Only God Should Move Mountains, Group Says

Mountaintop removal mining is one of the most controversial industrial practices of our time. But few outside the region have seen it first-hand. A Pittsburgh-based Christian activist is trying to change that by leading four-day tours into the heart of Appalachia. The Allegheny Front's Katelyn Malongowski reports.

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OPEN: Mountaintop removal mining is one of the most controversial industrial practices of our time. But few outside the region have seen it first-hand. A Pittsburgh activist is trying to change that by leading 4-day tours into the heart of Appalachia. The Allegheny Front's Katelyn Malongowski reports.

(Car running, Chatting Nat Sound in Background)

Sarah Landini navigates a van through rural roads in southern West Virginia, as she talks to seven other women who join her. Most of them are college-aged.

(Chatting inside van)

Landini is the Pittsburgh Regional Coordinator with Restoring Eden. That's a Christian-based environmental group that "serves and protects God's creation."

"If I believe that God created the world and that he created it good and he provided, you know, whatever we need, then it just affects how I am going to relate with the earth, and relate with other humans, and other creatures."

Everyone on the bus has heard something about mountaintop removal, like Pamela Engelmann, an environmental science major at Waynesburg University.

"Last spring we did a report for our environmental biology class. We had to research it and present it to the class."

Her classmate and friend Laura Beskitt says they want to learn more.

"In addition to all of the environmental effects, I was interested in how it affects local communities."

(Nat Sound: ascending bumpy road in van)

The van struggles its way up a winding gravel path in a more remote part of Appalachia. The tour is on its way to visit Larry Gibson, a 63-year-old activist.

"I'm either get you mad at me or you're going to get mad at the issue. But you're going to get mad today. And if I don't get you people mad today about what's happening, then I haven't done my job."

Gibson goes on to tell the group his homestead on Kayford Mountain has been in his family for more than 200 years. They originally owned 500 acres. But his ancestors signed away most of their land to coal companies.

"In 1906, the industry came in and found out that my people signed three exes on a deed. They couldn't read...they didn't even know what they were signing away."

He put his remaining 50 acres in a Land Trust in the 1980s. Since then, Gibson has been fighting off coal companies. And he says that's put him in harm's way.

"In the past year, there have been two drive-by shootings, where all of you were sitting today."

Gibson and the group hike to the summit of his property. (Walking through leaves, NAT sound) At the top... 2,400 feet, he warns them they're now walking through hell's gates.

"I call it hell's gates because it's the separation between life and death."

Adjacent mountains, only a few hundred feet away, are flattened. The group has lots of questions about what they see.

HAZEL: "So where have all the mountains gone?""
GIBSON: "Over in that valley, and that valley, and that valley over there."

Gibson is pointing to valleys that have been filled with rocks and debris from mining. He says this destroys streams and affects communities below. The sunsets, too, are not the same.

"The sun used to come out from those trees...(he breaks up..)

As the group leaves, Gibson tells them there's no way he'd power his home with coal. He uses solar panels and wood instead.

(Nat Sound, Starting Engine)

Next stop is Rock Creek, to the home of Chuck Nelson.

Nelson sits in front of the furnace in his log cabin, sipping on black coffee between sentences. Nelson was an underground coal miner for more than 30 years. Mining was in his blood; his father and grandfather were both coal miners. He read about mountaintop removal in a pamphlet from the group he's a member of now, the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition. He agrees with Gibson, that it's not easy being openly against mountaintop mining.

"Right now is the most dangerous time I've ever seen to be in West Virginia because we get threats everywhere we go."

Nelson explains surface mining requires fewer workers. When he was working in the mines, 150,000 miners were employed in the state. Now, around 20,000 remain, according to the West Virginia Labor Market Information.

"It takes a lot away from underground miners. It takes just a handful of people to operate these big surface mines...But when they say it's cheap, it's not so cheap."

He says it ruins communities. He visited one family living near a mountaintop mine with three children, and no clean drinking water.

"Their water looked like coffee. It's full of heavy metals. And everything that was in that slurry was in their well water."

Nelson tells such a compelling story that Landini offers him a prayer.

LANDINI: "Can I pray for you?"
NELSON: "Sure, I've done this wishin' before"
LANDINI: "Lord thank you for this home..."

The next day, the tour group explores New River Gorge and surrounding Appalachian mountains to see the natural beauty of West Virginia.

BESKITT: "There's like, 10 species of salamander here that's nowhere else.î
BESKITT: "I like salamanders."
LANDINI: "Ooh...What kind of bird is that?"

Back on the bus, Landini says it's this contrast between mining and the natural world that makes her more self-aware of her carbon footprint.

"I'm becoming very, very sensitive to wasting electricity because I know the peoples' faces, who it affects. And it's no longer just this thing that's disconnected from me. But now, I know people that are sick because we waste energy."

Back at Waynesburg University, Englemann says the tour was eye-opening, and she learned much more than from her class report. She reads an entry from her journal.

"It's horrifying and sickening to my stomach. It's frustrating and hard to take in. I'm put in a place where I'm at a loss for words. What do you say, when man has gone so far to quench their greedy thirst, for more and faster energy. It's almost like humans are taking God's creation and shoving it back in his face."

Englemann says she wants to do more than turn off lights when she's not in a room. She says she would like to bring more awareness of the impacts of mountain top mining to her campus.

In the meantime, Landini will continue her mission with more tours in the spring.

For The Allegheny Front, I'm Katelyn Malongowski.

Host: Just this month, a group of scientists called for a moratorium on mountaintop removal mining permits. That came even as West Virginia officials approved another permit. In an article published in the journal Science, researchers conclude the mining and filling valleys with debris are environmentally unsustainable. They also say the mining harms public health. West Virginia Public Broadcasting interviewed their state's Secretary of the Department of Environmental Protection. He talks about the scientists findings, and the future of mountaintop mining. We link to those stories on our website,