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The Tragedy of Mountaintop Removal
By Karen Hurley
The Catholic Committee of Appalachia is working with interfaith leaders to expose the full cost of coal-generated electricity.


What's Mountaintop Removal?
Those Affected
Inconvenient Christians
Gaining a National Audience
Changing Lifestyles
Doctoring Planet Earth

Aerial views of Perry County, Kentucky, show the extent of the damage from mountaintopping. South Wings, an association of volunteer pilots which assists nonprofit environmental groups, took the religious leaders up.


GLENMARY FATHER John Rausch, director of the Catholic Committee of Appalachia, has been leading tours for several years to call attention to a devastating method of coal extraction called mountaintop removal. A tour last May ended on a mountaintop in Eastern Kentucky where an assortment of interfaith leaders signed a joint statement calling their respective faith communities to act now to stop the practice of mountaintop removal.

They also pledged to examine how their own lifestyles are driving this environmental disaster—and global warming—by the constant demand for cheap electricity from coal.

What's Mountaintop Removal?

Mountaintop removal is a form of mining that razes forests, scrapes away topsoil and then blasts 800-1,000 feet off the tops of mountains in order to allow giant machines to scoop out the layers of coal. In most cases, millions of tons of “overburden”—the former mountaintops—are pushed into adjacent hollows. These “valley fills” permanently destroy the streams below. What’s left on the mountaintops are flat expanses absent of all topsoil, where nothing much grows except nonnative grasses.

From the mining company’s perspective, this is the cheapest way to extract the valuable low-sulfur coal that underlies the mountains of eastern Kentucky, southern West Virginia and, to some extent, southwestern Virginia and eastern Tennessee.

But those who experience the real costs of this method of mining firsthand say it is anything but cheap. The interfaith leaders on Father Rausch’s mountaintop-removal tour heard testimony from affected residents at an evening gathering at the Hindman Settlement School in Hindman, Kentucky.

Members of Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, a grassroots organizing group that opposes this mining method, shared personal stories that drive home the need to count these real costs:

• The cost to their water supply, which is being slowly destroyed by the arsenic and selenium leached out of the overburden once it is dumped onto the headwaters of mountain streams.

• The cost of foundations cracked and nerves frayed by almost round-the-clock blasting at mining sites so close to family homesteads that fly rock hits their roofs.

• The cost of increased flooding and mudslides that destroy homes and threaten entire communities.

• The cost of the endless caravan of coal trucks that damage mountain roads, leaving them to be repaired at local taxpayers’ expense.

• The cost of the biodiversity of forest habitats scraped into oblivion and the loss of the natural beauty of the mountains the residents love and call home.


Those Affected

One of the most poignant stories of the effects of mountaintop removal was told by Erica Urias. She moved to Pike County, Kentucky, five years ago because her husband, Rully, missed the mountains where he grew up. Since then, the large-scale mountaintop-mining operation near their home has contaminated the well that her family depended on for water. The coal company now supplies them with bottled water for drinking, but she spoke with anguish about having to “bathe my child in water that I know contains high levels of poison.”

It was because of similarly heart-wrenching stories from residents of Fleming-Neon and McRoberts in Letcher County that Father Rausch first became involved with mountaintop-mining issues.

Beginning in 2000, these small towns were devastated by five major floods in 18 months—towns that had not experienced a major flood since 1957.

“The connections between the flooding and the mountaintop removal were not hard to see,” says Father Rausch. The clear-cutting of forests, the stripping away of all vegetation and topsoil, and the disruption of natural drainage systems with valley fills created the perfect conditions for repeated flooding of surrounding communities.

In response, Father Rausch organized the first “Prayer on the Mountaintop” in December 2002 on International Human Rights Day. He wanted to make a connection between environmental rights and human rights. Sixty people began with a prayer service in a valley in Letcher County and then walked up to the moonscape of the topped mountain to wander around, plant seeds and pray. Father Rausch overhead one resident say, “I am sowing my community back.”

