Photo of Bill Moyers Bill Moyers Journal
Bill Moyers Journal
Bill Moyers Journal
Watch & Listen The Blog Archive Transcripts Buy DVDs

September 7, 2007

Mountaintop Mining Update

ED WILEY: Yes we all need to stand for our children and their future. Here you can have a pamphlet while you're reading — it's about our children in America and our future.

BILL MOYERS: Ed Wiley came up to new york this week from West Virginia.

ED WILEY: I'm here in New York trying to get on the Today Show, and I want America to know this is about your children.

BILL MOYERS: He wants the national media to pay attention to what's happening back home.

What he wants the press to report is this: coal companies...blasting off the tops of the mountains and dumping the waste in communities, streams, and rivers all over his state.

ED WILEY: We have an elementary school there, Sundial, West Virginia, that's being affected by coal mining, mountaintop removal and clean coal technology. My granddaughter attended school there, she come out of there very, very sick one day. And I actually worked on these sites and didn't realize what I was back there doing.

BILL MOYERS: Mountain top removal is devastating West Virginia. And last year Ed Wiley walked all the way from Charleston to Washington — 455 miles — hoping someone high in the administration would hear his S.O.S. nobody did.

Instead, just two weeks ago President Bush gave the green light for coal companies to go for broke — rip off more mountain tops to get at the coal underneath. The argument is, we have to have that black gold to meet our energy needs. `but it's a devil's bargain — over 700 miles of Appalachian streams have already been buried under mining waste, and another seven hundred miles are likely to disappear in the coming decade. Some Christians there don't like this bargain with the devil, and they're fighting back.

MUSIC: In Southern West Virginia,
They're taking away our hills.
They're tearing up our mountains
And making valley fill…

BILL MOYERS: The Appalachian Mountains Of West Virginia. They were made in a day by the Lord if you're a strict creationist. They're among the earliest formed in the world if you set your watch by geologic time. Either way, they are under assault.

BILL MOYERS: Coal companies are blowing the tops off mountains to extract the rich seams of black gold within.

JUDY BONDS: There are three million pounds of explosives used a day just in West Virginia to blow the tops off these mountains. Three million pounds a knock fly rock everywhere, to send silica and coal dust and rock dust and fly rock in our homes. I'm kinda thinking — I wonder — now which one of these mountains do you think God will come down here and blow up? Which one of these hollers do you think Jesus would store waste in? That's a simple question. That's all you have to ask.

BILL MOYERS: Judy Bonds' family has been in these mountains for ten generations. She's a winner of one of the world's most prestigious environmental awards — The Goldman Prize.

JUDY BONDS: As of last year, there was 400,000 acres of the world's most diverse forest completely destroyed forever. Then there's 1200 miles of stream have been affected. Seven hundred miles have been buried by mountaintop removal, which has selenium discharges in it. There's brackish water comin' out of it. Nothing can live in this type of water.

PREACHER: Do you remember the first time you fell in love with Jesus?

BILL MOYERS: Bonds was a raised a Christian, then strayed from the church. This fight, she says, has brought her back to God.

PREACHER: What sacrifice…

JUDY BONDS: It was the unjustness that I saw that was being heaped upon the people that the blasting and children suffering from the coal dust. And the elderly suffering from the coal dust. And the flooding. And I began to pray for help. For guidance.

PREACHER: I'll do whatever it takes to fight for my country. To protect the ocean, to protect our environment. I'll do whatever it takes…

BILL MOYERS: Now Bonds is bringing her faith to her fight for the mountains, part of a growing movement in West Virginia in which concern for the earth is guided by the Bible.

JUDY BONDS: Never doubt that this is a battle between good and evil! And now is not a time to be silent. Now is a time to stand up and be counted for. The earth is God's body!

ALLEN JOHNSON: I first want to apologize as a Christian for the unfaithfulness of the churches and Christians who have oftentimes - too often - been complicit in the destruction that we see upon the land!

BILL MOYERS: Allen Johnson is part of the same campaign. He co-founded an advocacy group Christians for the Mountains.

ALLEN JOHNSON: In the Book of Revelation there's a scripture that says that God will destroy those who destroy the Earth." We're breaking a covenant with God. We're breaking a covenant with Creation and with other people and with future generations. It is a sin. Sin's not a word that-- is popular today-- or its-- but it-- but that's what it is. S-I-N.

THE JOHNSONS: Give us, Lord, our daily bread.

BILL MOYERS: Johnson is a librarian. He and his wife have home-schooled their four children. They live off their land, growing their own vegetables, raising animals for food. On Sundays, he sings and plays in the church band.

