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Faith-Based and Secular Groups Join Forces to Fight Big Coal in Virginia

SOURCE: Flickr/Clean Energy VA

The strip-mined landscape in Wise, Virginia.

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Tennessee’s recent sludge spill is an obvious reminder that irresponsible coal practices are dirty and devastating.

Mountain-top removal coal mining is dirty, noisy, and scars the landscape. It has also harmed Kathy Selvage’s mother’s prayer time. Selvage is a grassroots activist from Wise County, Virginia and vice president of Southern Appalachian Mountain Stewards. Enjoying the beauty of God’s creation while she read the Bible was an integral part of her mother’s devotions before the sound of coal mining trucks, bulldozers, and drills began covering up the sounds of the birds. Selvage says that, “the most pain comes when my mother looks across the way now and sees the destruction of God’s creation. She wonders what Bible they read.”

Selvage spoke at a town hall meeting in Alexandria, Virginia last year where Congressman Jim Moran (D-VA), health experts, and activists from Southwest Virginia and Alexandria joined together to discuss the deleterious health and environmental effects of the Mirant Power Plant in Alexandria and a proposed coal-fired power plant in Wise County. Selvage’s testimony embodied the connection between the Appalachian people’s deep religious faith and their drive to protect the community and the mountains from the ravages of our nation’s reliance on dirty and destructive coal mining practices. She did not speak as a religious activist, but faith infused her personal story and gave it a depth and power unrivalled by the other speakers.

A new coalition of grassroots citizens’ groups, environmental groups, and religious communities and leaders emerged in late 2007 to fight the proposed coal-fired power plant set to be built by Dominion Virginia Power in Wise County, including Appalachian Voices, Chesapeake Climate Action Network, the Sierra Club, Southern Appalachian Mountain Stewards, the Southern Environmental Law Center, and Greater Washington Interfaith Power and Light. This coalition, which called itself the Wise Energy for Virginia coalition, demonstrates a new awareness of the political power that can be mobilized when people of faith join forces with secular organizations out of a shared concern for social justice, human health, and environmental protection.

Dominion Virginia Power’s dirty coal plan

The Wise Energy for Virginia coalition came together to challenge Dominion Virginia Power’s plans to build a new coal-fired power plant in Wise County and to pressure Dominion and the state of Virginia to invest in alternative, clean energy solutions. The coalition cited concerns over accelerated mountaintop removal mining, which leads to increased greenhouse gas emissions, poisoned streams and drinking water, flooding and landslides, deforestation, and air pollution.

The increasing global demand for power and the abundance of coal reserves is contributing to a massive and unsustainable expansion of coal-based greenhouse gas emissions. One Center for American Progress report warns that if this increase in mining and coal-fired power is left unchecked, it “threatens to overwhelm all other efforts to lower emissions and virtually guarantees that these emissions will continue to climb. This would preclude any possibility of stabilizing gas concentrations in the atmosphere at levels that would acceptably moderate the predicted rise in global temperatures.”

There is hope: New coal plants should be able to utilize clean carbon-capture and-storage technologies. Yet the current regulatory environment does not require CCS systems, and although Dominion argued before Virginia’s State Corporation Commission that it should be approved as a “carbon-capture compatible” plant, the commission rejected this claim, noting that, “Not only has Dominion not taken any steps to make its plant carbon capture compatible, it has also selected a technology that is in fact incompatible with carbon capture processes currently in development.” The SCC nevertheless allowed Dominion to move forward with plans to build a conventional coal-fired power plant.

The growing religious-secular partnership

Environmental organizations and citizens’ groups initially led the movement against the Wise County plant, but faith-based community organizations and leaders joined the movement by late October 2007.

Allison Fisher, program director for Greater Washington Interfaith Power and Light, presented a workshop on involving the faith community in the Wise campaign at the October 2007 Virginia Climate Action Conference. She pointed to Chesapeake Climate Action Network as a model for reaching out to the faith community, and during the conference, people of faith who had become involved in the campaign through secular organizations joined together to form a new network of faith-based leaders opposed to the Wise County plant.

More than 50 faith communities and organizations got involved as the campaign moved forward, many through GWIPL’s network of faith communities throughout Maryland, Virginia, and the District of Columbia. Environmental organizations within the Wise Energy for Virginia coalition also worked to activate their contacts in the faith community. The faith community offered passion and moral authority, and environmental organizations provided expertise and strategic knowledge; the combination created a positive synergy that magnified the coalition’s voice and eventually took the campaign straight to the governor’s office.

After the SCC approved Dominion’s plan to build a conventional coal-fired power plant, the coalition took the fight to the next level—the governor’s office and the Virginia Air Pollution Control Board. GWIPL worked tirelessly to get members of faith communities to sign postcards to the governor asking him to publicly oppose the Wise County coal plant. Over 400 postcards were collected and sent to Governor Tim Kaine during February and March 2008. GWIPL also delivered a clergy sign-on letter to Governor Kaine that was signed by 66 religious leaders from different faith traditions. It read:

Our rich religious traditions tell us that “the earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof” (Psalm 24:1), and call us to live out our moral responsibility to protect the earth for our children and future generations. We also are called to serve and protect the poor and the helpless and to “love our neighbor as we love ourselves” (Leviticus 19:18). It is the very poor and vulnerable who are the most sensitive to the repercussions of decisions about our energy future. We urge you to partner with us to give voices to those so often unheard during political deliberations.

