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Eco-Chaplaincy – A Quest to End Mountain Top Removal in West Virginia

Eco-Chaplaincy - Letters from Appalachia - A Quest to End Mountain Top Removal in West Virginia by Sarah Vekasi

My pantry is full of homemade applesauce and jam for the winter. I discovered a great quilt shop down the road from my cabin, and the mornings are as crisp as fall mornings should be. Meanwhile, tensions are soaring as the movement to end mountain top removal seems to be succeeding.

These have been fiercely full weeks. Tensions are cranked high in Appalachia right now and hope and fear are in the air. Mother Jones is probably rolling in her grave as the coal industry’s PR groups organize workers to voice opposition to environmental concerns and scapegoat the environmentalists for ‘destroying the economy of the region.’ The polarities are as thick as the fog over the New River Gorge, and just as solid.

• Last week the EPA put all 79 pending mountaintop removal permits on hold another 60 days as a result of all our letters and years of hard work!
• This Tuesday I ended up on the ‘wrong’ side of an angry mob of coal supporters at a public hearing hosted by the Army Corps of Engineers in Charleston.
• Last week I sat in a court room witnessing a judge rule in favor of our citizen group in

Ansted in support of Gauley Mountain and against the coal company.

I am reminded daily of the choices we have when things get tough. A tenet of the Great Turning, a name for a shift toward a life sustaining society, is that rather than contract into tighter, smaller and meaner beings when resources get scarce, we choose to expand further, open up more and use collective creativity to work through issues. Please join me in a prayer for Appalachia: May we cease being hooked to the extreme ups and downs of hope and fear, let us find a middle way of equanimity with a shared local intelligence, or at least civil discourse without any more violence.

Dearest friends,
The falling of the autumn leaves left more than just the forest floor exposed here and my calling to eco-chaplaincy has never been clearer. Lines drawn long ago by the coal industry are far more visible and the result is increasingly divided communities polarized around the issue of mountain top removal coal mining.

The rhetoric is all too familiar: JOBS or the ENVIRONMENT, as if one would be possible without the other! I remember growing up in Montana and later working in the Pacific Northwest when it was popularly endorsed by the media and by politicians that there was an irreconcilable breach between loggers and environmentalists—jobs or trees. If you read the cover of our newspapers in West Virginia, or attend a public hearing like the one I attended when the Army Corps of Engineers tried to hold one a few weeks ago, you will hear that the issue at hand is miners versus mountains. Here, just like out west, the industry front groups, in this case Friends of Coal (http://www.friendsofcoal.org/) and FACES of Coal (http://www.facesofcoal.org) are feeding this polarity with billboards, bumper stickers, commercials and any number of tactics which they can clearly afford to implement. The goal seems to be to reduce the nuanced issues facing us in places where the economy is dependant on resource extraction to a false dichotomy between livelihood and health. What a horrible proposition!

A lot has happened since I attempted to testify at the hearing in Charleston on Oct. 13. That night, those industry lobby groups organized busloads of supporters to rally as an angry mob both inside and outside the hearing. I was yelled at and heckled throughout my testimony, as was everyone who spoke on behalf of clean water, healthy communities and intact mountains. A few people had their lives literally threatened, and we all had to leave, uncertain if we would make it home alive. I knew that the event was scary for me at the time, but I underestimated the full impact which only became evident to me over time. I personally went into a whole emotional chain reaction. For the next few days I could not stop reliving the event in my mind. I needed to talk about it and yet I found myself shutting down emotionally more and more. I found myself repeatedly thinking of responses I wish I could have said back to the crowd, and words I wish I could have spoken into the public record.

What I began to notice was that when I would think about the angry jeering at the meeting, or the experience walking through the mob, I would tighten up with fear, disappointment and grief. I was mourning a loss of safety and sense of belonging, and struggling with the need to be heard. I found myself thinking that the dynamic was both inevitable and unchangeable—catch phrases I have learned to look out for doing this sort of work. The strategy employed by the “friends of coal” that night was to shut down public discourse by literally yelling over any conflicting opinion. By observing first-hand and being subject to their efforts to deny my right to be heard I realized just how powerful dialogue can be—and how important it is to continually listen and talk through tension.

Early the next week I received a message inquiring if I had any ideas and was interested in helping facilitate a meeting designed to help us decompress from that experience and strategize how to keep one another safe. Did I ever! I literally danced around the living room in glee. By observing how quickly I shut down I realized how hopeless many people feel. I do not mean this to prop myself up—I am only becoming aware through my own experience how deeply entrenched these dynamics of learned helplessness and assumed polarities are.

