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July 11, 2013

Activist Profile: National Christian Denomination Stands Against Mountaintop Removal Coal Mining

One of the best parts of my work is that I get to be inspired, every day, by the stories of people who are taking action – and taking leadership – to rein in coal pollution and move America to clean energy. Heather Moyer is one of those inspiring people, and she is also a writing partner with me on my columns every week. I’m so excited to hand the blog over to her today for a guest post, to share some great news about an important recent victory she lead in the struggle to end mountaintop removal coal mining. – Mary Anne Hitt

Wv mtr site 2This is a guest post by Heather Moyer, Senior Writer for the Sierra Club.

More than 50 people sat watching a documentary showing the realities of mountaintop removal coal mining, and I could see the shock unfolding on their faces.

"I had no idea this was happening, I could hardly move or speak when the documentary was done," one woman told me.

I was at the United Church of Christ (UCC) General Synod, the national meeting of the Christian denomination, last week in Long Beach, California. During an educational intensive led by United Church of Christ Environmental Justice Minister Rev. Jim Deming and me, we told a roomful of people why our denomination should pass a resolution calling for the end of this devastating practice.

Let's back up. Almost two years ago, my wife and I helped start a UCC church in Baltimore, Maryland. Our church has monthly community service projects, including documentary film nights where someone brings a film on a topic and we watch and discuss it. In February 2012 I showed them the powerful documentary "The Last Mountain," which focuses on mountaintop removal coal mining.

People were shocked. Watching coal companies blow up the tops of mountains to get the coal underneath, and then filling up nearby valleys with rubble, it was hard to watch.

Mountaintop removal pollutes waterways and allows toxic heavy metals such as cadmium, selenium, and arsenic to leach into local water supplies that Appalachia's people rely on. But the danger is not limited to drinking water; mountaintop removal also causes air pollution that affects communities for miles around. Many of the toxins that pollute mountaintop-removal sites are carcinogens, and cancer rates are twice as high for people who live near mountaintop-removal sites.

It was hard to watch the interviews with all the families who can no longer drink their well water or who've lost their homes due to the mining.

We believe that God created the earth and everything in it, and that God calls upon humans numerous times in the Bible to be a steward of the divine creation -- to protect, care for, and learn from it. Yet here we are destroying it and harming people whose voice is continuously overpowered by the coal industry.

We wanted to take action.

"Well, first of all, right here in Baltimore our electricity comes from coal mined via mountaintop removal," I told the congregation. (You can find out if your power comes from mountaintop removal coal on this website) We explored local clean energy options, and many of us have switched or are in the process of it. Then we wondered if our national denomination had ever made a statement on mountaintop removal.

Despite the UCC's great legacy on environmental justice issues (our "Toxic Wastes and Race" report (PDF) from 1987 -- updated 2007 -- is still cited all over the world), we were surprised that there was no official statement against mountaintop removal coal mining.

That's how I ended up at the national UCC meeting more than a year later. Working with UCC Minister of Environmental Justice Rev. Jim Deming and people in our local conference of the UCC, we wrote a resolution that, if passed, would have the UCC join the growing list of national voices calling for an end to mountaintop removal coal mining.

As I spent hours at the national meeting educating the UCC delegates about mountaintop removal (one photo of those meetings is below), I heard from so many more people who'd never heard of it before and were shocked. I also met with many people who felt this resolution was long overdue -- they were very familiar with mountaintop removal and the families it affects.
Synod meeting - Copy
One young man I spoke with has family in West Virginia, and had to cope with a coal company destroying his grandmother's land.

We know mountaintop removal affects more than just Appalachia's beautiful mountains -- it has just as devastating an effect on the people of the region. From our resolution:
Mountaintop removal also destroys the valleys in Appalachia where people have lived for centuries. It destroys their culture, their way of making a living, and their family structures. It occurs in remote places where there is very little self-determining political organization and is a colonization and exploitation of the land by outside interests.
If it were a profitable enterprise for the people of Appalachia, then they would at least benefit economically. The opposite is true, however, as the Appalachian counties are consistently among the economically poorest in the United States.
Our resolution calls for a just economic transition for the people of Appalachia because we believe people deserve productive jobs, not destructive jobs.

HoorayBack at synod, I waited as patiently as I could for our resolution to come up for a vote. It had passed unanimously out of its committee. When the vote came down, I was more than thrilled -- more than 96 percent of the more than 840 UCC delegates voted in favor of it - that's me celebrating in the photo to the left! (More than 2,000 people were at synod, but not all were official delegates with voting privileges).

Read the full resolution here. (PDF)

While Rev. Jim Deming has already been to Washington, D.C., many times to urge the end of mountaintop removal coal mining, now the United Church of Christ has an official statement against it and will urge its own congregations to speak out as well as find out where their own electricity comes from.

It's amazing to have come so far over a year-and-a-half and see this victory. I know we have much more work ahead of us. As one colleague said, "We've crested a hill now, only to see another one in front of us." I'm proud of my denomination in being a witness in calling for the protection of God's creation and of all God's people.

As one appendix to this -- you may have also heard about this national UCC meeting because we also passed a resolution calling for divestment from fossil fuels.

I was also heavily involved in that resolution, working with the resolution's author, the Rev. Jim Antal. Mountaintop removal and divestment are directly related, I believe, especially when I think about something Jim said that's stuck with me:

"If we believe it's morally wrong to wreck God's creation, then it's also morally wrong to profit from it."

From our resolution to stop mountaintop removal coal mining, to the one on divestment, these are all important pieces of an important puzzle to protect God's creation and people.

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