coverstory (2008-09)

Mountaintop RevivalOn Air

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Feature Story

Local evangelical Christians join environmentalists in an unlikely union to fight mountaintop removal mining in Tennessee

by Rick Held (Cover photo courtesy of United Mountain Defense and Southwings)

Pat Hudson gathers with a small group of Christian church leaders on a ridge overlooking a flattened mountain that was once higher than where they stand. On this trip to a â“sacrifice zoneâ” in the heart of Kentucky coal country, they have heard the dire statistics and the bleak stories of the area families whose faucets run with poison water, whose children suffer from breathing disorders, and whose homes no one will buy. But it is looking down on the moonscape that once was a lush Appalachian mountain that brings on anguish and tears, as unavoidable as if standing before the open casket at the funeral of a beautiful child. And as if at a funeral, Pat Hudson and her fellow Christians lean on their faith and each other and begin to sing â“Amazing Grace.â”

Patâ’s pastor, John Gill, of Knoxvilleâ’s Church of the Savior, United Church of Christ, was also on the ridge that day to witness firsthand the after-effects of mountaintop-removal coal mining, which has been described as â“strip mining on steroids.â” Pat and her friend Dawn Coppock will never forget sitting in church the following Sunday, when from the pulpit John described what he saw and said simply, â“This is sin.â”

â“Pat and I looked at each other and the question that came to us that dayâ"Iâ’m not sure who asked it out loud firstâ"was, â‘How can we make this stop?â’â” Coppock recalls.

It was a familiar question for Kathy Lindquist, though she was no longer around in the flesh to help answer it. Kathy, who died of cancer in 2005, was a youth leader at Church of the Savior and also a passionate opponent of the literal removal of mountains to extract coal in Appalachia. â“She saw her work in protecting the environment as an extension of her Christian faith,â” says Hudson. â“We were all inspired by Kathyâ’s spirit, so the church resolved to continue her work.â” And so, with congregational acclaim, Hudson and Coppock founded the Lindquist Environmental Appalachian Fellowship (LEAF), an East Tennessee incarnation of Creation Care, a burgeoning national movement of Christians called to take biblically based stands for environmental stewardship.

What is also burgeoning is the demand for Tennessee coal, residing under the ridges in the eastern mountains and the Cumberland Plateau. As oil prices climb so does the demand for this â“alternativeâ” fossil fuelâ"another huge source of greenhouse gas emissions into an already overheated global atmosphere. While Tennessee, unlike Kentucky and West Virginia, has largely escaped the worst effects of mountaintop-removal (MTR) coal mining for now, coal companies are poised to dramatically increase the number of MTR sites in this state, with more than a dozen mining permits pending. Also, the Tennessee Valley Authorityâ’s huge investment in smokestack scrubbers for their coal-burning power plants has created an even greater incentive to extract its own coal reserves under the ridges of its vast holdings in the Royal Blue tract between Caryville and Oneida.

But in the era of Al Gore, record warm winters, scorching summers, and extended drought in Tennessee, a handful of East Tennessee Christians have emerged to take grassroots action against climate change and the ravaging of their mountains. Taking the lead in developing and trying to pass the first legislation in the country that would ban mountaintop-removal mining, they are adding a dash of religious fervor to a sometimes stale, sometimes stalled environmental movementâ"not to mention cobbling together a bipartisan coalition of legislators who may actually pull it off in the sometimes stale, sometimes stalled General Assembly.

Strip Mining on Steroids

Coal companies in Appalachia first began blowing up mountaintops in the 1970s as a way to ramp up conventional strip-mining techniques, enabling more complete removal of coal seams while greatly reducing the number of workers required to do it, compared to conventional methods. Flattening a mountain to get at the coal within is a multi-layered process. It begins with clear-cutting the native hardwood forests on the ridgetop to better facilitate the blasting away of the earth underneath.

