Archive for the ‘Advocacy’ Category

Water of Life, Culture of Death

In response to the recent chemical spill in WV, Wheeling Jesuit University Professor and Appalachian Institute colleague, Dr. Jessica Wrobleski, posted this personal reflection on the value of clean water being a “life issue” in the eyes of the Catholic church. Originally posted on on January 20, 2014.

Wheeling Jesuit University hosted a candlelight vigil on Jan. 21st to stand in solidarity with those affected by the WV chemical spill.

Wheeling Jesuit University hosted a candlelight vigil on Jan. 21st to stand in solidarity with those affected by the WV chemical spill.

Although the US Bishops’ current “Nine Days for Life” campaign focuses exclusively on abortion, there are other issues that merit acknowledgment as significant threats to life both within and outside of the womb.  Tomorrow (Tuesday, January 21) at locations around West Virginia and the rest of the United States, concerned citizens will join in prayer and solidarity with those affected by the recent crisis in West Virginia and in recognition that these fragile waters sustain all life.  As people gather in the nation’s capital to march in support of life this week, I encourage all who read this to consider participating in a vigil—even if it is only a few moments at your kitchen tap—to pray for what may become one of the world’s most important “life issues” in years to come: the availability of clean water.

Surely, by now those reading this have heard about the January 9 chemical spill that has left hundreds of thousands of people unable to use their water—not only for drinking, but for washing, bathing, or cooking—in the areas surrounding West Virginia’s capitol.  What you may not have heard is that as of today, although the “do not use” orders have been lifted in many areas, residents still experience the distinctive black licorice smell of 4-methylcyclohexane, pregnant women have been advised not to drink the water from their tap, restaurants and businesses are still relying on bottled water for cooking and washing, and there are ongoing reports of sickness due to exposure to the chemical in precisely those areas that have been told their water is “safe.”  But, as a number of articles discussing the broader context of the spill point out, it is unlikely that the West Virginia’s waters will be truly safe so long as “business as usual” continues here.

Ecological, political, and economic issues are so multifaceted and tightly interwoven in West Virginia that it’s hard to know where to begin to unravel all that the recent water crisis represents.  As one recent piece in National Geographic points out, “the coal-cleaning chemical that spilled from Freedom Industries’ storage tank into the Elk River last Thursday is only the latest insult in what for some has been a lifetime of industrial accidents that have poisoned groundwater, spewed toxic gas emissions, and caused fires, explosions, and other disasters that neither state nor federal regulators have been able to protect against.” Lest it appear that regulators’ inability to prevent disasters is simply due to the fact that such “accidents” are inevitable in chemical and mining industries, it is important to recognize that political power historically has been aligned with the interests of industry in this state.  The quiescence born of economic desperation is a longstanding feature of the population’s relationship with industry, as the promise of jobs and “economic development” seems to trump concerns about health and safety for not only businesses and state officials but many residents as well.  “West Virginia has a pattern of resisting federal oversight and what they consider E.P.A interference and that really puts workers and the population at risk,” noted a senior scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council in a recent New York Times piece that dealt with the state’s “lax regulations” and “questionable enforcement ethic.”

I grew up along a small creek in West Virginia, where my brothers and I spent much of our summers playing in its waters—until it turned bright orange due to acid drainage that had overflowed from an old mining operation upstream from where we lived.  We relied on well water in those days, and I have vivid memories of my father washing out the black gunk that would collect in our water filter on a weekly basis.  Small spills such as this as well as many which are far more devastating are such a regular occurrence that they are hardly news in West Virginia (and even large stories such as this receive scant attention in the broader media).  Due to mountaintop removal mining, several thousand miles of West Virginia’s streams have been buried or turned black with toxic coal slurry (a by-product of processing coal), and even conventional mining poses the risk of acid drainage such as I witnessed as a child.  Across the state, more than 12,600 miles of waterways—over 40% of its total—are listed as impaired according to a 2012 WV DEP study, and for another 11,000 miles there is insufficient data to assess the water quality.  Add to this the effects of chemical industries and the as-yet-unknown impacts of the area’s development of shale gas resources, and it is not difficult to see how precarious the state’s water resources are, despite the fact that it is blessed with abundant rainfall.

Not so in other parts of the country or world, where concerns about water are often due to absolute scarcity rather than contamination. Though the issues are different, this past week’s stories about the severe drought in California and other western states powerfully reinforce the recognition of the preciousness and precariousness of fresh water, even without the threat of industrial pollution.  I recently read Christiana Peppard’s important new book, Just Water: Theology, Ethics, and the Global Water Crisis (Orbis, 2014), which helpfully outlines several key dimensions of the global fresh water crisis.  “Our blue planet certainly seems watery,” she writes, “but of all the water in the world, 97.2 percent is salt water, while only 2.5 percent is fresh water.  Of that tiny proportion of fresh water, 70 percent is locked in ice caps and the polar regions.  Nearly 30 percent is groundwater . . . and a mere 0.3 percent of all fresh water is surface water, or what we tend to think of as the ‘renewable’ water supply,” (21-22).  The pressing issue is that worldwide demand for water—over 90% of which is consumed by agriculture and industry—have increased dramatically in the twentieth century, and a recent UN report estimates that by 2025 “180 million people will be living in countries or regions with absolute water scarcity, and two-thirds of the world population could be under stress conditions,” (31).

