Destroying West Virginia, One Mountain At A Time Christians battle King Coal to save Appalachia

I wrote this article for the June 2010 issue of Sojourners Magazine.

In April, the Environmental Protection Agency announced rules that could significantly reduce mountaintop-removal mining in the U.S. For longtime activists like Allen Johnson, co-founder of the group Christians for the Mountains (CFTM), it’s proof that “hope is not always in vain”—but only one step of a long journey towards environmental and economic justice in coal-mining areas of Appalachia.

Hope has long been kept alive by people like Kayford, West Virginia’s Larry Gibson, who hasn’t been afraid to stand up to the principalities and powers to protect his family’s mountain. Gibson has literally put his life on the line, facing gunshots, death threats from coal company supporters, and even the killing of his dogs.

According to Gibson, mountaintop removal, in which companies blow up mountains with dynamite to access coal, “destroyed over 3 million acres of mountains, 1.5 million in West Virginia alone.” Gibson calls the boundary between his property and the area destroyed by mountaintop removal “Hell’s Gate,” because no one can live on the other side.

Though the EPA ruling may prevent most new mountaintop-removal mines for now, it could still be overturned in the future, according to Rebekah Epling, communications and capacity-building volunteer with CFTM, unless it’s made into enforceable law through the proposed Clean Water Protection Act and the Appalachia Restoration Act. And, “though the ruling is a great victory, there still needs to be restoration of the mountains and communities,” says Epling.

Last August I spent a week in West Virginia—which competes with Mississippi for the ranking of poorest state in the Union—with a delegation of 200 international poverty activists organized by Union Theological Seminary’s Poverty Initiative. As an African American from the inner city, I saw common threads between the environmental injustices faced in my community and the struggles of people in coal country.

Historically, coal miners’ lives had similarities to those of sharecroppers, from whom many African-American inner-city residents are descended. Miners went into a constant cycle of debt because they lived in houses owned by the company and could only shop at stores owned by the company. According to Allen Johnson, who co-founded the ecumenical CFTM five years ago at a meeting hosted by Gibson, the many decades of mono-economy can’t be ignored: “When generations of parents have not been able to get a decent job without Dad dropping out of school at 16 to get a job in the coal mine, and Grandpa was that way, as well as Great-Granddad, we are dealing with a generational thing. It’s a little like racism, where many African Americans are trying to climb out of generations that didn’t have an opportunity to get an education.”

Today, like inner-city community members, the residents of coal fields have to deal with substandard living conditions. They live in dust-covered homes; sludge from the coal mining process makes it into their water, causing cancer, gallbladder disease, and a host of other health problems. West Virginia ranks dead last on Forbes’ list of cleanest states (and near the bottom of its list of best states for business); the lifespan of a woman in the coal fields is a decade shorter than the U.S. average. The injustice of poverty is expressed through the degradation of the environment.

It’s not just an economic and environmental problem, Johnson says, but a spiritual one: “Principalities want to be worshipped and looked up to as saviors. People feel they need to worship what is oppressing them and destroying their future—which is what I mean by principality.”

Case in point: Johnson describes an area where mining has made well water “very toxic,” to the point that residents are losing hair, a sign of high arsenic levels. A Lutheran church is offering barrels of clean water to locals, but “about half the people won’t take the water because it offends the coal industry. That’s the insidious thing; if you offend the coal industry, you may lose your job or your brother may lose his job.”

“You make bricks for Pharaoh, and if you complain he’ll take the straw out,” says Johnson. “You bow your knee to Pharaoh Coal, even though West Virginia is vying with Mississippi for the ranking of 50th in quality of life in the United States.”

We are all involved. Even if you have never been to Appalachia, know that we all benefit from coal every time we heat our homes or use electricity: According to Physicians for Social Responsibility, “almost half of the energy used to generate electricity in the United States comes from burning coal.”

Is there a faithful prophetic response? The activists at Christians for the Mountains say yes. CFTM advocates locally and nationally around the issues of coal country; it also administers healthcare assessments and runs an intentional community where volunteers live and serve together. According to field organizer Robert “Sage” Phillips Russo, faith is a driving force behind the group’s work: “There are many groups that are out there to politically organize and strategize. While we are doing that as well, it’s important that we are here to talk about theology”—and to “pray for one another about illnesses, our kids, the movement, and our future.”

As I spoke to Russo and others, I found a deep love for the mountains and a commitment to living out the gospel. Russo, born in Brooklyn but raised in Appalachia, felt led “to serve the land and the people.” Rebekah Epling also spoke of the role faith plays in her organizing work: “Doing this work has made me grow in my prayer life. I think about why people are reacting the way they are. In the Bible, Jesus went to the root of an issue.