Depending on the inclinations of the various coal operators, the timber may be sold and hauled away or treated as â“overburdenâ”â"pushed into the surrounding valleys along with the rubble created by the dynamiting of 500-1,000 vertical feet of mountaintop. In West Virginia, Virginia, and Kentucky, MTR mining turns mountains into level plateaus as broad as 10 square miles, with no resemblance to the original contour. Tennessee regulations only permit â“crossridge mining,â” which includes the blasting away of mountaintops, but also require that after the coal is extracted the shattered debris must be piled back onto the top of the mountain, according to its â“approximate original contour.â”

But as Chris Irwin of the nonprofit group United Mountain Defense puts it, the before and after is â“the difference between a functional hydrological system and a pile of rubble,â” referring to the obliteration of mountain stream headwaters and springs. The reconstituted and compacted overburden usually prevents trees from taking root and only one type of non-native grass has had any success in reclamation efforts. No studies have ever been done on the long-term stability of these giant mounds of rock and dirt.

While mountaintop removal extracts more coal faster and cheaper than conventional strip mining, MTR coal requires high-pressure washing with water and toxic solvents to separate it from the surrounding soil and rock, a process that generates a huge amount of liquid and solid waste. To contain billions of gallons of this toxic slurry, coal companies build earthen dams out of the overburden in hollows near the MTR sites where the coal is processed. Infused with heavy metals found in coal, such as arsenic, mercury, and cadmium, these coal-sludge impoundments contaminate groundwater and what surface streams have not been wiped out by MTR. The last time one of these impoundments failed was near Inez, Ky., in 2000, releasing 250 million gallons of coal sludge into the Big Sandy River watershed, making it the largest toxic spill ever in the U.S. (The Exxon Valdez spilled about 11 million gallons of oil into Prince William Sound on the Alaskan coast in 1989.)

God and the Kitchen Sink

â“How can we make this stop?â” has also been a familiar question for Irwin, although he was not at any church the first time he asked it of himself and his fellow co-founders of United Mountain Defense, a scrappy nonprofit organization that has been battling the practice of mountaintop removal mining in Tennessee for more than three years. Other groups such as Save Our Cumberland Mountains, the Sierra Club, the National Parks Conservation Association, and Tennessee Citizens for Wilderness Planning have well over 100 collective years on the frontlines trying to stop or at least contain strip mining in Tennessee. And yet, as demand for coal climbs with the price of oil and global temperatures, more Tennessee mountaintops than ever before are slated to be blasted away.

Up until now, UMD and the handful of other East Tennessee environmental groups have been battling how MTR is practiced more than trying to stop the practice outright. Whether by design or by default, since the passage of the federal Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act in 1977, most environmentalists who deal with mining issues (with some key exceptions) have been doing it in a defensive mode, monitoring companies and reacting to non-compliance with the law. For years, their hands have been full trying to maintain and enforce current regulations. Documenting how the mining actually happens on the ground and what it does to mountain streams, then prodding backlogged and underfunded state and federal officials to impose fines or revoke permits are all-consuming tasks for environmentalists monitoring the four current MTR sites in Tennessee. But with at least a dozen pending permits for new MTR sites in Campbell County alone, the groupsâ’ already stretched defense is about to be overwhelmed.

So when Dawn Coppock told Irwin that God was calling her and a handful of Christians dubbing themselves â“LEAFâ” to stop MTR by introducing the first-ever legislation to do just that, Irwin was glad that God was being added to the arsenal.

â“Weâ’ve thrown everything but the kitchen sink at this for three and a half years,â” says the 40 year-old Knoxville attorney and founder of the local EarthFirst! chapter. â“But now Iâ’m seeing Southern Baptists, Primitive Baptists, Catholics, Methodists getting involved for religious reasons, and itâ’s great to see this fresh blood taking it to another level. I donâ’t know why religion resonates, but it does.â”

The Church Ladies and the Enviros

As an adoption attorney who has advocated for and drafted child-welfare legislation, Coppock assumed that the environmental-welfare advocates must also be working offense, presumably in the form of anti-MTR legislation. This seemed to her a good place to direct the energy of her fledgling group. But after searching the Internet and calling all the environmental groups she could identify, there was nothing.

