The Diocese often remains silent, failing to promote its own teachings on justice and the environment
By Michael J. Iafrate
WHEELING, W.Va. – During this presidential campaign, a light is being shined on the way corporate and other wealthy donors influence the political process. We have woken up to the fact that money corrupts politics. During this month of the sixth anniversary of the Upper Big Branch disaster, it is important, too, to see the corrupting influence of coal money on our churches.
The Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston and Bishop Michael Bransfield have been admirably engaged in the work of charity in the state of West Virginia. Yet, they have been, on so many occasions, disappointingly reluctant to speak truthfully about one of the major causes of poverty and ecological wreckage in the region: the coal industry.
For example, the takeaway from the Bishop’s pastoral letter on mine safety, issued after Upper Big Branch, was that the tragedy “raises concerns.” But the coal industry itself says that such accidents “raise concerns.” The death of so many human beings at the hands of a systemically negligent industry should do more than “raise concerns.”
Whether faced with the coal industry’s repeated attempts to cheat retired miners out of their pensions and health care packages or the ongoing devastating stories from communities affected by mountaintop removal mining, the Diocese often remains silent, failing to promote its own teachings on justice and the environment. Even after the release of Pope Francis’ powerful ecological encyclical Laudato Si’, Bransfield downplayed its message for West Virginia, promoting instead the myth of “clean coal.” And the Diocese has yet to make any comments about the dangers of fracking which increasingly affects people in West Virginia. Why is this?
People of faith in Appalachia often suspect that dirty money from the fossil fuel industries compromises the church’s prophetic voice. Pope Francis has spoken about the corrupting influence of “dirty money,” saying, “I think of some benefactors of the Church, who come with an offer for the Church and their offer is the fruit of the blood of people who have been exploited, enslaved with work which was under-payed. I will tell these people to please take back their cheques. The People of God don’t need their dirty money but hearts that are open to the mercy of God.”
We must ask about the relevance of Francis’ words for the church in West Virginia, as it in fact has financial ties to the coal industry. Diocesan officials have stated publicly that the church draws money from unspecified “fossil fuel investments,” but will not disclose any further details about these investments or about its endowment in general, and one of the four lay members of Bransfield’s finance council is a former lobbyist for the National Coal Association. In 2008, according to multiple sources, Bransfield gave the green light to Sacred Heart Parish School in Williamson, W.Va. to accept charitable gifts from former Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship, including the funding of a brand-new gymnasium for the school, brand new sports equipment, and full scholarships for 12 students for their six-year education.
One would think that after Upper Big Branch the church might be more reluctant to accept any more dirty money from coal barons. Yet, Catholic Charities of West Virginia opened a new facility in Greenbrier County in 2013 funded by a donation from mine owner Jim Justice, whose mines have been cited for hundreds of labor, safety, and environmental violations and for failure to pay various debts and taxes.
People like Justice and Blankenship give monetary gifts to the church to improve their community standing. For precisely this reason, Blankenship’s charitable activity was cited in over one hundred letters to U.S. District Judge Irene Berger asking for more leniency in the lead-up to his sentencing.
Despite its continued economic decline, Big Coal wants a return on their investment in the church. What kind of return are they getting? A diocesan spokesperson told me that the church opposes the abuses of the fossil fuel industries, such as mountaintop removal and the abuse of workers, but that it does so “quietly” because “banging a drum” about it would “not be prudent.” But what is the value of opposition that is not made public?
Such responses suggest that the Diocese is very concerned about how the church’s social justice teachings would be received by powerful industries in West Virginia if we were to preach them strongly and in public. When church leaders consistently accept money from coal barons, the “prudent” approach muzzles any social justice teaching the church might offer in defense of workers or of Earth’s ecological integrity.
The Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston and Bishop Michael Bransfield have … have been, on so many occasions, disappointingly reluctant to speak truthfully about one of the major causes of poverty and ecological wreckage in the region: the coal industry.”– Michael J. Iafrate
Many West Virginia Catholics would like to see their leaders boldly choose the side of justice and to “let justice speak loudly,” as the Appalachian Catholic bishops put it in their 1975 pastoral letter “This Land is Home to Me.” We do not expect the church to call for an immediate end of the coal industry, even as we transition to more diverse, life-giving economies. But we insist that the church must do better at denouncing—without ambiguity—this industry’s abuses.