Beginning from the recognition that the need for fresh water is a universal requirement for human life—a sine qua non of human existence—and that there is no substitute for it—it is sui generis—Peppard makes a compelling argument that water must be treated as a basic human right rather than an economic commodity.  With particular attention to hydraulic fracturing technologies, she calls for a “precautionary principle” which states that conclusive proof of public safety should precede pursuit of corporate profit: “When downstream effects are probable or even possible, particularly with regard to extractive technologies and their impacts on watersheds and public health, we would do well to exercise caution, for the consequences of our decisions will be borne on human bodies and within the lifetimes of future generations.”  The application of this principle—which has long been disregarded in West Virginia’s extractive economy and other industries—would “subordinate the values of corporate profit and economic growth to far more fundamental values, like life, health, and the integrity of watershed in the short and long term” (167).

In his 1995 encyclical The Gospel of Life—best known for its condemnation of abortion, contraception, and euthanasia—John Paul II describes a “culture of death” which “denies solidarity” and is “actively fostered by powerful cultural, economic, and political currents which encourage an idea of society excessively concerned with efficiency.  Looking at the situation from this point of view, it is possible to speak in a certain sense of a war of the powerful against the weak,” (#12).  In their pastoral letter At Home in the Web of Life, published the same year, the Catholic Bishops of Appalachia appropriate John Paul’s terminology to describe the ongoing struggle of the region against exploitation and the destruction of its resources and communities.  Though the struggle against a “culture of death” takes a particular form in Appalachia, they write:

We do not see this conflict

between a culture of death and a culture of life

as simply an Appalachian crisis.

Rather we see the Appalachia crisis

as a window into a larger crisis

which now threatens the entire society,

including the middle class,

and indeed the full ecosystem

across the entire planet (46)

As the letter’s title suggests, the bishops call attention to the interdependence between human life and the broader ecosystem and the ways in which the sustainability of the former depends upon valuing the latter in more than monetary terms.  “In all of this,” they write, “we are haunted by the message from God which Moses set before the children of Israel to choose life rather than death: I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse.  Choose life, then, that you and your descendants may live. (Deuteronomy 30:19).

This verse is a favorite of anti-abortion activists, whose efforts to defend life often focus narrowly on individual decisions or the legislation that permits or denies them. As I stated at the beginning of this post, however—and as John Paul II’s language of “culture” (recently reiterated by Pope Francis, who spoke of abortion as emblematic of a “throwaway culture”) suggests—it is necessary to focus on a broader range of issues and attitudes that undergird the readiness to see some human lives as expendable for the sake of efficiency.  In a short article published several years ago in Commonweal, Maura Ryan points out that although “the link between advocating for the unborn and for child-protective environmental policies should not be hard to see . . . an ideological disconnect guides many supporters of ostensibly prolife administrations whose environmental policies are retrograde.”  She argues that “to move beyond rhetoric and exert real influence on behalf of children’s health, we need to be educated, self-critical, and imaginative about what it means to enact social policy that protects the most vulnerable.” [1]

All life on earth—born or unborn, human or nonhuman—depends on having access to clean water.  Whether or not you are inclined to pray for an end to abortion this week, I encourage you to take time tomorrow to promote a culture of life by joining in solidarity with those who have been affected by the chemical spill in West Virginia, acknowledging the value and vulnerability of the waters that sustain us.


1. Maura Ryan, “Toxic Legacy: Why the Environment is a Life Issue,” Commonweal (September 25, 2009), p. 8-10.


Celebrating Appalachia

Celebrating Appalachia

Beth Collins, Director, Appalachian Institute at WJU

Too many times when the term “Appalac

Local community members and the WJU campus Celebrate Appalachia!

Local community members and the WJU campus Celebrate Appalachia!

hia” is used, a negative, almost sympathetic thought, is conjured up. At the Appalachian Institute, while we recognize challenges that need to be addressed such as health care, environmental exploitation, generational poverty, and access to quality rural education, we also stand firm in our belief that this region is one to be celebrated, even bragged about. For this reason, we recently held our annual Celebrate Appalachia event on the campus of Wheeling Jesuit University.

We kicked off the week of events by getting the campus involved in our new community vegetable garden. Over 40 people shoveled, planted, and began to grow the seeds of community and healthy living. Later that night, campus and community members celebrated some of our greatest Appalachian assets—food and music! An Appalachian feast complete with ramps, fried green tomatoes, venison stew, chicken and dumplings, and apple stack cakes were served up. Along with the dinner came some great music from a local bluegrass band and a quilting workshop.

