Mountaintop Removal Gains Momentum as a Faith Issue

Voting approaches on a bill that would ban some mountaintop removal mining for coal.

Tennessee's House Environment subcommittee is scheduled to vote Tuesday, March 31, to determine whether SB1406/HB899 will move to the full House Conservation and Environment committee for a vote. If subcommittee and committee vote accordingly, the bill would then move to the floor. The bill, more commonly referred to as the Tennessee Scenic Vistas Protection Act, would ban mountaintop removal mining for coal at elevations above 2,000 feet.

If this news has the ring of déjà vu, there's a good reason: The same subcommittee spiked the bill last April by two votes. But as you know, much has changed in Nashville over the past year. And there are only two reps in the full committee who aren't in the subcommittee. So a green light Tuesday would likely mean the bill is headed to the floor.

The primary lobbying force behind the bill is the Lindquist Environmental Appalachian Fellowship (LEAF). The group has side-stepped the entrenched thinking that often attends environmental issues by presenting the conservation this bill would enforce as a faith issue. "Creation care," they contend, is in keeping with the teaching of the scriptures.

"The committee compositions have changed," says Dawn Coppock, LEAF's legislative director, "I would say to be more favorable. Because we only lost by two votes last time. Our network has grown considerably. So we have many more churches that are concerned about this issue, and concerned about creation care in general."

Bruising battles like last year's vote are never easy. But Coppock says it was useful in the long run by keeping the issue in the media, and alerting more Tennesseans to the realities of mountaintop removal.

"We've seen an explosion of consciousness all the way across Tennessee," says Pat Hudson, outreach director for LEAF. "It is a national trend, but I think this legislation got the attention of an awful lot of people, and that's made reaching churches easier."

Mountaintop removal certainly has the attention of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). As this article was being prepared for press, EPA announced that hundreds of mountaintop coal-mining permits are now on hold for review, and anywhere from 150 to 250 permits may be delayed. At press time, it wasn't clear whether any of those permits relate to sites in Tennessee.

"It has educated a lot people that we do have mountaintop removal mining in Tennessee," says Coppock of the coverage LEAF's campaign has attracted. "Most Tennesseans didn't know that when we started. And that's allowed a lot of groups who address the issue to get a little more traction."

One church that has responded to LEAF's efforts is Knoxville's Concord United Methodist Church, on Roane Drive. Janie Wendelken is coordinator of adult activities there.

"We have a Church in Society team that meets regularly," says Wendelken. "One of the things that we've decided that team needs to do is educate our church-members on social issues. I was part of a group that attended a creation care workshop last year, and a couple months ago some of us attended one of LEAF's presentations. We felt our members really needed to know about this, so we invited LEAF to make a presentation at one of our regular Wednesday evening meetings. That presentation was very impactful."

Concord is in the process of designing a new green church, and makes recycling and environmental issues a part of its regular programming. Wendelken makes it clear that Concord has not officially endorsed the bill or LEAF's position.

"But there are a number of us who will stand up and cheer for them," says Wendelken. "I'd like to say we had a group on its way to Nashville for the vote, but we don't. Our job is to educate. We don't ask for a commitment. We have encouraged people to write, and I know that has been happening."

Thorny subjects like abortion and stem cell research are reminders that there's often a price to pay for paper-clipping Bible verses to legislation. LEAF says that they attempt to play it safe by not addressing or alluding to any issues beyond mountaintop removal.

"I think some members of the Legislature recognized this right away as a faith issue, and they were comfortable with it," says Coppock. "Others are realizing that a lot of people are being called to the creation care movement nationally, and a lot of Christians are being called to see their relationship to the Earth in a way that is consistent with their faith and the scriptures. That's hard to ignore. And legislators tend to be people of faith; most of them list a particular church affiliation. For some of them the faith argument has been compelling."

According to Hudson, the Catholic Church in Tennessee is behind the bill, and has adopted creation care as one of their social justice issues to advance. And she says both of Tennessee's Methodist bishops have issued letters of support.

"I think we've got a shot," says Coppock. "I think it is still a very important time for voters to be heard on this issue. I think it's important to put this in a national context. This is the first state in the country to consider whether or not to blow up our mountains, while we still have mountains. We're also the first state to have such a powerful economic engine as our tourism industry at stake."