Specifically, is it too much to wish that Bransfield condemn mountaintop removal and fracking and to apologize for promoting the lie of clean coal? Shouldn’t he promote clearly the church’s teaching on workers’ rights and oppose the continued attack on those rights that we saw in West Virginia’s recent legislative session, especially in the passing of the Right to Work bill? (The brief, vague diocesan statement issued on the legislation will not do). Might we expect him to join so many others explicitly calling for tougher penalties for those who violate mining regulations?
To do any of this, however, the church must be free of the corrupting influence of the coal industry’s financial gifts. On this anniversary of Upper Big Branch, the Diocese should exercise financial transparency and make a clear commitment to refuse the financial benefits of a destructive, death-dealing industry. As Pope Francis has said, we don’t need their dirty money.
[This is a shorter, edited version of a longer piece first published at Religion Dispatches, April 14, 2016.]
© Michael J. Iafrate, 2016.
Michael J. Iafrate writes from Wheeling, W.Va. He is a doctoral candidate in theology at the University of St. Michael’s College (Toronto) and Chair of the Board of Directors of the Catholic Committee of Appalachia. He can be reached at email@example.com. The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of the Catholic Committee of Appalachia.
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Unchecked mountaintop removal coal mining continues to harm communities, endangered species in Appalachia
CHARLESTON, W.Va. – The Center for Biological Diversity, Coal River Mountain Watch, the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, and the Sierra Club filed a formal notice of intent to sue the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service today for their failure to protect threatened northern long-eared bats at two proposed mountaintop removal coal mines in West Virginia. The mines will clear more than 1,000 acres of hardwood forest that are home to the rare bat, which was protected under the Endangered Species Act in April. The agencies have not put any specific measures in place to protect the bats from the mining activities, as required by law.
“The failure to protect these bats is the latest example of coal companies getting a free pass in Appalachia when it comes to complying with the Endangered Species Act and other laws designed to protect the health of people and the environment,” said Tierra Curry, a senior scientist at the Center. “The wink-and-a-nod compliance with the law is having devastating effects on wildlife and human communities in Appalachia.”
The Center for Biological Diversity petitioned for Endangered Species Act protection for the northern long-eared bat in 2010. The species has declined by 96 percent in its core range due to a lethal disease called white-nose syndrome. Because of the drastic impact of this disease, the bat is extremely vulnerable to habitat destruction.
The bat is found at both Republic Energy’s proposed Long Ridge mine on Coal River Mountain in Raleigh County, which will clear 664 acres of forest, and Jim Justice’s Big Creek mine in McDowell County, which will destroy 468 acres of forest. Under the Endangered Species Act, the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement and Fish and Wildlife Service are required to ensure that mining does not jeopardize the survival of the bats.
“Federal agencies need to do a better job of protecting both the northern long-eared bat and the people who live around these mines,” said Vernon Haltom, director of Coal River Mountain Watch. “Mountaintop removal is destroying wildlife and human communities in Appalachia and it is time for that to end.”
“The lack of effective protections for bats and other endangered species mirrors the lack of protection for Appalachian residents from surface mining impacts,” said Dianne Bady, founder and project coordinator at the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition.
To try to address impacts to endangered species from surface mining, the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement consulted with the Fish and Wildlife Service in 1996, resulting in a “biological opinion” that established very minimal requirements that must be met. According to today’s legal notice, the two mines in question have not established specific measures to protect northern long-eared bats as is required by that biological opinion. The groups also put the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement on notice that its continued reliance on the 1996 document to avoid impacts to imperiled species is illegal. The outdated biological opinion fails to ensure the survival of the northern long-eared bat and many other species that have required the Endangered Species Act’s protection since 1996 and, that like the bat, are being affected by surface coal mining.
“Today’s notice is another example of how critical it is to have increased protections in Appalachia from surface mining,” said Liz Wiles with the West Virginia Sierra Club. “Federal agencies need to revamp protections for endangered species when it comes to surface mining, which will benefit both wildlife and people.”
Much new scientific information has been published recently documenting the devastating effects of surface coal mining in Appalachia on wildlife and people. Mining has now been linked to declines in birds, fish, salamanders, crawdads, insects and freshwater mussels. Mining threatens nearby communities with air and water pollution and risk of flooding. More than 20 peer-reviewed scientific studies have now linked mining pollution in Appalachia to health problems, including increased risk of cancer, cardiovascular disease and birth defects.
