Unnatural Wonders

Off the beaten path in coal country

The Reverend John Rausch looked past a large sign that warned “No Unauthorized Entry Past This Point” and at the approaching pickup truck whose burly, hard-hat-wearing occupants seemed to be staring in his direction. “I wonder if they’re coal company security,” he said, a bit uneasily. The truck passed, and Rausch went back to surveying the barren, gouged-out plateau that had once been a tree-lined mountaintop. “It’s really something, isn’t it?” he asked the four photo-snapping sightseers tagging along on his “Mountaintop Removal Tour,” a whirlwind two-day excursion to take in the ravages of coal mining in the hollows of southeastern Kentucky. “It’s even more disturbing to realize that when you flip a switch and waste electricity, you may be contributing to taking down a mountain.”

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The lanky, bearded, 61-year-old director of the Catholic Committee of Appalachia eschews clerical black in favor of Levi’s and sweaters. His lack of a mountain twang betrays his Philadelphia roots, but except for brief stints in Bangladesh, Sierra Leone, and South Africa, he’s spent most of his career in Appalachia as an environmental activist. In these parts, Rausch’s crusade against the coal industry isn’t always met with enthusiasm: He was once asked not to return to a local parish after he gave a guest sermon that irked a coal company executive in the congregation.

So in his current calling as a tour guide, Rausch hopes to lure well-meaning outsiders to see what happens when you blow up the tops of mountains to get at the coal inside. The concept of turning environmental devastation into tourism isn’t unique—Gray Line now offers a $35 “Hurricane Katrina: America’s Greatest Catastrophe” tour of New Orleans. But Rausch’s aim isn’t to indulge lurid curiosity. “The whole idea is to make people angry about what they see,” he explained. “That way, maybe they’ll go out and do something.” Everyone on his tour gets a pamphlet that he’s written on “care of creation,” a theological argument that includes quotes from Pope John Paul II on the sacred obligation to protect the environment. “It’s a part of the church’s teachings that’s often overlooked,” Rausch said. (A growing number of Protestant evangelicals have also embraced this concept, including several hundred ministers and professors who signed the Evangelical Declaration on the Care of Creation, which condemned environmental destruction as a form of sinfulness.)

As clouds of dust from mining sites swirled in the distance, Rausch assembled his latest tour group in the Wal-Mart parking lot in the small mining town of Hazard. “It’s the most convenient location for us to meet, but I tell everybody they’re absolutely forbidden to buy anything,” Rausch quipped. (Proponents of mountaintop removal have argued that it provides more flat land for building box stores.) The group included a social worker from North Carolina and a pair of Congregational ministers from Louisville, each of whom had donated $100 to spend the next 27 hours being shocked and awed.

After a lunch of vegetable soup and homemade banana cream pudding in the rectory of Our Mother of Good Counsel Church, everyone headed off for a high-speed drive down battered country roads. As a succession of 60-ton coal trucks passed by, Jeff Combs, a 25-year-old Eastern Kentucky University student, gave a quick lecture on the history of coal mining in Appalachia. The group stopped to snap photos of the rusting remains of an abandoned coal-washing plant while Combs, whose family has lived in the area since the 19th century, explained that his ancestors once owned this land. “My great-grandfather is buried out there, past the slurry pond,” he said.

The tour group spent the night at a monastery, then headed back into the hollows to meet locals whose homes had been damaged by mining company blasting. “My husband thought it was an earthquake, it was so bad,” explained a woman in her 60s, who added that her driveway and even the seals on her windows had been cracked by the explosions: “They shake your whole body! Turned my well water the color of tomato soup, too.” A Baptist minister recounted how his community had been flooded five times in an 18-month period, and how continuous exposure to dust from coal trucks had permanently damaged his health. “I only have 40 percent lung capacity now,” he said. “Every time I go to a doctor, he wants to know how close I am to the mining road. It’s three feet from my house.”

The last stop was Hazard’s small airport—built on a mountaintop removal site—where everyone took turns squeezing into a prop plane for an aerial tour of nearby mining sites. The sprawling expanse of rust-colored scars is precisely the sort of jaw-dropping sight that Rausch hopes will motivate visitors to think beyond coal. “Why not turn southeastern Kentucky into a center for developing alternative energy?” he asked. “That’d provide some of the economic opportunities that people here need.”

Rausch isn’t the only one who sees environmental tourism as a possible cure for Appalachia’s troubles; Kentucky governor Ernie Fletcher has proposed spending $3 million on wildlife viewing stations to lure nature lovers to coal country’s denuded mountaintops. Rausch is skeptical. But as he led his band of anti-ecotourists around another flattened peak virtually devoid of vegetation, he made a surprising discovery. “Elk turds!” he exclaimed. “Who says we don’t have economic development here?”