â“It was frustrating,â” says Coppock. â“But I never thought of LEAF proposing legislation. We were small and new, and legislation was not our primary mission. Primarily, LEAF has been about getting other churches to hear the scriptural call to care for the Creatorâ’s gift.â”

Coppock and Hudson have done this mostly on a face-to-face and personal-call basis, providing free Creation Care books and videos to any interested church in East Tennessee. Through their website tnleaf.org, they have also provided more materials and links, including scripture readings, music, and adaptable church services. Yet, as the author of a textbook on adoption law, the lack of a legislative vehicle for this cause did not sit well with Coppock.

She was in this unsettled state of mind last fall in Nashville when she ran into her long-time colleague Bob Tuke, a fellow adoption attorney and former chairman of the Tennessee Democratic Party. As a self-described avid hiker who has hoofed all but 20 miles of the Appalachian Trail in Tennessee, Tuke claims some built-in concern for the mountains.

â“When I learned from Dawn about how this type of mining tears away mountains and imperils streams and makes global warming worse, I wanted to help,â” says Tuke, who soon agreed to register as LEAFâ’s pro bono lobbyist in Nashville. As someone who has a backstage pass in the arena that is Tennessee politics, Tuke was also interested in the possibilities this issue offered for the greening of his party. Somewhat inspired by favorite Tennessee Democratic son, fighter of global warming, and Nobel Prize-winner Al Gore, Tuke was also sensing the political winds that have been blowing more voters toward green candidates.

â“People who may not have believed in them before are very concerned about climate and all kinds of environmental issues now,â” says Tuke, who is particularly impressed with how some Republican legislators, especially one from East Tennessee, are getting out in front to be green.

Now that LEAF had a well-connected lobbyist, they needed a bill for which to lobby. Dawn Coppock suddenly found herself backing into the role of LEAFâ’s legislative coordinator. Her paramount tasks were to draft two things: the first-ever legislation to ban mountaintop-removal coal mining in Tennessee and legislators who would champion its passage in the General Assembly.

Even though she had previously drafted child-welfare legislation, the adoption lawyer felt way out of her element wading around in environmental law. â“I didnâ’t know a stream buffer zone from ozone,â” she says. The stars of the church ladies and the enviros first began to align when Coppock asked Don Barger from the National Parks and Conservation Association (NPCA) to help her draft the bill. Within two weeks, the first draft of the Tennessee Scenic Vistas Protection Act was ready. The proposed law would basically use a three-pronged approach to prohibit expansion of mountaintop-removal coal mining within the state. The bill proposes no new or renewed state or federal environmental-quality permits issued by the state for surface coal mining until a comprehensive environmental-impact statement is completed by the federal Office of Surface Mining; no permits for any surface coal operations within 100 feet of any surface water of the state of Tennessee; and no permit, certification, or variance for any surface coal mining that alters or disturbs any ridgeline above 2,000 feet elevation.

With more than 25 years of organizing and advocacy experience from the conservation perspective on Tennessee mining issues, Barger, NPCA, and occasionally Save Our Cumberland Mountains (where Barger was a former staffer) have led some of the precious few active measures to stopâ"rather than slow downâ"mining on the Cumberland Plateau. Barger said he was immediately attracted to what LEAF was trying to do because of their values-based approach to issues that all too often get bogged down in technical wonkage. Yet Barger made sure the bill would appeal to the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation (TDEC) on its technical merits. It did, turning a potentially problematic opponent into a supporter of the measure. â“(LEAF) came to me for technical help but they knew what they wanted,â” says Barger. â“I just helped them get it right. [Now that TDEC is on board] theyâ’ve got me believing in miracles.â”

Within another week the bill would have its first sponsor.

A Surprising Champion

With 10 â“trees,â” state Sen. Raymond Finney has more than any Republican in the General Assembly. These would be little Tennessee Conservation Voters (TCV) trees, printed next to the names of lawmakers in the annual TCV Legislative Scorecard. Each tree represents an environmentally friendly vote cast in the last session of the General Assembly. Sen. Finneyâ’s name kept surfacing as Coppock asked an assortment of veteran environmentalists about a sponsor for the LEAF bill.