The proposed Big Creek mine is a case in point. In addition to destroying nearly 500 acres of native hardwood forest used by the bat, it is directly above a church and upstream of a Head Start center. It will also destroy more than five miles of streams, threatening another species that has been proposed for protection, the Big Sandy crayfish. More than one million acres of hardwood forest and more than 2,000 miles of streams have already been destroyed by surface coal mining in Appalachia.
The Center for Biological Diversity is a national, nonprofit conservation organization with more than 900,000 members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places.
Coal River Mountain Watch is a West Virginia nonprofit organization that works to stop the destruction of communities and environment by mountaintop removal mining, to improve the quality of life of residents, and to help rebuild sustainable communities. The group is working to pass the Appalachian Community Health Emergency Act (ACHE).
The Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition is national organization dedicated to the improvement of the environment and communities through education, grassroots organizing and coalition building, leadership development, strategic litigation and media outreach.
Sierra Club is one of the oldest grassroots environmental organizations in the country with more than 2.4 million members and supporters. Sierra Club’s mission is “to explore, enjoy, and protect the wild places of the earth; to practice and promote the responsible use of the earth’s ecosystems and resources; and to educate and enlist humanity to protect and restore the quality of the natural and human environments.”
Center for Biological Diversity calls upon federal and state officials to provide greater scrutiny of mining permit approved for Justice-owned McDowell County surface mine
By Michael M. Barrick
BRIDGEPORT, W.Va. – Tierra Curry, the senior scientist with the Center of Biological Diversity, has written an eight-page letter to state and federal officials asking the agencies to further review the public health and environmental impact of a surface mine owned by Jim Justice, who earlier this month declared his candidacy for governor of West Virginia.
Justice, who owns the Greenbrier Resort in White Sulphur Springs, is a Democrat. The gubernatorial race is in 2016. He is also the subject of news coverage reporting that he has avoiding paying fines leveled against his mining operations for various environmental violations.
The Center for Biological Diversity is a national nonprofit conservation organization. The operation in question is the Big Creek surface mine in McDowell County. Last month, the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection issued a surface mining permit to Justice Low Seam Mining, Inc. for the operations. In response, Curry wrote, “Please accept these comments from the Center for Biological Diversity concerning impacts to threatened and endangered species and the environment that will result from the proposed Big Creek surface mine. …”
Curry asserts, “In terms of intensity, this permit directly affects public health and safety, harms an ecologically critical area, has highly controversial effects on the environment, will cause and contribute to cumulative impacts in this important ecological area, and directly affects endangered species and their habitat.”
She adds, “More than 20 peer-reviewed scientific articles have now revealed threats posed to human health by pollution from mountaintop removal coal mining includes increased incidence of cancer, birth defects, cardiovascular disease and kidney disease.”
Additional Oversight Required
Hence, Curry argues that the agencies responsible for public health and environmental oversight have more work to do. In her letter to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources, Curry wrote, “We ask that you undertake further environmental review and analysis before allowing this mining project to move forward. Specifically, we ask you to consider alternatives to the mine as proposed including a no action alternative and an alternative that does not include a valley fill and that buffers and protects all streams from mining activity. We also ask that you seriously weigh these comments given the applicant’s lengthy history of environmental violations when coal mining.”
Curry was in Charleston in April, where she was the keynote speaker at the Preserving Sacred Appalachia Conference at the St. John’s XXIII Pastoral Center. Recalling that visit, she shared, “When I visited West Virginia this spring for the Preserving Sacred Appalachia Conference, I got to hear spring peepers and whippoorwills and smell the flowering redbuds and trilliums. It was a heartbreaking reminder that when mining companies blast away mountains, they are not just blowing up dirt and rocks. They are blowing up the plants and animals that make the Appalachian Mountains so special, so sacred. Appalachia has more kinds of freshwater mussels, crawdads and salamanders than anywhere else in the world and yet companies are blowing up our natural heritage so that the rich can get richer and poor people can remain stuck in a boom and bust extraction economy that threatens public health and prevents economic diversification.”
