As a child, I remember sitting on my father’s shoulders as we surveyed a valley below. He said, “This is where your Daddy’s from,” and my response was, “Then I’m from here, too.” I wonder if that mountain from which we surveyed the valley is gone now.
A year after my father’s death, I went on a memorial trip with my family to the Mid-Ohio Valley in West Virginia and Ohio. My dad grew up there and was always proud of being an Appalachian hillbilly.
This was no accident. Mountaintop removal mining had gutted the local landscape. When mining companies blew the top off the nearby mountain to access coal seams, the blasts were so powerful that they had knocked over the headstones.
My father, a United Methodist minister and attorney, was a no-nonsense man. When he first heard that the area around the cemetery had become subjected to this extreme form of strip mining, he showed up in a small county court to be the lone voice in opposition.
I’m proud of my father for speaking up to defend our land and heritage. But there are many who have been disenfranchised in much more grievous ways by the coal economy and don’t have someone to speak up for them.
Appalachia is home to some of the poorest communities in America. That has made it easy for coal mining companies to come in, blow apart more than 500 mountains, bury more than 2,000 miles of headwater streams and pollute the groundwater — all while claiming that the coal economy is essential to these local communities.
Michael Hendryx, a professor of Applied Health Science at Indiana University in Bloomington, has shown that the median household income for Appalachian counties where coal mining is a major industry is only $28,287, versus $30,614 in the rest of Appalachia and $36,622 nationwide. If the coal economy is really such a boon, why are the communities that depend on it so poor?
And it’s not just that Appalachian coal country is poor; it’s also sick and dying. Cancer and cardiorespiratory diseases run rampant in these communities. Each year in West Virginia, health impacts from coal mining kill 578 people.
If coal mining is that deadly in West Virginia, what toll is the coal economy taking on the whole nation?
In Maryland, we get almost half of our electricity from coal, most of which is extracted from the Appalachian mountains. This state draws too much of its energy at the expense of our poorest and most powerless neighbors. As a Christian, I can’t accept an economic model that keeps communities in poverty, destroys God’s creation and kills people.
Let me be clear: I don’t blame everyone working in the coal economy for the damage it inflicts, including the miners themselves. The problem is that we need a new economic model that values the earth and our neighbors’ lives.
My father raised me to do whatever I could to faithfully care for my neighbors and all of God’s creation. He preached from the pulpit that with grace, anyone could turn their stumbling blocks into stepping stones.
The best way I can think to honor my dad is to faithfully advocate for a better economy — one built on renewable energy. People of faith across Maryland must work together to turn the stumbling blocks of the coal economy into the stepping stones of wind and solar energy.
Coal mining, especially mountaintop removal mining, must stop.