Opposition to Dominion’s plans for the Wise County plant began making the news, and the governor was deluged with calls, emails, and letters from other environmental organizations and individuals asking him to oppose the plant. The governor ultimately agreed to meet with a small delegation of religious leaders accompanied by roughly an equal number of experts from environmental organizations in the coalition. This meeting did not persuade the governor to publicly oppose the plant, but it did serve as a motivating force for people in the movement who were energized by the opportunity to make their case before the governor and his top staffers.

GWIPL’s Allison Fisher led a group of 10 Jewish, Christian, and Muslim leaders in testifying in June 2008 at the Air Pollution Control Board hearing in Wise, VA, and also viewing the ravages of mountaintop removal mining and its local impact. Opponents and supporters of the plant were both out in force at the meeting. The outcome of the hearing was disappointing, but brought some limited success. The APCB granted permits to Dominion to build the plant, but the plant’s limit for annual emissions of sulfur dioxide was reduced by more than two-thirds. The board also dramatically reduced the amount of allowable mercury emissions.

These rulings should decrease the amount of local pollution, but carbon dioxide emissions were not even addressed, despite the Supreme Court ruling in Massachusetts v. Environmental Protection Agency that requires the EPA to regulate carbon dioxide as a pollutant under the Clean Air Act unless it can provide a scientific basis for not doing so. Activists against the plant took some comfort in the limitations on sulfur dioxide and mercury, but were concerned that the larger issues of greenhouse gas emissions and mountaintop removal coal mining were not addressed by the board’s decision. To add insult to injury, the plant is only projected to create 75 permanent jobs.

The ongoing fight against dirty coal

The fight against Dominion’s Wise County Coal Plant continues. Recent developments have greatly cheered activists fighting to prevent construction of the plant. An EPA appeals panel blocked a permit in November that its regional office in Denver sought to give to the Bonanza coal-burning power plant in Utah because it did not require controls on emissions of carbon dioxide. David Bookbinder, an attorney for the Sierra Club, which filed the appeal, said that the decision will “stop permitting of any coal burning power plants while EPA mulls over what to do next” about how the federal Clean Air Act is used to control carbon dioxide. “And that will be decided by the next administration,” Bookbinder said.

The Governor’s Commission on Climate Change also voted in November to recommend that Virginia adopt the much tougher, mandatory energy efficiency standards that were outlined by the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy, an independent research firm. The commission, which is working on reports for each state, recently recommended that Virginia require a 19-percent reduction in electricity demand by 2025. This would eliminate the need for the equivalent of 10 Wise County coal-fired power plants. The commission also recommended that Virginia reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 25 percent by 2020, and 80 percent by 2050. The Wise Energy for Virginia coalition notes on its website that these goals are in line with those of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and are much more aggressive than the original goals outlined by Governor Kaine.

New efforts against dirty coal

The Wise Energy for Virginia coalition has launched two lines of attack against the Wise County plant in the legal and legislative arenas. The Southern Environmental Law Center filed two petitions for appeal to the Virginia Circuit Court of the City of Richmond on behalf of the coalition—one for each of the two air pollution permits issued by the Air Pollution Control Board to Dominion for the Wise County plant. Cale Jaffe, senior attorney with SELC and a core leader in the Wise Energy for Virginia coalition said, “The process for the development of these permits was fundamentally flawed, so not surprisingly, the permit limits fail to meet federal standards for protecting public health and the environment.”

The coalition is also training activists from across Virginia to talk with their state legislators and prepare for the next legislative session, which begins this month. Dominion’s representatives fill the halls of the General Assembly and have extraordinary access to the lawmakers during the legislative session. This year, the coalition hopes to field more citizen lobbyists in Richmond to drive home to state legislators the need for alternative energy technologies and the mandatory energy efficiency requirements recommended by ACEEE and the Governor’s Commission on Climate Change. Citizens across the state are already meeting with their delegates and senators. The strategy now is to move into a more proactive approach to securing a comprehensive clean energy future for Virginia while still working to prevent the Wise County plant from going forward.

Lao Tzu famously wrote that a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. The partners in the struggle against Big Coal in Virginia have walked many miles together since the formation of the Wise Energy for Virginia coalition in September 2007. They have journeyed across the state from the coal-rich mountains of Southwest Virginia to Northern Virginia, where rising energy demands are cited as justification for the Wise County plant, to the offices of the governor and state legislators in Richmond. Along the way, they have formed alliances across the divide between environmental groups and faith communities, who have not always held one another in great esteem.

The partnership between the faith community and the environmental community in Virginia has developed in a surprisingly organic way, perhaps because religion runs deep in these parts and environmental organizations found that they already had members who were involved in faith communities. And religious leaders and congregations across the theological spectrum are increasingly being converted to earth care and ecological justice in record numbers.

A new movement is emerging in the creative space where religious convictions intersect with people’s growing concerns over global warming, the death of streams and mountains, and the health impacts of pollution. The Wise Energy for Virginia coalition is a sign of hope that our nation may yet find its way toward a sane and sustainable future for our people, our land, and ultimately, the planet. The journey is far from over, but the people are on the move.

Janet Parker is Pastor for Parish Life at Rock Spring Congregational United Church of Christ in Arlington, VA, and has been actively involved in the faith community’s efforts against mountaintop removal coal mining and the Wise County coal plant.

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