as snow began to fall. In the version of the song of long forgotten slaves I hum the lines that had been morphed as they travelled voice to ear over the decades..

“We’ll cry for rocks and rocks and mountains when the stars begin to fall,
Rocks and mountains they’ll not save you when the stars begin to fall.”

I searched for an hour along unlit one lane roads for Allen Johnson who would host me at a Christians for the Mountains facility. Modest homes that once housed mine workers were plentiful. As I searched for the guest house I listened to public radio for reports on the Copenhagen meeting. Finally, I gave up searching turned off the radio and called Allen. He met me at the Ansted Pharmacy and led me to the rented guest house beside a century old Baptist church. The old spiritual was still echoing from my unconscious.

As I approached my lodging I could see the outline of Gauley Mountain in the distance and Allen told me that just over the edge I would see mountain top coal removal but that would have to await the daylight. Allen had warned me that 500 mountain tops have been dynamited layer by layer in West Virginia, Kentucky, Virginia and Tennessee – Appalachia – to reach the seams of coal. The coal is carried by train, barge and truck to power plants to generate electricity and to factories where steel is fashioned.

Rocks from the blasting have buried a thousand miles of streams and destroyed 12 percent of West Virginia forests forever. The Appalachian mountains that once reached heights equalling the great Himalayas of South Asia rose 300 million years ago when coal was formed from trees, swamps and other vegetation. Part of the energy for the light that illuminates my screen as I write may come from this coal.

The price for coal is rising. Surface mining permits the only efficient access to thin seams of coal formed 50 million years before dinosaurs, that traditional underground mining can not reach. With the use of large machinery and explosives two and a half times as much coal per worker can be extracted as in underground mines.

My own life has a connection to Appalachia coal. Sixty years ago when my Northeast Ohio family used coal for heating, 125,000 people worked in the mines. Today that number has fallen to 15,000 because of mechanization. Already then, Appalachian miners with their children fled homes due to joblessness, health problems and poverty. Their special accent was a matter of curiosity in my second and third grade class. Later when I lived in Chicago the north side Uptown neighbourhood was populated by people seeking refuge from the coal fields, many suffering from black lung disease. Today Ansted is more than 60% retired people. Few residents now work in the coal mines. However, coal dust, sounds of dynamite, coal trucks, and plans for more mountain levelling threaten the town’s new vision, to transform itself into a tourist center.

On the day after I arrived people were loath to travel the mountain roads due to snow so I stopped by the Redeemer Episcopal Church. I cautiously entered the annex of the 120 year old church where ladies were holding a fund raiser. My caution was formed by a belief that an Episcopal Church like this one would have been founded to serve the owners of the mines. No sooner did I park myself in front of one of the woman’s cookie tables than I was asked, “Are you here to work to stop Mountain Top Removal?” in a tone that definitely suggested that I would be much more welcome if I would answer, “Yes”.

I asked the women selling cookies for more information about the mountains. Over hot cider and cookies a woman from the kitchen informed me that their church goes out to the mountains regularly where their priest leads participants from surrounding churches in BLESSINGS for the mountains. She inferred that these events were not popular with the coal companies. “I hope you are here the next time we do a Blessing.” said another woman.

Allen took me to visit his friend Larry Gibson at Keyford mountain twenty miles west of Ansted as the crow flies. “Thanks for finally coming to see me” said Larry who met Allen and me with a big hug and a hot cup of coffee. The use of the word “finally” in his jovial greeting was unmistakably firm. I knew it was meant for me. “We need your support.”

Larry’s family line traces its roots in Keyford mountain back 200 years and the evidence lies silently in the nearby cemeteries at least the graves that have not yet been dynamited away. Along the winding road to his mountain top memorial hide way I see the remains of another mountain that has been blasted away, a valley blocked with land fill, huge coal trucks and shards of chimneys from long burned out homes that once housed 10,000 people who lived off mining. Larry cares for the pristine property of his ancestors as a sign of resistance to dynamite, and power shovels. Five times a year on key holidays he invites hundreds of people to festivals like of celebration and remembrance of Keyford mountain.

But not all of Larry’s guests are friendly. Drunken thugs show up to frighten visitors away much like company hired goons once tried to break union organizing in the coal fields. He describes 15 years of struggle, the offers of millions to buy him out, intimidation, arrests and speaking tours before leading us out over his 59 acre mountain top spread, a living trophy to persistence and survival. We pass several cabins where distant relatives come for retreat. He points to bullet holes, a long closed store and finally we pass Hell’s Gate, the property boundary beyond which we begin to view the empty disappeared mountain top beyond.