According to Russo, most of the Christians who get involved from outside of the coal fields are part of more socially progressive churches. Epling spoke of the contribution young evangelicals make: “I had this idea that it was going to be more liberal, service-oriented denominations like Quakers and Mennonites who would be primarily involved, but it’s been really interesting for me to meet lots of different types of evangelical college students; it’s been eye-opening.”

Within the coal areas themselves, Russo sees more Pentecostal and charismatic preachers grab onto the fact that “the destruction of God’s creation is an atrocity, and we have to get involved.” One such preacher told him, “I know God when I go walking into these mountains. I know the Spirit is alive here and that the destruction of the area is blasphemous to God.” Johnson sums up CFTM’s philosophy in the organization’s founding scripture, Psalm 24:1: “‘The earth is the Lord’s and everything in it; the world and all that live upon it.’ God’s the property owner, and we get the privilege to live on it.”

Ultimately, Russo says, “this isn’t a political issue where you take the Republican or Democrat, right or left, swing. This is about surviving, health, clean water, and clean air.”

Survival is at stake in more than one way. According to Johnson, “Larry Gibson faces constant threats; the violence level is scary.”

But even as Gibson is steadfast in his opposition to the principalities of old King Coal, he still expresses love for the human beings who have taken on the role of his enemies: “I have nothing but compassion for these people. I consider these people my people.”

Extended Interview with Allen Johnson Co-Founder of Christians for the Mountains
Onelilove Alston: What is your professional background?

Allen Johnson: My undergraduate degree is in theology; my graduate degree was in biology. In the late 1970s I began to stretch out and grow in my faith. Though I grew up in the church, I had to find my own faith. I don’t want abstract theology but public theology—what does it mean to be a Christian today in the culture I am in? That is my highest driving force, the fire in my belly.

What faith tradition did you grow up in?

My mom was Reformed; my dad was Church of the Brethren. I attended a Brethren College. In 1968, while students were protesting against the Vietnam War, I went out with other students to protest against them and somehow (it was a God thing) I saw the darkness in my own heart. In the late 1970s the charismatic movement made a big impact on me. I am with a pretty conservative charismatic church, but they like what I do.

What are some examples of the historic disenfranchisement in coal producing areas?

One way to understand the economics of coal is that when the coal barons came here in the late 1800s, early 1900s, they bought up mineral rights from people because they were functionally illiterate. Over the decades, the high coal-producing areas became a mono-economy. Schools were not needed in the early heyday of the coal industry. You didn’t need education if you wanted to mine coal, and what happened is if a person did not want to mine coal they tended to leave because there wasn’t much else there. We had a certain brain drain or talent drain out of the coal fields.

The coal industry pits the poor against the poor. That’s a common tactic of industries: conquer and divide, pit the poor against the poor. After the Civil War they pitted the poor whites against poor blacks—that’s an old story that goes on, and that’s really what’s happening in the coal fields. We care about people having descent jobs and there isn’t anything else. So people have jobs but at the expense of destroying the future. Health studies are showing that the lifespan of a woman in the coal fields is 10-years less than the average American woman.

That’s the plight of the poor. Biblically, you make bricks for Pharaoh, and if you complain he’ll take the straw out. You bow your knee to Pharaoh Coal, or what they call King Coal. You bow your knee even though West Virginia is literally vying with Mississippi for the ranking of 49 or 50th in quality of life in the United States.

How did you become interested in the mountaintop removal issue?

I’ve always loved nature and ended up in Appalachia because I had a heart for the mountains. I am just going to say God led me here, if I can use that language.

You can use that language with me.

In 1993 I went to a Christian Peacemaker Teams delegation to Haiti. When I went there it really hit me in the gut—it was during the time of the military coup that overthrew Jean-Bertrand Aristide. Death squads were stalking the land, and there was environmental devastation. All the trees had been cut down, the soil became a dessert except when it rains. I came back and began to feel that I still had to do something more locally.

In May 2005 we invited Christian environmentalists from North Carolina, Kentucky, and West Virginia up to Larry Gibson’s place (Kayford Mountain) and out of that came Christians For the Mountains. This is a two-way thing: We are trying to advocate for the environment, for the people who are exploited, and create a new future and bring integrity to the church. We had an open conference in the fall and with that we decided to create a toolkit, build a staff, set up an office, and create a DVD. We show Larry Gibson at the mountain that is being destroyed, while playing “How Great Thou Art,” which creates a dissonance and shows us that we are basically destroying God’s creation.

Can you tell us a little bit about the water issues?

