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Concert for Appalachian mountaintops

Kentucky church youth group raises money to stop mountaintop removal coal mining.
By Jane Greer
2.8.08

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Wendell Berry with UU youth group

Environmentalist and author Wendell Berry stands with Nora Grossman, Eli Kleinsmith, and Ben Scruton (right) before the “I Love the Mountains” benefit concert organized by the First Unitarian Church of Louisville’s youth group. (Ward Wilson)

While “moving mountains” is a familiar expression, “saving mountain tops” is not. But a Unitarian Universalist youth group in Kentucky is determined to change that. The young people, all members of the First Unitarian Church of Louisville, Ky., raised more than $6,000 at a benefit concert February 2 to spread the word about mountaintop removal coal mining.

Mountaintop removal coal mining, which occurs mostly in the Appalachian mountains of Kentucky, Virginia, Tennessee, and West Virginia, involves blasting up to 1,000 feet of rock off mountaintops to expose the coal below. The mountaintop material is then pushed into neighboring valleys. While it may be financially advantageous to the mining companies, requiring less money and fewer miners than more traditional means of mining, it has drawn criticism from environmentalists for polluting streams, destroying natural habitats, endangering human communities, and ravaging the landscape.

In 2006, the UUA’s General Assembly passed a resolution calling for the end of mountaintop removal coal mining, saying that “the impact of the choice of coal mining techniques on local communities is a national and not a regional issue.”

So First Unitarian’s senior high youth group decided to raise some consciousness.

“At the beginning of the year, we were discussing issues we wanted to focus on,” said Nora Grossman, 15, a member of the group. “Environmental issues have always been important to us. This subject came up because it was in Kentucky.”

Abby Rudolph, 16, who was one of the show’s emcees, agreed. “We felt a connection to this issue,” she said. “Part of what it means to be a UU is respect for the environment.”

Working with Louisville singer Cari Norris and the social justice advocacy group Kentuckians for the Commonwealth (KTFC), they put together a benefit concert of mountain-inspired music, featuring the Reel World String Band, storyteller/musician Randy Wilson, and Rich Kirby and the Po Folks, along with a musical trio from the youth group itself. The concert, called “I Love the Mountains,” was held February 2 at First Unitarian Church and drew an audience of more than 400, said Lisa Willner, the church’s director of religious education and youth group advisor. It raised more than $6,000 for KTFC’s campaign to limit destructive and unsafe coal mining practices.

In addition to the musicians, well-known Kentucky author and environmental activist Wendell Berry spoke. “He told us that there were two reasons he agreed to speak at this event,” Willner said. “The first was because he cared about the issue. And the second was because youth were involved. He said he wanted to support and rile up activist youth!”

Kentucky is the third largest coal producing state after Wyoming and West Virginia. According to statistics provided by the U.S. Energy Information Administration, Kentuckians receive 90 percent of their electricity from coal-fired energy plants.

“Our young people realized that although they don’t see the areas affected by mountaintop mining, they still benefited from coal every time they turned on a light or used their computer,” Willner said. “While people in Louisville sometimes feel like we’re self-contained, it reminded us that we are connected to Kentucky.”

The concert included an invitation to attend KTFC’s third annual “I Love Mountains” lobbying day to be held February 14 at the Kentucky capitol in Frankfort.


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