Below I can see layers of coal and massive power shovels loading coal trucks for delivery to a processing site and later shipment for power generation. In another direction bulldozers slice off rock that has been loosened with blasts of dynamite for disposal in the valley below. A hardy but bland grass has been planted on the mountainside next to his property where mining was terminated. There are no trees, shrubs, mice or deer, just grass. I see the town of Dorothy in a hazy valley beyond, named a century ago in honour of the wife of a mining company owner.

Visiting with Larry Gibson was good preparation for the rally at West Virginia’s state capital, Charleston, called to stop mountain top removal at still another site, Coal River Mountain. The Monday, December 7 protest brought together hundreds from West Virginia and neighbouring states. Everyone gathered in front of the West Virginia state Environmental Protection Agency which has rubber stamped so many company mining initiatives. Cordoned off about 100 feet behind the rally and adjacent to the agency building were 150 counter protesters, some hired by mining companies from the village of Dorothy. Greeting many of the speakers as they rose to challenge the crowd were blood curdling blasts from the horns of coal trucks programmed by the coal industry to cruise just a block away but loud enough to be heard maybe as far away as Copenhagen,. Rally speakers creatively co-opted the horns with long chants that transformed their irritating noise barrage into future friends, “Hoooooonk if you love the mountains.”

As I departed a voice inside told me to go to wake the nations. The descendants of coal miners who live in the hollows and valleys believe that Appalachia can be saved. The industry claims that rallies like the one in Charleston are the result of outsider manipulation by tree huggers. In spite of the charges I found an expanding conviction in West Virginia that the dust of coal pollution and lakes of slime, artificial polluted reservoirs created from crushing and cleaning coal, will be stopped. When people work together to change things they create a culture for transformation.

Several days later as I pulled out of Ansted I flipped on the radio to check developments in Copenhagen. The sombre reports of disunity among the nations reminded me to be realistic but thankful for the people, some diplomats, demonstrators and lobbyists who by their actions remembered the coal fields and disappearing mountain tops. The snow had ended and the fog had lifted. I could see the mountains and knew there was hard work ahead beyond the mourning or was it morning. It’s a new year. It’s a new decade.


8 Comments so far
Leave a comment

You might be interested in this Diane Rehm Show interview:

The Obama administration sends mixed signals on mountaintop coal mining. After putting dozens of proposed projects on hold, the EPA has endorsed an operation in West Virginia. Ongoing controversy over mountaintop coal mining.

Comment by Wilson

I’m co-directing a group in Dayton, Ohio called Creation Connection, the environmental justice ministry of Greater Dayton Christian Connections. When I heard on NPR this morning that the EPA will allow another mountain to fall, I decided (pending agreement from the team) to make mountain-top removal the subject of our next meeting (mid-February). I will use your website for information. I can’t guarantee a large enough attendance to warrant having anyone travel too far, but do you know anyone close to Dayton that would be able to speak to this issue?

Thanks so much for all the work you do,

Mary Sue Gmeiner

Comment by peaceprobe

Thanks, this is a really compelling portrait of a movement that I am not very familiar with. I learned a lot. Tim N.

Comment by peaceprobe

We very much need advocacy. The EPA is allowing another mountain to fall. In the past the EPA has rubber stamped permits to raze mountains. The Clean Water Act, etc. was ignored. Four successful federal lower court decisions by four different judges over the past 7 or 8 years have decreed the practice of valley fills (part of the mountaintop removal practice) a violation of the Clean Water Act and stopped the mining, however in every case the coal industry and executive branch have petitioned the Fourth Court of Appeals in Richmond, VA., and won a reversal. Lisa Jackson, head of EPA in the Obama administration, had taken a tougher position on mountaintop removal, and held up 79 permits. The coal industry screamed, got its coal politicians to pressure EPA, and it now appears EPA is caving. It is really important not only for the mountains but for our democracy (and for moral principle) that corporate power not continue to dominate their coal agenda over against the health of not only the coalfield region but the entire planet.

We at Christians For The Mountains would be happy to work out a tour for your group sometime this year. As for information, there are a number of sites. I suggest Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition based in Huntington as a good start. Coal River Mountain Watch is in the heart of the coalfields in West Virginia, at while in Kentucky the Kentuckians For The Commonwealth do excellent advocacy and education work. And I should mention the two excellent sites and research of Appalachian Voices, at and

I’d be happy to send as a gift to you our DVD, “The Mountain Mourning Collection,” if you send me your address. Just show it and pass it around… It’s geared for church audiences.