When coal is mined underground it’s called steamed coal, which is what most coal is used for. But before the power plants utilizes the coal, they ask the coal operators to give it a bath, so to speak. What happens when you give coal a bath is that it leaves the water dirty. Typically, what they do is build a dam up in the mountains which can hold up to several billion gallons of this stuff, and when the dams get full they let some of that out. They have also been given permission to pump that sludge into abandoned underground mines.

What we believe happens in communities is that the well water is very toxic and many people have gallstones, high rates of cancer, and their hair falls out, which is an indicator of high arsenic. The state wouldn’t do anything about it because the state government is told to grease the wheels of the coal industry. The coal industry corrupts the government; you see that in other issues such as global poverty or even in urban areas. So we have well water that is bad and it’s very toxic. A Lutheran church in the area began to take barrels of good water to these people because they have to buy water about half the people will take the water and half won’t.

The reason half won’t take the water is because it offends the coal industry, and that’s the insidious thing—that people are really willing to damage their health to not offend the coal industry. If you offend the coal industry, you may lose your job or your brother may lose his job, and that is an indicator of the poverty. You better just take what you can, or it may get worse.

Are there particular scriptures that inform the work of Christians For The Mountains?

Our major founding Scripture was Psalm 24:1— “the earth is the Lord’s and everything in it; the world and all that live upon it.” So basically what that means is that God’s the creator; he’s the property owner, and we get the privilege to live on it. We have covenantal, intergenerational responsibility to take care of the earth. I sometime use the scripture that we cannot serve both God and mammon and we can’t serve two masters—the coal industry, or ourselves by being energy hogs. If we start loving money, then exploitation of the earth and people will happen.

Is there such a thing as clean coal?

The industry says it is, and they are willing to take billions of dollars in government stimulus money to show that there is and keep the industry alive

There is a lot of pressure on the coal industry because of global climate concerns and because of the mercury contamination. Basically, all the fish on the East Coast is considered unsafe for women of childbearing age. Certainly, for pregnant women, it is dangerous to eat fish because of the mercury contamination. That’s a good pro-life argument—there are babies being born with neurological damage due to mercury, which causes a four or five point IQ drop.

The idea behind “clean coal” is that coal is pushing carbon emissions, which is the most serious greenhouse gas contributing to climate change. The coal industry is saying that with better technology they can take the carbon dioxide out of the process. There are ways to pull some of the carbon dioxide out, and they would pump that underground. If they can get it underground safely there will be questions of cost-effectiveness, because the process is very expensive. How will they pay for it—with government subsidies? I don’t believe clean coal is possible. I think it’s a way of just trying to suit the public and keep the industry going.

When you mentioned the mercury and IQ drop connection, it reminded me of how lead poisoning in inner-city apartment complexes causes the IQ of children living within them to drop. Are there other ways children are being affected by the coal industry?

When a community has been based upon generations of parents that have not been able to get a decent job without dad dropping out of school at 16 years of age to get a job in the coal mine, and Grandpa was that way as well as Great-granddad, we are dealing with a generational thing. I think it’s a little like racism, where many African Americans are trying to climb out of generations of when they didn’t have an opportunity to get an education.

I think it takes extra advocacy, help, and support. I am a library director and I know that West Virginia is ranked 50th in the country for overall funding for libraries.

I wanted to go back a little bit to the political question of clean coal. What can the current administration do to address the issue of mountaintop removal?

One thing is to simply strengthen the existing regulations, such as the Clean Water Act. I think our congressional representatives, Robert Byrd and Jay Rockefeller, are pretty good on many issues, but when you get to coal they walk in lock step with the coal industry.

Polling indicates that up to 75 prercent of West Virginians oppose mountaintop removal. So I think, with our leaders, you have some powerful senators and other congresspeople that are so entrenched within the coal industry they will just follow the coal industry line. Larry Gibson has said that senators within the coal areas may hold up climate change remedies that can affect the whole world.

I really want to see the churches exert a strong moral pressure on them. I think that strong moral pressure needs to be enacted. I think it’s the moral issue that mammon can’t be the trump card.

Can you name the specific churches and denominations that work with your organization?

As far as denominational statements, it’s the mainline ones: Episcopal, Methodist, Presbyterians. As far as feet on the floor, it depends a lot on the congregation leadership. I know a Pentecostal church down in the coal fields who works with us, and sometimes it’s little independent churches. Overall we’ve had a number of para-church groups such as Evangelicals for Social Action and Restoring Eden. We also work with Interfaith Power & Light.