Later in the week, Appalachia’s long history with the labor movement was highlighted by local musician and WJU employee, Tom Breiding. Breiding’s folk music told the story of the earliest labor protests, the role of WV in the start of a nationwide labor movement, and the current struggles for union coal miners.

Rooted in Scottish, Irish, and Native American influence, Appalachian folk tales reflect history and fantasy. During the week of events, local storyteller, Judi Tarowsky, performed her collection of ghost stories for local community children during our Appalachian Story Hour.

The Appalachian Pastoral Letters, specifically the original 1975 This Land is Home to Me, highlight the beauty and challenges of the region. The letters were a catalyst for organizations like the Appalachian Institute to be formed. Several philosophy and theology classes learned the impact the letters have had on the region and the “dream of the mountains’ struggles” that we still encounter today through a personal account from Fr. Brian O’Donnell, SJ and Fr. Jim O’Brien, SJ.

A key feature of the week was to not only emphasize the splendor of the region, but also modern challenges that the region is facing. The topic of natural gas drilling is one that’s literally taken over regional news. Many of the news reports and academic journals focus on the environmental costs versus the economic benefits.  Brian Cohen, lead photographer for the Marcellus Shale Documentary Project, introduced a different category into the conversation—the community impact. Through an unbiased lens, the team wove together a stunning, and sometimes tragic, story of families that are succeeding and families that are forgotten. Several community groups, students, and faculty attended the evening presentation.

To end the week of events, Fr. Brian O’Donnell, SJ led a lunch discussion with employees on green theology and Appalachia. Using excerpts from At Home in the Web of Life and the model of the Franciscans, a clear question arose—do we have a vocabulary yet in terms of the dignity of nature to effectively argue the pros and cons of a particular intervention into ecosystems? As a Jesuit university, this burden of creating such a vocabulary and shift in mindset is particularly significant.

Here at the Institute we believe that praising a region is just as important as advocating for its struggles. The two must go hand in hand if empowerment is to happen. As Fr. Greg Boyle, SJ said during convocation at WJU this year, “Without kinship there is no peace. Without kinship there is no justice.” Delighting in our history, our culture, our kinship as Appalachians is the foundation for advocacy and change.

Appalachian Mountain Top Removal Mining – A Call to Build A New Model

The following post is offered as a reflection on the recent New York Times article entitled “Appalachia Turns on Itself” published on July 8, 2012.

written by: Mary Ellen Cassidy, Research & Advocacy Associate, The Appalachian Institute at Wheeling Jesuit University, reposted from the Ignatian Solidarity Network

High School Education 2000 Map of Appalachia

The recent New York Times article on Mountain Top Removal, “Appalachia Turns on Itself” repeated several arguments often cited to persuade us to limit or eliminate the practice of mountain top removal (MTR).  However, I propose that there is only one argument that really matters in this current political culture.

The first arguments offered in this article against MTR use scientific studies that document significant negative impacts of MTR on ecological systems and public health. These arguments carry the fatal flaw of assuming that we, in Appalachia and in the nation as a whole, understand scientific principles and math. They assume that the reader understands the scientific principles of natural systems – that “streams and mountains” are not aesthetic frivolities, but on the contrary, they are our very lifeline for clean water, nutritious soils and breathable air.  These arguments also assume the reader understands statistics and probability and what is meant by “percent greater risk”.   Check the international and state rankings of our schools in science and math performance and you’ll begin to understand why these arguments do not translate to the public at large.  It’s all too abstract, distal and distant to the uneducated and of course if you need to remain in denial, you can’t let science get in the way.  So, without an education and an open mind, science and math will not persuade.

Jason Howard next makes the jobs argument. Now we’re talking! Now the public is listening! Sure, it’s disturbing to hear about streams, mountains and public health problems, but for many in Appalachia jobs trump all of these concerns. Times are tough and have been tough for generations. For those not directly and immediately impacted by MTR, scientific studies must take a back seat to the immediate needs of their family and where their next paycheck is coming from. So jobs, any kind of jobs, become the holy grail of policy.

Feeding on these hard times, corporations pit us against each other, convincing us that jobs that ensure workers’ as well as the community’s health and safety are simply not competitive globally. So, we continue on our race to the bottom. Perhaps an answer to Appalachia’s civil war and the nation’s extreme partisan culture lies somewhere within a quote from Umberto Eco, “When your true enemies are too strong, you have to choose weaker enemies… Only the powerful always know with great clarity who their true enemies are…”

In light of this, I offer this thought to our Ignatian Solidarity Network.  Work as hard on the solution end as you do on the protest end. As Buckminster Fuller said, “You never change things by fighting existing reality. To change something build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete”.