For over forty years, I ministered around the Appalachian coalfields. Because of this, I was invited to Rome, July 17-19, 2015, to represent the mountains at “United with God, We Hear a Cry,” a conference dealing with communities affected by mining activities.
Sponsored by the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace in collaboration with the Latin American “Churches and Mining” network, the meeting convened grass-roots representatives from 18 countries: Chile, Peru, Brazil, Columbia, Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador, Dominican Republic, Mexico, United States, Canada, Switzerland, Italy, Mozambique, Ghana, Democratic Republic of the Congo, India, and the Philippines.
Transnational mining corporations exert disproportionate power over most local communities with negative results, which raises grave concerns for Rome. Too frequently, the mining practices violate the human rights of workers, destroy local environments, introduce negative health impacts, greatly enable substance abuse, allow prostitution and human trafficking, threaten local cultures, and have ties to organized crime.
After citing many of these abuses, Pope Francis in a letter to the participants stated clearly: “The entire mining sector is undoubtedly required to effect a radical paradigm change to improve the situation in many countries.”
The stories from the participants underscored that sentiment.
A representative from the native peoples of Canada said a breached mine tailing dam in upper British Columbia released 25 million cubic meters of debris into Lake William and polluted the crystal clear lake where 80 million salmon spawn.
Worse, a Philippine village witnessed the killing of the mayor’s wife and two sons, because he opposed the mining practices. Others in the village received the “blanket” threat–the symbol of wrapping for death. Continuously participants told stories from mining practices. They told about violence, dishonesty, and theft, besides testimonials about pollution, destruction, and sickness.
Shortly after returning from Rome, I toured with Bishop John Stowe, our new bishop of Lexington, KY, around the nearby coalfields. We heard stories similar to those from the international conference.
One family we met contracted with a company to mine 70 acres for coal, but instead saw the company illegally mine 90 acres, allegedly because the company changed the property map.
Another fellow said the blasting from mining caused a separation in his brick home large enough to put his fist into the gap.
Still another complained the mining company never paid him the agreed amount for the coal that they mined. Instead, he found the payments delayed until the company declared bankruptcy, and then he witnessed operations resumed under a different name without the liability.
Add to these stories the discarded miners with black lung, the numerous kids with asthma and the increased rates of cancer for women attributed to mining practices, and we can see that Appalachia unfortunately shares much of the same dishonesty, theft, and despoiled environment that breeds sickness and human distress discussed at the international conference.
On the local level, Catholic parishes not only respond to victims of mining-induced floods and mudslides always by supplying temporary shelters and home furnishings, but also conducting community prayer services. These services bring spiritual healing and insight by directing prayer against mining injustices.
Nationally, people of faith must awaken to the link between the demand for mine products and their lifestyles.
Conference participants acknowledged the need to train bishops, priests, and seminarians about Laudato Sí, and extend this to all the faithful. Dialogue within the church and with mining interests remains key, while divestiture from businesses supporting bad practices requires action.
Ultimately, we people of faith must reflect the teachings from Laudato Sí and pursue an integral ecology that links the poor, the earth, and human community in the web of life.
Fr. John Rausch, a Glenmary priest, teaches, writes and organizes around justice issues in Appalachia.