In a region where many depend on coal for their livelihoods, Allen Johnson and Judy Bonds are speaking out, against mountaintop removal and for the people who consider themselves its collateral damage.

ALLEN JOHNSON: We are basically told this is your economy. Take it or leave it. If you don't have coal, you'll have nothing. You'll be even more impoverished than you are now. And, so people are in a sense held hostage by the-- by the coal industry.

BILL MOYERS: Here's what Allen Johnson is talking about. Coal processing produces toxic residue called sludge and slurry. It's estimated there's over one-hundred and ten billion gallons amassed in active West Virginia impoundments.

ALLEN JOHNSON: And there it sets-- black, gooey, tarry, toxic-- sludge or slurry-- is there.

BILL MOYERS: It's stored in open pools atop the flattened mountains, or, in some cases, pumped into abandoned underground mines.

ALLEN JOHNSON: But what is happening in those cases is the-- it's getting into the groundwater in some places.

BILL MOYERS: Carmelita Brown and her husband Ernie live in the town of Rawl, in Mingo County, downhill from a mountaintop coal mine. Because of mining activities, they say, they can no longer rely on clean well water.

CARMELITA BROWN: I never know when it's going to come. You know, just like one day it'll be clear. And, the next day it'll come out black. Or half a day it'll be clear and the rest of the half of the day it'll be black. And, it is so embarrassing to me when people come into my home and they'll look at you and say, "What's that smell?" You know, and I know they don't mean anything by it. And, I have to say, "That's my water."

BILL MOYERS: Carmelita Brown's husband, Ernie, was a coalminer like his grandfathers before him until on-the-job injuries forced him to retire.

ERNIE BROWN: Poor, old, sore knees…

ERNIE BROWN: What I'm going to do, I'm going to take a water sample of my water with Pepto Bismol. This is Pepto Bismol. This is potable water, this is jug water. I'm going to try to use the same amount of water.

BETSY RATE: How did you discover it?

ERNIE BROWN: Accident. My daughter-in-law had a upset stomach and my wife told her said, "I've got some Pepto Bismol so take you some Pepto Bismol and it'll help you." So she come in and got her some Pepto Bismol and took it. She took the little cup over into my sink and rinsed it out. And it turned black. And I said, "Gimme that Pepto Bismol." And I put a little bit in a little bit in a glass. It turned black. And I said, "Oh my goodness. I'm guessin' chemical reaction."

BILL MOYERS: The Browns aren't alone. Some of their neighbors are having water trouble too.

CARMELITA BROWN: You've got 750 some that live in these four communities. And our challenge is to fight for good water.

LARRY BROWN: Just simply to have the right to walk over to our spigot and turn it on and have decent water.

BILL MOYERS: Independent scientists tested the water about two years ago. What they found shocked the community, says Ernie Brown's brother, Pastor Larry Brown.

LARRY BROWN: They was testin' all the water. And the more they tested it the more they was finding.

BILLY SAMMONS: Arsenic, manganese, lead, barium, selenium, aluminum and stuff like that.

BILL MOYERS: Billy Irwin Sammons is a retired deputy sheriff.

BILLY SAMMONS: My left kidney is plumb full of kidney stones now. And the scientists tell us-- tell us this-- the ones we've dealt with. This is caused by the chemicals gathering inside of your body.

CARMELITA BROWN: So for my own purpose, I started taking a log.

BILL MOYERS: In her journal, Carmelita Brown has kept track of what's been happening to her water - and to her body.

CARMELITA BROWN: "I'm sick. I have kidney stones. My doctor tells me to drink plenty of water but that is hard to do when I don't have drinkable water. I have dealt with this problem for far too long. All I have asked for--" Sorry. "All I've asked for is water that I could drink and take a bath in, or cook with." "But that seems to be far outta reach."

MASSEY WEB/TV AD: "At Massey Energy we respect the beauty of our mountains, rivers and streams. We also know that improving our total environment includes making people's lives better. The needs of people - that's what the protesters against coal forget."

BILL MOYERS: Massey Energy is the region's largest coal company…

The Browns and their neighbors claim that a Massey Energy subsidiary - called Rawl Sales and Processing - has contaminated their water.

They have joined scores of Mingo County residents to sue both the subsidiary and Massey charging them with negligence ...allowing toxic slurry to leach into groundwater.

Over the years, Massey and its subsidiaries have paid out millions of dollars in environmental judgments and settlements.

MAN: It's like very stiff grease.

BILL MOYERS: Like the settlements resulting from this disaster - when some 300-million gallons of coal slurry buried creeks and streams, killing over a million fish. One coal official called it an "Act of God."