It is hard getting into the churches in the coal fields. I believe the reason for this is that in one church congregation you have someone who is driving a truck for the coal company in one pew, and in another pew you have someone whose life is being messed up by the effects of coal mining. What do you do as a pastor? You will ignore that issue and just pray for people to get to heaven. I think that happens with a lot of social justice issues. We don’t want to step on toes—the culture tends to trap the churches. Forbes listed the cleanest states, as well as the best states for business, and West Virginia was ranked 50th on both lists. The coal industry has not brought us prosperity or quality of life.

Principalities want to be worshiped and looked up to as saviors. This is more than just a phenomenon. There is a spiritual undercurrent where people feel they need to worship what is oppressing them and destroying their future—which is what I mean by principality.

Some charismatics talk about generational curses; I don’t know how I feel about that phrase, but there does appear to be something generational about this.

You do see it affect generation after generation. I don’t think God places curses on anyone, but it’s a curse in a sense that people are stuck into a system that they haven’t been freed from. Jesus, in what served as his inauguration speech, said: “the spirit of the Lord is upon me to set free the captive.”

Since we are talking about the more oppressive side of this issue, I wanted to ask if there have been personal threats to Christians For The Mountains activists?

I was there at Larry Gibson’s 4th  of July gathering. We had a worship service on Sunday, and the gathering the next day. He told me he was afraid of the coal supporters, and he tried to get some security up there and was unable. It was unnerving, what happened. The coal supporters threw food around and it went on for twenty to thirty minutes.

Larry Gibson faces constant threats. Larry said you are marked if you are out here opposing mountain top removal and they use intimidation. The violence level is scary Larry has had tires slashed. People who live down there and speak out are courageous.

As far as Christians For the Mountains, we have not had anything happen to us directly. When we started, The Kentucky Coal Association put out a statement saying [that] Christians don’t have any purpose dealing with the coal industry, they should stay in the churches. We were offered a scripture from Isaiah to think about: “every mountain should be brought low and every valley should be lifted up.” Are you familiar with this scripture? Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King used it in his “I Have a Dream Speech.” I am wondering if some people who are not astute will say, well, it says that in the Bible.

As a whole, I think they tried to leave us alone, because they don’t have anything to really justify mountaintop removal, except people need jobs. The church can’t just say any job is a good job. I don’t think the church will support the sex industry because you can make more money in that industry than flipping hamburgers, and you have to feed your kids.

We need to develop an alternative economy down in the coal fields. People don’t have many choices: That’s the entrapment, that’s the spiritual oppression, that’s the oppression African-Americans faced after the Civil War. We need an alternative economy; we need help from the nation. I feel that coal has fueled the industrial revolution in the U.S., which led to us becoming a prosperous nation—without this area becoming prosperous. I would like to see green jobs come to this area.

Throughout our conversation, you mentioned a couple of reasons why people of faith should care about the issue of Mountaintop removal and why it is an moral issue. Do you have any tips for what the average Christian can do to support the movement against mountaintop removal?

I would say, really understand that energy conservation has moral implications: everything from climate issues, to how it’s affecting the ecology, the mining, and so forth. The best quick solution is for people to: massively watch your energy use; turn off your lights, use energy star type of things, and insulate your houses. Congregations can make efforts to do energy audits; some of these buildings are huge, and it takes a lot to heat and light them. Clean water and clean air are inalienable rights. Polluters should be stopped. I think Christians can help by practicing energy conservation and participating in advocacy efforts to stop pollution.

Are there any myths about West Virginia that you would you like to debunk?

Well, you know, the stereotypes that the people here are Beverly Hillbillies, drunks, shiftless, barefoot and illiterate—those are prevalent. I love the people here; they are very resourceful, very hard-working, very neighborly. There is a hospitality. They will help you fix your tire and not take anything for it. There is certain individualism and I like it.

I think the biggest concern I have is that there is a population loss in West Virginia. We have dying rural towns and an aging population. We need young people. This is a mission thing; people talk about doing missionary work in other countries, but what I would like to see is young, talented, socially-minded people come here and work. There is a huge rebuilding job to be done here.

Any final words?

What drives me is my love of God and gratitude to God for drawing me in, raising me, and aiding me. I need forgiveness and God’s mercy. A desire to love what God loves and a desire for the integrity of the church are my driving forces as a Christian.

For more information on this issue, visit:

Christians for the Mountains:

Larry Gibson:

The Evangelical Environmental Network Statement on Mercury and the Unborn:

Physicians For Social Responsibility – Coal’s Assault on Human Health:


Restoring Eden:

Coal Wars Film – Matewan:

Allen Johnson Co-Founder of Christians for the Mountains Reflects on the Principality of King Coal: King Coal: Ruling Principality and Power in West Virginia

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