“Just to make sure God heard those prayers on the mountain,” Father Rausch laughs, “I invited an Associated Press [AP] reporter along.” When that AP story went national, some of the coal executives, also Catholic, approached Bishop Ronald Gainer of Lexington, Kentucky, and asked why he allowed Father Rausch, the director of the diocesan peace and justice office, to stir people up about something he knew nothing about.

According to Father Rausch, the bishop simply responded, “Father Rausch has taken me on a tour and I have seen it for myself.” Bishop Gainer continues to support the efforts of Father Rausch and the Catholic Committee of Appalachia.

Inconvenient Christians

A surprise factor on Father Rausch’s May 2007 Mountaintop Removal Tour for Interfaith Leaders was the participation of many Evangelical Christians. Most Americans don’t think of Evangelicals and environmentalism in the same sentence, associating them with more family-centered, socially conservative issues. But, Father Rausch points out, “Just as the Catholic Church has a very broad tent, I now see there is a very broad tent in the Evangelical community as well.”

Father Rausch is not the only one having his understanding of Evangelical Christians expanded. A new generation of Evangelicals is putting the entire nation on notice that they are a force to be reckoned with regarding the moral—and biblical—imperative to care for creation.

Playing off Al Gore’s Oscar-winning documentary, An Inconvenient Truth, evangelical student leaders are using “Inconvenient Christians” as the name for their national campaign to demand action on global climate change. This campaign sent student leaders from 18 Christian colleges to Washington, D.C., in December 2006 to lobby senators on global climate change, insisting this is “a moral imperative demanding action now.”

Their statement, “Cooling Our Future: A Declaration by Young Evangelicals on Climate Change,” is collecting signatures at the Web site of Restoring Eden ( This is an organization that describes itself as “a growing community of Evangelical Christians in conversation about what it means to be wise and loving stewards of creation and how that ethic is lived.”

That campaign, which ended a year ago, had begun with a much-publicized statement from the Evangelical Climate Change Initiative. Over 80 well-known evangelical leaders, including Rick Warren (author of the best-selling The Purpose-Driven Life), signed and promulgated “Climate Change: An Evangelical Call to Action” in February 2006. Its intention, says the statement’s Preamble, is “to offer a biblically based moral witness that can help shape public policy...and contribute to the well-being of the entire world.” It clearly links concern for climate change to the Evangelical community’s “longstanding commitment to the sanctity of human life.”

During this same year, several new books by Evangelical authors focused on the biblical duty to love, serve and protect God’s creation. One of the most popular, Serve God, Save the Planet: A Christian Call to Action, is by Matthew Sleeth, a former emergency-room physician who now devotes himself to speaking and writing about environmental issues from his faith perspective (see sidebar).

But these Evangelical environmentalists have not gone unchallenged in the wider Evangelical community. In March 2007 Dr. James Dobson of Focus on the Family and other family ministry leaders of the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) called for the removal of Richard Cizik, the NAE’s vice president of governmental relations and an outspoken advocate of Evangelical involvement in addressing the problems created by global climate change.

This action prompted the board and staff of Restoring Eden to release an open letter that stated: “Many Evangelicals have for more than 20 years pled with James Dobson, Tony Perkins, Gary Bauer, D. James Kennedy, [the late] Jerry Falwell and the leaders of several other conservative Evangelical ministries to stop ridiculing and criticizing how creation-care advocates believe we ought to live in obedience to God....” Instead, the letter urged these conservative leaders to “add to their own ministries the biblical mandate to love and care for our Lord’s creation.”

Gaining a National Audience

When the Catholic Committee on Appalachia first began planning a tour specifically for interfaith leaders, the goal was “to get the word out that mountaintop removal was not only a social issue but also a moral issue,” Father Rausch says. He did not foresee the role these new Evangelical activists would play.

