From today’s Gazette-Mail of Charleston, West Virginia
Bob Kincaid: A letter and a prayer to the pope from WV
I write to you this day from the region of the United States known as Appalachia. This is the single most poverty-stricken, down-trodden, polluted, despoiled, region in the entire United States. We are in that condition because we have been consistently abused by the coal industry for more than a hundred years. Over 100,000 people in my state of West Virginia have died in mining disasters and from mining-related disease in the last century. At present, some West Virginia counties have 4,000 excess deaths per year where a coal extraction process called mountaintop removal takes place.
It is mountaintop removal about which I write to you, your holiness. Given the concern and compassion you have expressed in Laudato Si, your encyclical regarding humanity’s obligation to the planet we all call “home,” I am moved to attempt to inform you about it.
Every day in Appalachia, coal companies use millions of kilograms of explosives (over a billion pounds per year) blasting away mountains to get at minuscule seams of coal. The dust from those explosions boils down onto the innocent people who have to live beneath these gigantic operations; people who breathe it and otherwise take it unwittingly into their bodies. To date, your holiness, more than 500 of the oldest mountains on Earth have been blasted into moonscape remnants of what Almighty God shaped from the void. Five thousand kilometers of streams, and all the life they contain, have been buried.
The coal from these operations is often shipped abroad to China, to India, to Russia, Germany and the Netherlands where, having already created a public health disaster once in tormented Appalachia, it creates another, global one, when it is burned.
I have read that you are trained in the rigorous Jesuit tradition of scientific inquiry. I know then that you will be interested to know that there are more than 20 peer-reviewed, published scientific articles detailing a wide variety of public health disasters associated with mountaintop removal. Knowing your reverence for life, you will, I hope, be moved to know that a pregnant woman living near mountaintop removal has a 180 percent greater chance of giving birth to a baby with birth defects than a woman who smokes, but lives nowhere near one of these sites. Even the health of the unborn is sacrificed for coal company profits in Appalachia.
We learned to our great horror late last year that human lung cells exposed to the blasting dust from mountaintop removal begin to display tumorogenic processes. It will be no surprise, then, for you to learn that we have shockingly elevated rates of cancer in our communities.
We are a pocket of suffering and sacrifice tucked away in a largely forgotten portion of the wealthiest nation on Earth. We have cried out for decades for justice and, if not justice, for simple mercy. We have received neither — not from the free market, not from the industry and not from our elected representatives in either our state capital or in Washington, D.C.
I reach out to you, your holiness, to implore you to learn about mountaintop removal and the bitter cup from which we Appalachians drink, and which never seems to pass from us.
I welcome you as you arrive in the United States. I would invite you to visit us here in West Virginia, but I know your itinerary has long been established, such that there is little chance you would have time to come to a place like this when so many millions want to see you in other, more noteworthy parts of the country. Still, might I presume to ask that you instruct your pilot to fly over our region as you travel? Mountaintop removal is a scourge of such monumental scale you will be able to easily see it from the air. You will not be able to see the suffering of the people, but you will know it is there.
Having seen it, your holiness, will you please pray for us, for we whose families for generations have lived and labored under the lash of an industry that has used us and abused us, maimed us and killed us for nothing more than its own monetary gain?
May I beg of you that, having prayed, you add Works to Faith as the brother of our Savior taught, and join us in publicly calling for an end to mountaintop removal and its host of evils? It is my prayer that you will.
May the peace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with you always, and may He grant you long and blessed life in His service.
Bob Kincaid, of Fayette County, is board president of Coal River Mountain Watch, a co-founder of the Appalachian Communities Health Emergency Campaign, a broadcaster, poet, father and grandfather.