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Duluth clergy campaign against mountaintop coal removal

It's 1,000 miles from Concordia Lutheran Church in Duluth to the flattened mountaintops where coal is mined in eastern Kentucky. But Pastor David Tryggestad wants his congregation to close the gap.

It's 1,000 miles from Concordia Lutheran Church in Duluth to the flattened mountaintops where coal is mined in eastern Kentucky. But Pastor David Tryggestad wants his congregation to close the gap.

Tryggestad is one of several Duluth preachers who recently have taken up so-called mountaintop-removal coal mining as an affront against God's creation, and he plans on preaching to his flock about what's happening and why he thinks it's wrong.

"I was truly astonished that mountaintop-removal mining is happening at all, anywhere in the world. But that it is happening here in the U.S., right under our noses, is scandalous," Tryggestad said. "Theologically, this is an issue the church is called to engage. From a biblical perspective, this Earth is God's gift to us. ... Humanity is given the privilege and responsibility of stewardship of God's gift of creation, that God's blessing might be passed through generations for all time."

The problem, Tryggestad and others note, is as basic as sin. Tryggestad said Christians must take up the cause of protecting God's creation. His church even has a Creation Care team.

"Unfortunately, sin, our ongoing attempts to 'be as God,' to usurp God, enters the picture. One effect of sin is our pillaging and raping of the earth and its resources for selfish interests. Our sin against the earth is also our sin against one another and against future generations, as many of our self-centered and short-sighted projects leave environmental disaster in their wake," he said. "We sin against the earth, we sin against one another, our neighbor, in biblical theology, and ultimately, we sin against God."


A little off the top

With the blessing of federal regulators, coal companies are allowed to remove entire mountaintops to expose veins of coal, a major shift from traditional underground coal mining in the region. In recent decades the tops have been taken off some 500 mountains in Appalachia, mostly in eastern Kentucky and West Virginia. Leftover rocks and dirt are pushed into valleys, called hollers, the coal is dug out and the mountain reshaped.

It's deforestation and re-landscaping on a grand scale. The Environmental Protection Agency predicts more than 2,200 square miles of mountaintops will have been logged-off, blasted and bulldozed by 2012. Environmental and social justice groups have deplored the practice as ruining vast areas of forest, destroying biodiversity and clogging streams and rivers. So far, efforts to stop it have failed.

Tryggestad is being lobbied to take up the mountaintop issue by the Minneapolis-based group Restoring Eden, a non-denominational Christian group that works to convince churchgoers nationwide that God never intended for humans to despoil Earth.

Restoring Eden has adopted sustainable food, endangered species, climate change and indigenous rights as major focuses. But mountaintop removal, under way at a slower pace since the 1960s, is a priority issue now because so much is happening quickly. The practice is riding on a federal rule ordered by the Bush administration in 2002 that gave mining companies permission to cut the tops of mountains off to get at the coal.

In late 2008, the Bush Administration made another rule change, removing the stream buffer zone provision from federal mining laws, allowing coal companies to place mining waste rock and dirt directly into valleys that are often the headwaters of streams. The Obama administration has continued to issue permits to expand mountaintop mines.

Jobs and energy vs. mountains

Supporters say mountaintop mining is the safest, cheapest, most effective way to mine low-sulfur coal to feed the nation's hunger for coal-fired electricity. They say it's nothing more than traditional surface mining, like Minnesota's open pit iron mines, except it occurs on top of a mountain.


Efforts to stop the practice have been met with stiff opposition from the coal industry and coal-state politicians who say it's the only viable employer in one of the nation's poorest regions. A spokeswoman for Arch Coal Co., owners of four mines in Kentucky and West Virginia, declined to comment on the effort of Minnesota pastors. A spokesman for a mining industry trade group did not immediately return a reporter's phone call.

But opponents say mountaintop removal coal mining is bad not just for the environment of Appalachia, but for its people, tainting drinking water, spurring dust-related lung ailments and filling streams.

Meanwhile, coal mining jobs have dropped from 47,000 miners in 1979, working mostly underground, to fewer than 18,000 by 2006 as mountaintop mining became more mechanized.

"We aren't out there protesting on the issue. ... We're trying to provide information at a grass-roots level, through churches, so people know what's happening and so they can make their own decisions whether it's right or not," said Anna Jane Joyner, Restoring Eden's mountaintop removal campaign leader, on a recent visit to Duluth. "We're encouraging speaking out for people who really don't have a strong voice on their own."

Joyner, the daughter of an evangelical pastor who has adopted some of his daughter's passion on environmental issues, said all types of churches have joined the effort. In Duluth, the Rev. Tom Radaich at St. Michael's Catholic Church, the Rev. Bill Van Oss from St. Paul's Episcopal Church and the Rev. Cathy Schuyler from Duluth Congregational Church are among others who are considering the issue, Joyner said.

"It's something I'm interested in, although I haven't preached on it from the pulpit yet," Schuyler said. "I think it's the kind of thing we will look at in a discussion group and see where it leads us."

Taking up the cause

Several Duluth churches have for years been active on environmental issues on many levels, from Lake Superior Day sermons to hosting the annual Living Green Conference. But the concept of using churches locally, regionally and as a combined national campaign, as a social and political force to marshal environmental causes, hasn't been widespread. Nationally, similar efforts were successful during the civil rights campaigns of the 1950s and 1960s


Joyner said mountaintop removal has national resonance because every state uses coal for energy, including Minnesota. But most Northlanders, she noted, don't know what's happening.

"It's not a hard sell to convince them,'' she noted. "When people see these photos, there's an immediate, gut-wrenching response that this isn't right.''

The issue is timely because a bill to regulate mountaintop removal, to bring regulations back to pre-2002 levels, is pending in Congress. The so-called Clean Water Protection Act (not to be confused with the Clean Water Restoration Act) currently is stalled in the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, headed by Rep. Jim Oberstar, D-Chisholm. The bill is strongly opposed by Rep. Nick J. Rahall, D-West Virginia, who is committee vice-chairman.

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