Impact upon Water Quality and Habitats
In the letter, Curry notes, “The Big Creek surface mine will discharge into unnamed tributaries of Jacobs Fork, which flows into the Dry Fork of the Tug Fork on the Big Sandy River. The mine will harm more than 5 miles of currently high quality streams. The mine will impact 19 streams totaling 27,102 linear feet including, according to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, 12, 715 feet of intermittent channel, 14,387 feet of ephemeral channel, and 0.15 acres of open water.”
She notes also, “We are writing to call your attention to required environmental documents for the mine including consultation with the USFWS on the northern long-eared bat, a conference with the USFEW on the Big Sandy crayfish, Protection and Enhancement for these two species, and an updated Wildlife Resources Lands Inquiry. We also wish to point out that the water quality impacts analyses for the mine are woefully inadequate.”
Curry notes that the surface mine would destroy 907 acres of primary hardwood habitat – home to the northern long-eared bat. “In short,” says Curry, “northern long-eared bats are interior forest dependent species and removal of 907 acres of their habitat will have significant impact upon the species.”
The Big Sandy crayfish is also threatened by the mining operation, but as Curry points out, “None of the analyses for the mine have taken into consideration impacts that mining operations will have on the Big Sandy crayfish.” Curry states bluntly, “Both of these species will be harmed by the Big Creek surface mine and your agencies are obligated to safeguard these species from mining activities.”
History of Environmental Violations by Justice Noted
Curry also points out that the company owned by Justice has not provided proper plans to mitigate the impact of its activities. “The documents submitted with the application in no way meet these requirements. The response provided on how the mine will avoid and minimize adverse impacts is a single generic paragraph that includes no specific measures to safeguard water quality, the Big Sandy crayfish, or the capability of Jacobs Fork to continue to support trout.”
She also takes exception with claims by the company “… that downstream water chemistry is not expected to change.” Characterizing that claim as ludicrous, Curry writes, “Surface coal mining causes increased siltation and sedimentation, increased conductivity, increased total dissolved solids, and increased concentrations of pollutants including selenium, aluminum, sulfate, manganese, iron, and bicarbonate ions.”
She argues, “The inadequacy of the analysis is further evidenced in that in addition to stating that downstream water quality will not change, the analysis also says that downstream waters will receive alkaline leachate and that net alkalinity will be raised, which is an acknowledgment that downstream water quality will be changed.”
Curry continues, “Moreover, Jim Justice, the owner of Justice Low Seam Mining, Inc., has a long history of environmental violations at his mining operations including water quality violations. It was reported in July 2014 that coal mines owned by Mr. Justice have been cited for more than 250 environmental violations with unpaid penalties of about $2 million. Of note, a violation was recently issued to a Justice-owned mine by WVDEP for failure to pass runoff through sediment control. Thus, issuing a mine permit to this company, given its history of violations, is highly controversial.”
Coal Not the Future
Near the end of her letter, Curry offers, “The effects of surface coal mining on the quality of the human environment are unquestionably controversial due to the permanent and irreversible effects on the environment, the harm to human health, property damage, risk of flooding, and other factors. This mine in particular is controversial because in addition to the presence of endangered species on site, a church and a Head Start are downstream from the mine site.”
In addition to the remarks in her letter, Curry shared, “I visited with some of the families that live on the creek below the proposed Big Creek mine and I saw the Head Start center that would be at risk from flooding and pollution. People showed me their foundations and roofs that have been cracked from mine blasting and their wells that they can no longer use because the water has been contaminated. I think the people in the rest of the country don’t realize that U.S. citizens living in the coal fields do not have access to clean water. It is outrageous that here in the United States corporations are destroying people’s water and the people are so poor that they have no choice but to drink water that they know could make them and their families very sick.”
She concluded, “It is pretty obvious that blowing up mountains and dumping the waste into streams is bad for the economy, bad for public health, bad for endangered species, and bad for our children’s future; the science and economic studies are now available that unequivocally demonstrate the social, economic, environmental, and public health costs of surface coal mining. People need to stop defending the coal industry and realize that there are other paths forward economically, that there are other ways to keep the lights on, and that the billions of dollars the coal operators are amassing are never going to create a healthy economy for Appalachian communities. … There has never been a better time for people to unite and demand clean jobs, economic diversification, and a healthy environment.”
© Appalachian Preservation Project, LLC, 2015. The Appalachian Chronicle is a publication of the Appalachian Preservation Project. The Appalachian Preservation Project is a social enterprise committed to preserving and protecting Appalachia. If you wish to support our work, please consider becoming a member.
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