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Jul 2010
Tennessee Territory: A Knoxville Church Group Battles Mountaintop Removal
Shawn Poynter for Solutions
Dawn Coppock (left) and Pat Hudson of the Church of the Savior in Knoxville, Tennessee, are part of the grassroots environmental protection movement called Creation Care.

"The land shall not be sold for ever; for the land is mine; for ye are strangers and sojourners with me." —Leviticus 25:23

Kathy Lindquist knew she was going to die. She must have. After spending most of her adult life battling lymphoma, the 45-year-old church lady and Girl Scout troop leader—a woman with a soft touch for hard issues—would leave a gift. She might have known at the time that it was just the kind of small gesture big people offer. Or maybe she was trying to get one last thing off her chest.

In her church's weekly bulletin, Lindquist contributed a short piece about mountaintop removal mining, a practice she had watched creep over the ridgeline near her house just north of Knoxville, Tennessee. What she wrote, in essence, was that Christians have a moral obligation to serve as stewards of the earth, a popular Old Testament notion that seems to have lost its gloss in modern incantation. She meant, of course, that Christians have a biblical charge to stand against the practice of dynamiting the tops of mountains to cheaply mine the coal seams underneath. Call it a renewal of old values.

Kathy Lindquist died five years ago. Her brief essay may seem trite in terms of parting shots, but it has become a clarion call in Tennessee—a place where coal mining has, until recently, maintained an unusually low profile. Three women in her church, which sits atop a petite hill in Knoxville, the closest city of any decent size to the East Tennessee coalfields, took Lindquist's message about mountaintop removal mining as a call to arms. They consulted some of the 180 or so members of their congregation and decided on a conveniently organic name for the group they formed: LEAF, or the Lindquist Environmental Appalachian Fellowship.

"[Kathy] was a woman who combined faith and a deep love of the environment," says Pat Hudson, who runs the faith outreach arm of LEAF. "So when we wanted to think of a way to honor her, it was those two elements that we kept in mind."

LEAF rose from the inauspicious beginnings of coal-mining-for-the-mildly-informed, but the group's resource materials are now found in more than 2,000 Tennessee churches and have caught the attention of legislators on Capitol Hill in Nashville. The group is a small part of a growing national movement loosely termed Creation Care, a largely Christian but non-denominational grassroots effort that has taken environmental protection—and destructive coal mining in particular—as its cause. And as it happens, Kathy Lindquist's small church in the Bible Belt might have the best chance to fell Goliath.

Tennessee is unique among mid-South states with fingers in Appalachia because, for the most part, it has been able to hold off mountaintop removal mining. There are only four active summit-mining jobs and fewer than 400 people employed in surface mining in the state. A long-standing Tennessee law prohibits the dumping of waste from mining jobs into streams and valleys, and the state's senior senator, Republican Lamar Alexander, is lead sponsor of a federal bill, the Appalachia Restoration Act, that would severely restrict mountaintop removal mining and institute better protection of streams and waterways nearby. (The bill has eleven co-sponsors, none of whom is from a coal state.)

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Geoff Oliver Bugbee
A mined site in the Montgomery Creek area of Perry County, Kentucky

But coal companies appear to have sighted Tennessee as fresh terrain. For the last three years, the state legislature has stonewalled a bill written by LEAF that would ban the mining of summits. The legislators who have blocked the bill, including Lieutenant Governor Ron Ramsey, have enjoyed generous campaign contributions from coal players. The threatened mountains are part of the majestic Cumberland Plateau, to which at least 16 Tennessee counties can lay geographical claim.

Traditionalist greenies, clergy leaders, and even the Natural Resources Defense Council are looking to Tennessee as a new frontier in the battle against radically destructive mining. They consider the situation perilous, to be sure, but they’re also hopeful. State Rep. Mike McDonald, a Democrat who co-sponsored the LEAF legislation, says support for the bill, which would ban mining above 2,000 feet, is building across party lines. As these forces align, many observers here say next year could see the turning point.

In the Coalfields

The Reverend Allen Johnson lives in Frost, West Virginia, a small town in the Allegheny Mountains just outside the state's coal belt. It's a simple place, he says, where he can live in view of some of the country's most breathtaking vistas—those spared in an area that, along with Eastern Kentucky, is the most ravaged, sick, and economically devastated in the country due to Big Coal's activities.

Ask Johnson to explain his religious beliefs, and he chuckles before launching into a nuanced description that moves from evangelical to Mennonite to non-denominational Christian. In 2005, he and a man named Bob Marshall started Christians for the Mountains, a hyper-local group that has since gained national prominence as a faith-based, front-line defender of the environment. Besides reaching out to churches, his group pushes farther into the coalfields than perhaps anyone, trying at once to balance the effects of a homogenous rural economy and return to the values of Eden. It's a chore.

"We've had some good support, but back in the coalfields, it's spotty," he says. "If you get somebody who's a miner going to church, and you get someone whose house or water is messed up by the mines, what's a minister going to do?" Johnson says there's a big difference between the attitudes of people at the center of coal country and those from states on the periphery: The less dependent your economy is on mining, he believes, the more likely you are to listen to any anti-coal message.

"A number of different organizations are beginning to act on this," says Fred Kruger, director of the California-based National Religious Coalition on Creation Care. "They're not coordinated well yet, but they're all looking at the same issue. They're all rowing in the same boat." One might just look to Tennessee for a lesson in rowing.

Despite the successes of Creation Care groups in convincing congregations, coalfield legislators rarely vote against coal companies. Most of the lobbying against mountaintop removal mining is secular, conducted by groups like iLoveMountains.org or the Topless America Project, which brought groups to Washington for a week in March to demonstrate and lobby against mountaintop removal. Big Coal employs hundreds of lobbyists to push for everything from surface mining to the recently voguish "clean-coal" technology. (While coal interests argue that mountaintop removal mining does not technically exist in the state—a 1980 law established a stream-buffer zone that prevents traditional valley fills, so what is actually happening is called cross-ridge mining, the same summit-mining technique without the valley fill—most recognize such claims as semantic.)

A Delicate Task

America is a country defined in no small part by the slow growth and eventual eruption of social movements. Almost every movement, from abolitionism to civil rights, began with political rumblings before rocketing forward on the fuel of the pulpit. But it remains a delicate, though not impossible, task to move an issue largely defined by politics into the church. Any serious Creation Care group is careful to distinguish itself from more confrontational environmental groups like Earth First.

Dawn Coppock, a LEAF co-founder who has lobbied state government specifically on mountaintop removal mining, says some lawmakers have been receptive, while others have dismissed her as a myopic anti-coal agent.

"It's funny, because most Tennessee legislators attend some sort of religious services," she says. "Most of them are Christian. A few of them who are very devout Christians initially were a little uncomfortable because they weren't typically associated with earth-protection types of causes. But we've been showing up regularly and behaving consistently with our faith for three years now, so they're having to listen to us."

"A lot of faith dialogue gets caught up in our political dialogue," says Dodd Galbreath, executive director of the Institute for Sustainable Practice at Nashville's Lipscomb University, one of the nation's premier Christian universities. "Our political discourse has traditionally seen environmentalists and business people on opposite sides." That divide appears to be dissolving in the Tennessee legislature, albeit at a pace that is frustrating for some.

Meanwhile, Sunday services persist as usual at Church of the Savior in Knoxville. Coppock, Hudson, and the other LEAFlets, as they call themselves, don't make a show of their cause. By this point, the congregation has internalized the message.

But in West Virginia, Bob Marshall and others are watching carefully. "I think [Tennessee] could be the example for the other states," he says.

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