A week later, I opened the meeting. The air was thick with emotion and angst. We had a full agenda, primarily consisting of strategy around ensuring our civil rights, free speech and right to assemble. I am the new person in town and was meeting a lot of the participants for the first time. My introduction was immediately followed by some resistance to processing any emotions, as it would ‘waste time.’ The concern underneath it was that if we opened up the “can of worms” the despair would overwhelm us. I asked for permission to just give it a chance for an hour and see what would happen. The result was fantastic. I learned later that it was the first time anything like this was done and am hopeful and determined that it be just the beginning.

I have so many ideas of eco-chaplaincy to manifest, such as offering weekly listening circles, individual and group processing sessions, and longer weekend and week-long workshops. I have to keep reminding myself that all of these things can happen in time.

We came away from that meeting with plans to hold the federal and local agencies in charge of upholding civil liberties accountable. We developed strategies to maintain our personal safety as the movement continues to grow. Last week, I also had the opportunity to meet with the director and an organizer from the “Not In Our Town” campaign which supports communities in mobilizing against hate crimes. I know them for the work they did in Kalispell, Montana, near where I grew up, when land use and resource management issues became so polarized it turned violent. What all these threads will weave is still forming but the seeds of peace are being planted each day through the discussions.

Meanwhile, the movement to end mountain top removal is getting more attention than ever. The EPA still has 79 mining permits on hold and the Army Corps of Engineers is hopefully going to do away with the rubber-stamp permit process for valley fills, and require individual environmental impact statements soon. There was a national day of action to encourage the EPA to deny all 79 of the permits last week and there is another one coming up December 4th. However, the governor of West Virginia is trying to meet with President Obama and representatives of the coal industry to ensure that mountain top removal remains legal and the permits are released ASAP.

Perhaps in retaliation for the permits being held up, the Massey Energy Corporation, under direction of Don Blankenship, began dynamiting Coal River Mountain, the last intact mountain range in the Coal River Valley, two weeks ago. This is considered an emergency situation for those living under the mountain. The most dangerous part of this blasting stems from the 8.6 billion gallon toxic coal sludge impoundment up on the mountain. The Brushy Fork Sludge Impoundment is held up with a dam that, should it break, threatens the lives of everyone living below it.

According to Massey’s own predictions, 926 human lives would be lost in under 20 minutes if the dam were to break, not to mention creating lifeless, toxic sludge waste where there once was a thriving valley. Community members living under the dam and in the Coal River Valley have been fighting this for many years and run the organization Coal River Mountain Watch (www.crmw.net). Over the years they have been developing an alternative plan for Coal River Mountain by proposing a wind-power energy generation farm that would create long-term jobs, produce energy, and mitigate the dangers posed by the Brushy Fork Impoundment (For more information, check out http://www.coalriverwind.org/).

I feel like I moved to West Virginia just in time, while the leaves were full and my new community relatively open. While these past few weeks have been potent, there is nowhere else I want to be. Watching the leaves fall and the whole landscape transform itself is a delight. I got a part-time job as a photographer and have been busy joining the civic community in my new home in Ansted.

I sing praises each morning for following the call to move here. I sing thankfulness for the living provided by the support from all of you. Thank you for being part of this work and this journey! The decision is validated every time I am able to offer support to someone entrenched in this issue or talk through all sides of the issue with people at the weekly free lunch at church in Ansted. My work as an eco-chaplain helping mediate conflict, inspiring a culture of self-care and facilitating dialogue is clearly cut out for me here. Want to join?

Please remember me if you are able to donate any money or resources, as I am living entirely from your generosity. You can send me mail at PO Box 765, Ansted, WV 25812, or use the paypal function on my webpage (www.ecochaplaincy.net). I would also love help creating a non-profit if anyone has time or expertise in that area.

The privilege of getting to do what I am called to do is not lost on me and I am filled with gratitude for this opportunity since nothing brings me more alive than doing the work I call eco-chaplaincy.

I am signing off with a hearty thank you to all of you who have sent me support by means of letters or money or both. It means everything to me. I love hearing from all of you and even just knowing you are doing your work in the world and sharing in this work keeps me warm inside.
In love and solidarity,
Sarah Vekasi, M.Div.
Mountain-Hugger