ALLEN JOHNSON: It's a legal term, the "act of God," when there's a flood, or-- a major catastrophe. "Well, it was God's fault." And-- it's not God's fault.

CARMELITA BROWN: "God didn't destroy the earth. And, he doesn't destroy the earth. The companies, the coal companies is the ones that's destroying the earth. So, that's my opinion on that.

BILL MOYERS: In taking on Massey the Browns and their neighbors are taking on Massey's president and C.E.O., Don Blankenship. A local boy turned big time powerbroker, he laid out his philosophy early in his career.

DON BLANKENSHIP: Unions, communities, people, everybody's gonna have to learn to accept that in the United States you have a capitalist society, and that capitalism, from a business viewpoint is survival of the most productive.

BILL MOYERS: Blankenship's supporters here say amen to that.

PROTESTORS: We are Massey! Here to stay!

BILL MOYERS: Not Carmelita Brown.

CARMELITA BROWN: I can see his house from my kitchen window. And it's ironic that I can stand and do my dishes in black water and then, look out my window and see his house up on a hill that everyone can see. To me, it's like he made a statement. You know? He's God. God on the mountain. But, he's as close to God as he's gonna get up on that mountain.

BILL MOYERS: Blankenship has made news spending millions of his own dollars to finance campaigns and causes in state elections.

The people here don't have that kind of clout. They've been trying for twelve years to get the government to provide them with the regular supply of clean water other citizens enjoy. Finally, new pipes are being laid that will eventually bring city water to the affected communities. In the meantime, church volunteers deliver water to the sick and elderly.

BILLY SAMMONS: I didn't get to bring you water last week. And we're about to run out of money on the water problem. So, I'm gonna give you additional water this week, OK?

RUTH SAUL: Well, God love you!

BILL MOYERS: Churches stand at the center of nearly every community in West Virginia. What Christian activists here want is to enlist them on the side of the environment.

ALLEN JOHNSON: What we wanna do, in Christians for the Mountains, is to try to get these churches-- ask these churches: invite them to-- explore this as a theological and Biblical issue.

JUDY BONDS: The problem is, is those that work for these coal companies, the locals that work for these coal companies also go to church sometimes and it creates conflict.

ALLEN JOHNSON: Some people say that churches are in the pockets of the coal company. And maybe they want to build a picnic shelter, so the coal company helped-- give a nice donation. I think there are some-- pointed questions we can ask these churches. And we can ask them, now "Are you gonna say nothing because you're getting some money?" Or, are you gonna say, "We don't wanna say anything because somebody in our church is getting their job is connected with the-- polluters." And so, you don't-- gonna say anything. What does that say? Now, justify that scripturally.

CARMELITA BROWN: There's a lot times-- you know-- that I have lost some of my faith. And I start saying, "God? Where are you?"

ERNIE BROWN: Brother Thomas, remember me and Carm tonight, and my family. Let's remember the ones in the hospitals and nursing homes. Let's remember the ones that's not here tonight. Let's just pray that the Lord will strengthen us and lead us and guide us…

MUSIC: Never grow old, never grow old. In the land where we'll never grow old…

BILL MOYERS: There have been some developments since we finished that report.

After battling for thirteen years Carmelita and Ernie Brown and over three hundred other families finally have clean municipal water piped into their homes. They still struggle with their health problems, but the browns told us they thank god every day that at last they can bathe and wash their clothes without worry.

JUDY BONDS: We need alternatives, we need conservation, we need education…

BILL MOYERS: Judy Bonds and Allen Johnson told us they are starting to pick up support for their cause among faith communities in and beyond West Virginia. Go to and you can find out about the film they produced about what's happening there.

In May Allen and two dozen religious leaders signed an interfaith statement calling on believers to make mountaintop removal "a spiritual issue" so that 'we return to our homes enriched by the beauty of the mountains and their inhabitants, determined to live more fully with care of creation."

As for the powerbroker himself, Don Blankenship - he spent $3.7 million of his own money trying to influence the local elections, but his efforts this time fell flat.

But then, last month, President Bush dashed the hopes of Christians for the mountains by making it easier for mining companies to blast and remove even more of the mountains. The president's new rule is open to a 60-day public comment period. You can make your voice heard by going to our journal page at

See you next week. I'm Bill Moyers.

Moyers Podcasts -- Sign Up for podcasts and feeds.
Our posts and your comments
For Educators    About the Series    Bill Moyers on PBS   

© Public Affairs Television 2008    Privacy Policy    DVD/VHS    Terms of Use    FAQ