Blessings and Peace, Allen Johnson,

Comment by peaceprobe

How did I miss the fact all these years that you are such a good writer?! I’m really appreciating the pieces that you are sending and have just read the Crying and Coal piece. Really well done! I’ve been hearing more and more about that problem, but didn’t have hold of some of the statistics that you gave. Thanks for that–and for the human and humane stories of who and what you encountered there.

I have always felt great interest in the state of West Virginia and have found it an absolutely beautiful place to be. The interest developed when I learned a little about their cutting themself off from Virginia during (?) the Civil War–or at least over the issues of that war.

Linda Jones

Comment by peaceprobe

Friends, On Wednesday a group of 12 scientists held a national press conference to denounce mountaintop removal as incontrovertibly disastrous for the environment and health. The following day (January 7) the highly respected journal, Science, published the study. This is creating quite a stir, especially in light of the fact that just a few days ago the EPA has buckled under political pressure from coal state congressmen and the coal industry and approved permits that earlier had been held up.

I will provide a few links to breaking articles, and a Washington Post article. I believe this is the time to push the Obama administration, which will have to decide whether to live up to its campaign pledge to make decisions based upon sound science rather than political expediency.

Hope to get out a faith perspective response soon. Anyone else who can is very welcome!

–Allen Johnson,

Christians For The Mountains

Listen to the press conference of the scientist team

Scientists decry impacts of mountaintop coal mining

By David A. Fahrenthold

Washington Post Staff Writer

Thursday, January 7, 2010; 2:00 PM

Mountaintop coal mining — in which Appalachian peaks are blasted off and stream valleys buried under tons of rubble — is so destructive that the government should stop giving out new permits to do it, a group of scientists said in a paper released Thursday.

The group, headed by a University of Maryland researcher, did one of the most comprehensive studies to date of the controversial practice, also known as “mountaintop removal.”

Afterward, they did something that scientists usually don’t: step beyond data-gathering to take a political stand.

“Until somebody can show that the water [that runs off mine sites] can be cleaned up . . . this has got to be stopped,” said Margaret palmer, a professor at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, and the study’s lead author.

For now, Palmer said, “there is no evidence that things like this can be fixed.”

The group’s paper, published in the journal Science, was released in the same week that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency — which has been closely scrutinizing these mines — angered environmentalists by supporting a new mine permit. The EPA said the Hobet 45 mine, in West Virginia, had made changes that would eliminate nearly 50 percent of the environmental impacts, and protect 460 union mining jobs.

Palmer, in a telephone interview, said the group’s work did not echo the idea implicit in this EPA decision, that there could be a “good”
mountaintop mine, whose environmental consequences were acceptable.

“The science is clearly against that,” she said.
Mountaintop mining occurs mainly in West Virginia and Kentucky, though there also are mines in far-Southwest Virginia and in Tennessee. The industry has said these sites are key to the economy of a coal-dependent region, because they allow miners to get at coal seams that are too thin, or too close to the surface, to be reached by tunneling.

Instead, mountains are literally moved to get at the coal.

Their tops are sheared off with heavy machinery and explosives, exposing the coal inside. At some mines, the mountain is rebuilt with rubble after the mining is finished; at others, it is left flat. At most sites, there is still excess rock and dirt, which is typically used in “valley fills,” burying a stream valley to its brim.

In Thursday’s report, scientists found was that environmental damage extends far beyond the boundaries of the mine. They said that when
rainwater falls on a filled valley it filters not through the usual tree roots and topsoil, but through a jumbled mass of rocks from far below the surface.

It emerges, the scientists found, imbued with pollutants it should not have: traces of metals and chemicals called sulfates, which can be toxic
to the insects and fish that live in small Appalachian streams. They found no instances in which streams running off mined sites have recovered their old biodiversity — a blow to the coal industry’s contention that these
sites, when left alone, will become vibrant again.

“To us, it’s like smoking and cancer. It’s just so clear-cut” that streams below mine sites are left damaged, Palmer said. She said the study
indicated that water quality and life in streams began to suffer when 5 to 10 percent of a watershed was affected by mining. Several watersheds in West Virginia already exceed that number, Palmer said.

The study also found evidence of effects on human health, including water wells contaminated with chemicals from mines and elevated levels of
hazardous dust in the air.

C 2010 The Washington Post Company

Comment by peaceprobe

You’ve probably known about this already. As one of the commenters says,
Thank you scientists, for saying the obivous! But every bit helps and I hope this helps.
John Stoner

Comment by peaceprobe

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