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UUs join March on Blair Mountain

At site of historic coal miner uprising, activists raise awareness about consequences of mountaintop removal mining.
By Donald E. Skinner
6.20.11

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More than 500 people marched to raise awareness about mountaintop removal mining.

More than 500 people marched 50 miles to Blair Mountain, W. Va., to raise awareness about mountaintop removal mining. (Paul Corbit Brown)

Steve Liptay, of the First Unitarian Church of Salt Lake City, Utah, recently spent five days walking across West Virginia to draw attention to the issue of mountaintop removal mining.

Mountaintop removal mining involves pushing the tops—and usually more than that—off mountains to get at the seams of coal underneath. The process, cheaper for coal companies than deep-shaft mining, is devastating parts of Appalachia by filling in valleys, polluting streams, and destroying communities.

Liptay is one of a growing number of Unitarian Universalists who are taking on this issue. “There are just so many reasons why mountaintop removal is objectionable,” he said recently.

From June 6-10, Liptay and more than 500 others walked 50 miles across West Virginia to Blair Mountain, the site of a 1921 battle between 10,000 miners and mine owners. The battle was the largest armed insurrection in this country outside of the Civil War. Because of its historical significance, the mountain was briefly listed in 2009 on the National Register of Historic Places until coal companies got it delisted. Now activists are trying to get it back on the protected list to keep it from being destroyed by mining.

Liptay said walkers, who followed much of the same route that miners took when they marched to the mountain in 1921 to confront mine owners, faced hostility from some people along the way, but overall local people were supportive. The March on Blair Mountain concluded with a rally on Saturday, June 11, that drew around 1,000 people, he said. Robert F. Kennedy Jr. participated in the events.

Liptay said the march was a success. “We reengaged local communities with this issue. Many people here are fed up with the coal companies who have so much power here. And I believe we gave the local organizers a lot of momentum.”

This was not Liptay’s first engagement with social justice. In March he was in the crowd outside the Salt Lake City federal courthouse when another First Unitarian member, Tim DeChristopher, was convicted of placing bogus bids in a federal oil and gas auction in order to protect national parklands and focus attention on the climate crisis. Then in April, Liptay was among nine people arrested for singing in protest from the U.S. House gallery, disrupting a budget debate, in another climate change action.

He credits DeChristopher with setting him on a path of activism around climate change. “We need more marches like this to show people we are committed. If we don’t act now we’re going to pay a big price in the future.”

Another UU on the march was Vince Pawlowski, a board member of UU Ministry for Earth and a member of the UU Congregation of Northwest Tucson in Arizona. “This is an issue of importance to a lot of UUs, and it would be to a lot more if they knew about it. This links directly to climate justice. Using up fossil fuels as fast as we can makes a liveable future impossible for many people around the world.”

This was Pawlowski’s third trip to the mining region. He said he met more than a dozen UUs on the march. “There were UUs who came because of the Tim DeChristopher trial in Utah and because of the fracking in the northeastern United States and just because of climate change concerns.” Fracking is a method of extracting natural gas that can cause contamination of water supplies.

He added, “For a lot of our Ministry for Earth members this is about stopping mountaintop removal. For me personally the goal is stopping use of all fossil fuels and turning to a renewable energy future.” He said he spent a fair amount of time on the march explaining Unitarian Universalism’s stand on environmental justice issues. “A lot of people were very curious as to what we were about.”

One of the sponsors of the march was the Environmental Task Force of River Road UU Congregation in Bethesda, Md. Charlotte Moser is a task force leader. She said the congregation’s awareness of mountaintop mining has grown over the past year because of presentations by a member-activist. “Appalachia is so close to us. I think this should be a big issue for all UU congregations. The health hazards in this region from this method of mining are enormous.” She said the congregation has switched to a wind energy provider and members are encouraged to convert as well.

Elizabeth Mount, with the UU Church of Asheville, N.C., came on the walk because she felt she had to do something. “It would have been the easy thing to do to stay home, but it wouldn’t have been right. I want people to know that getting out there and doing something, whether big or small, keeps you inspired and connected to the world. Our presence was important to many people in the communities along our route.”

Probably no UU congregation is more engaged with the issue of mountaintop removal than the UU Congregation of Charleston, W.Va. Charleston is 45 minutes from mountaintop mining activity.

Groups coming to West Virginia to learn about mountaintop removal often use the church as a headquarters. Local environmental groups, including Friends of the Mountains, meet there. The congregation arranged trips to Kayford Mountain when it was an active mining site. Church members created a video of a song, written by church member Mike Youngren, called "Climb Kayford Mountain," which includes images of coal mining explosions to remove portions of the mountain. The congregation once helped pay for police protection for a mining activist who was threatened. The Rev. Dr. Rose Edington and the Rev. Mel Hoover, co-ministers since 2002, lobby at the state capitol and in Washington on mining-related issues.

Edington, who grew up in West Virginia, says, “I am absolutely furious about what the coal companies are doing. It is so heartbreaking to know that homes and communities are being ruined, that some of the oldest hardwood forests in the world are being destroyed and that these companies are intransigent about the damages they cause.

“Mountaintop removal mining is a huge issue. I want other Unitarian Universalists to know how important this is. We take electricity for granted. We don’t like to think that for us to turn on a light switch a mountain has to be blown to bits.”

Added Hoover, “So much of the country, even progressive people, are simply not aware of what’s happening here. This is a sacrifice zone. Thousands of people die here from coal-related health issues so that we can have cheap energy. This is no different than a sweat shop in India.”

He said there are multiple social justice issues involved with coal mining, from water and air pollution to the collapse of coal slurry ponds, disruption of gravesites, and workers’ rights.

Less than 10 percent of the coal produced in the United States comes from mountaintop removal mining. This method requires many fewer workers than conventional mining and creates much more waste and pollution. It takes place throughout the Appalachian Mountains, from Ohio to Virginia, and most commonly occurs in West Virginia and eastern Kentucky.

Other congregations engaged with this issue include Thomas Jefferson Memorial Church in Charlottesville, Va., and the Hopedale UU Community, Oxford, Ohio, whose Green Sanctuary group sponsored an Action of Immediate Witness at GA 2006 on mountaintop removal.

Members of the UU Church of Lexington, Ky., are working with the group Appalachia Rising, and the congregation has held many Sunday services on mountaintop removal mining, said the Rev. Cynthia Cain.

Sharon Baiocco, chair of the Green Sanctuary team at the Charlottesville church, said members of her congregation have lobbied state and federal legislators, taken tours of mine sites, made presentations at other UU congregations, and are working with an interfaith group on environmental issues. For several years the congregation has held a “vigil for the mountains.”

“We’re 200 miles from the nearest mountaintop mining, but that coal generates our electricity here in Charlottesville,” said Baiocco. “This is an issue that’s important to us.” And despite the hearings full of hostile miners when she testified on a “stream saver” bill that would have ended mountaintop mining in Virginia, she sees hope, especially as more UU congregations get involved. “I do think we’re close to turning public opinion on this issue. It’s immoral, and it cannot last. We really do have better energy options.”

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