Coppock, who lives adjacent to Finneyâ’s district, admits this raised the eyebrows of some local politicos. When Finney, with the help of a local chapter of Tennessee Right to Life, pulled an upset victory over a moderate incumbent in the Blount and Sevier County Republican primaries in 2004, many had doubts about his environmental agenda. Some assumed his opposition to abortion meant he would put all the environmentalists on his enemies list, since quite a few of them happen to be pro-choice. Nevertheless, within 15 minutes of meeting Sen. Finney for the first time, Dawn Coppock was disabused of that notion.

â“I went in thinking I would claim a victory if he would just promise to think about the bill before voting against it,â” says Coppock. â“But before I even mentioned anything about his commitment, he said he wanted to sponsor the bill.â”

Bob Tuke was surprised when he heard he would be lobbying for a bill sponsored by a Republican. â“You could have knocked me over with a feather,â” he says. Which is not to say that Tuke disapproves of the situation. With Finney in the majority party on the Senate side and sponsorship by a majority Democrat (Joe McDonald from Sumner County) on the House side, Tuke thinks the prospects are bright for passage of the bill in this yearâ’s session. As he talks to legislators on both sides of the aisle, he is getting a strong sense that permanent removal of mountaintops in the state where â“Rocky Topâ” is the state song transcends partisan politics.

â“We have a whole new group of people looking at this as a spiritual or moral issue,â” says Tuke, â“and that takes a lot of the partisanship out of it,â” which is important for the success of any legislation with different parties in control of each house.

For his part, Raymond Finney downplays the religious aspects of the issue. â“I didnâ’t take this on as a religious issue but if faith-based organizations want to get involved I have no problem with it,â” says the senator who stole upon an incumbent seat with the aid of a religiously motivated base. Unapologetically, Finney sounds more like a classic conservationist than a holy-roller. â“To change the contour of a mountain forever to get at a coal seam needs to be looked at long and hard by us,â” says the Knoxville native and retired M.D., who moved to Blount County in 1976. â“If a Muslim or a Hindu or an atheist had brought this to me, I would have taken it up. [Protecting the mountains] is just good practice for the state and for generations to come.â”

Christian Coal

Since the LEAF bill was introduced just before the legislatureâ’s recent filing deadline, its real and imagined opponents have only begun to get stoked. A few legislators have already voiced concerns that the bill would cut off a revenue source for schools in their districts, which comes from the per-ton tipping fees paid by coal companies mining in their districts. The billâ’s proponents are now anticipating this line of attack from a recently registered Nashville lobbyist with coal industry clients.

With the morass of environmental, health, and safety issues that activists, lawyers, and government regulators confront them with every day, nobody knows better than coal-industry executives what easy targets they are for vilification. But they concede no moral high ground.

According to the National Mining Association (NMA), North America has the worldâ’s largest coal reserves, containing more energy than all the oil in the Middle East and generating half of the nationâ’s electricity through coal-fired power plants. As long as the United States consumes more energy than most other countries combined, the industry can and does comfortably claim that coal is a strategic natural resource. While insisting that mountaintop mining is conducted in ways that protect the environment, coal advocates brand their activist opponents as dangerous elitists who would not only put the countryâ’s energy needs in jeopardy but also send fuel prices soaring.

In this vein, NMA spokesman Luke Popovich takes particular issue with the Creation Care Christians who claim Scriptural authority supports their opposition to MTR.

â“By raising energy prices youâ’re raising heating and cooling bills for people on fixed incomes,â” says Popovich. â“[By keeping energy prices down] our industry is more consistent with the Christian message to help humankind.â”

Local music just got some new venues: Studio 865 and Flipside. The former is a new TV show produced by the University of Tennessee and the latter is a companion radio show on WUOT, both hosted by Knoxville scenester Todd Steed. Dave Prince sits in. Read more...

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