But when the Mountaintop Removal Tour for Interfaith Leaders rolled out of the parking lot of St. Clare Church in Berea, Kentucky, last May, bound for stops throughout eastern Kentucky, the 20 interfaith participants included four prominent Evangelical leaders:

• Matthew Sleeth of Wilmore, Kentucky, author and signer of the 2006 statement from the Evangelical Climate Change Initiative;

• Peter Illyn of Restoring Eden, La Center, Washington;

• Chris Elisara of the Creation Care Study Program, Julian, California;

• Allen Johnson of Christians for the Mountains, Dunmore, West Virginia.

Also on the tour was a video crew from WGBH in Boston. They were shadowing these four Evangelicals to capture their perspective on mountaintop removal for a two-hour documentary on religion and the environment to air on public television in spring 2008.

“Having the Evangelicals—Matthew, Peter, Chris and Allen—on the tour certainly gave a national perspective,” says Father Rausch. The other tour participants—a cross section of Christian leaders and one member of the Ba’hai faith—were from faith communities based in the Appalachian region.

One of these local leaders, Holly Shipley, a Lutheran minister from Lexington, Kentucky, was responsible for getting the Evangelical leaders involved. She had passed on information about the mountaintop tour to Sleeth, who had recently moved from Maine to Kentucky and was trying to make local connections. When the TV crew from Boston contacted Matthew about how they could include Evangelical environmental concerns into their documentary, he mentioned he was going on the Catholic Committee of Appalachia tour and suggested they come along.

“Once we had the TV crew,” Father Rausch says, “we knew this tour would have an enduring impact.” It would shine a national spotlight on how the demand for cheap electricity from Appalachian coal is not only destroying the mountains but also forestalling development of alternate energy sources and adoption of stringent conservation measures.

Changing Lifestyles

It was on the final afternoon of the interfaith leaders tour, at a prayer service overlooking mountaintop removal in process in Perry County, that participants signed a statement calling on their respective faith communities to take action now.

“Care of creation represents a common thread for all people of faith,” declares the interfaith statement read aloud during a prayer service on a precipice owned by McKinley Sumner of Montgomery Creek, Kentucky. Twenty-five feet of his part of a mountain have been illegally blasted away by ICG (International Coal Group), the mining company conducting mountaintop removal throughout central Appalachia.

The statement goes on to say: “From our observations and the testimony of many, we conclude that mountaintop removal destroys God’s garden.” (The full text of the Interfaith Statement on Mountaintop Removal and a complete list of signers is available at

Informed by personal testimony and by flyovers of the devastation that has already taken place in northern Perry County, signers of the interfaith statement promised these four actions:

• To “examine our own wasteful and extravagant lifestyle that causes the destruction of the mountains by demanding cheap energy from coal.”

• To “insert mountaintop removal into the growing conversation about global climate change.”

• To “pledge voice and vote” to encourage full enforcement of “existing regulations that ensure clean water and...a ban of mountaintop removal as a method of mining.”

• To “make this a spiritual issue in our own lives and to invite the members of our faith communities to do likewise”—thereby “engaging people’s conscience toward moral action and praying with the people of Central Appalachia.”

In other words, these “inconvenient Christians” pledged to keep sounding the alarm that care for creation is not an option—it is a moral imperative. They also pledged to change their own lifestyles in ways that will give witness and encourage others to live these words from the “Litany of the Mountain” prayed at the close of the Mountaintop Removal Tour:

We pledge to live in new ways,
to reduce consumption and energy use,
to promote conservation
and sustainability,
because the earth belongs to God and
not to us.

Doctoring Planet Earth

“SERVE GOD, SAVE THE PLANET”—that is the mantra of Evangelical Christian Matthew Sleeth. It is also the title of his book that traces his journey from a New England ER physician to a Kentucky-based environmental writer and speaker. Serve God, Save the Planet: A Christian Call to Action was published in 2006 by Chelsea Green.

This self-described “poster boy for downward mobility”—along with his wife, Nancy, and their teenagers, Emma and Clark—has made radical lifestyle changes in an effort to reduce the negative impact his family has on our natural environment—and our planet. This includes downsizing from a family home of 3,500 square feet to one less than half that size, changing from incandescent to compact fluorescent lightbulbs, doing dishes by hand, hanging laundry out to dry and constantly looking for ways to reduce the family’s “carbon footprint.” (This is the amount of carbon dioxide a person releases into the air as a result of consumption patterns and energy use. The average American’s carbon footprint—7.5 tons of CO2 per year—is more than four times that of people in other countries. You can calculate your own carbon footprint at

On the Mountaintop Removal Tour for Interfaith Leaders in Eastern Kentucky last spring, Matthew proudly displayed his most recent $15 electric bill as a sign of how his family’s reduced energy use is helping to save the mountains and the culture of eastern Kentucky.

Matthew’s change in focus from medicine to environmentalism started while he was the chief of the medical staff and director of the emergency department at a prominent hospital in Maine. He found himself treating an increasing number of patients—many of them children—who were suffering from respiratory issues related to air quality. He gradually came to the realization that, as he puts it, “our world is dying.” He decided he was being called by God to focus his attention on treating just one very important patient: Planet Earth. He looks at his work now as “public health on a grand scale.”

His new “medical practice” includes writing and speaking to faith communities of all kinds across the country. His articles regularly appear in Christianity Today and other publications, and he can be heard weekly on the Moody Broadcasting Network—a program he does by phone from his home in Kentucky.

Matthew believes his new environmental work is a response to God calling him to do what “somebody needs to do.” His new work is supported by his deep faith in a Creator God. “If we love the Creator, we have to love the Creator’s work,” he says. “And that means taking personal responsibility to care for that creation.”

So where did he begin in his efforts to become a more responsible steward of God’s creation?

“I starting keeping the Sabbath,” he says. He and his family agreed to avoid shopping on Sundays and making unnecessary trips in the car. That resulted in staying home and doing things together as a family as well as carving out time for personal reading and reflection. This method of Sabbath-keeping also drastically cut their family’s consumption of energy every Sunday.

If all families “kept the Sabbath” in a similar manner, Matthew says, we would use 14 percent less electricity as a country—and improve the quality of our lives!

When the Sleeths began their lifestyle change six years ago, their children were 13 and 10, and were typical “spoiled doctor’s kids,” he says. How did they react to the changes?

They eventually got on board, he says, because “we explained that what we were doing was really for them and for their generation—not for us.” And his daughter, Emma, now 16, has authored a book of her own to be published in spring 2008 by Zondervan. It details what it was like being part of a family that moved from an upper-middle-class lifestyle to one that is more sustainable in terms of its demands on the ecosystem.

Part of this changed lifestyle has meant that the Sleeths moved from New England to Wilmore, Kentucky, in August 2006. This is the location of Asbury College, the Evangelical school that son Clark was then entering and that Emma was intending to enter. When they counted up the carbon impact of transporting the children back and forth to a distant college, they decided to move close to the college.

Matthew was one of the signers of “Climate Change: An Evangelical Call to Action,” issued by the Evangelical Climate Change Initiative in 2006. This strongly worded statement raised many eyebrows inside and outside the Evangelical community. It challenged the stereotype that only religious liberals are concerned about the environment.

Why does he think that the media—like the PBS film crew that followed him on the mountaintop removal tour last spring—are so eager to interview him and other Evangelicals on their environmental concerns and commitments?

“Because Evangelical churches—unlike some of the more mainline groups—are very strong and growing,” he says, “and their political and financial influence is recognized. If this group embraces environmental issues, lots of dominoes will fall.”

But, in the end, he says, “The future doesn’t care about our words—only our actions.”

Karen Hurley is a freelance writer and the director of development for 4C for Children in Cincinnati, Ohio. She says participating in this tour has motivated her to reduce her family’s carbon footprint and consumption of electricity from coal.


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