Wild, Wonderful West Virginia

Ever since I watched Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth and gave a persuasion speech in 9th grade about global warming, I became conscience of the harm humanity is causing our planet and made an effort to be more sustainable. Often times I wondered what more I could do to significantly limit my energy use and stop the effects of climate change besides simply switching to compact fluorescent light bulbs and using less water. I was very excited to learn that I would have the opportunity to delve deeper into this issue of which I am so passionate by traveling to West Virginia for my Fall Break Service & Justice Trip.

After driving hundreds of miles across boring landscape, entering West Virginia I was overcome by its absolute beauty. The tree-covered Appalachian Mountains were the full spectrum of fall colors, from red to yellow to purple. Unfortunately, the state’s long history of coal mining has created a dependency on an industry that is extremely harmful to this stunning terrain. Particularly noticeable throughout West Virginia were the effects of Mountaintop Removal (MTR). This form of surface mining is performed by literally blasting the summit of a mountain from its base and stripping it of its coal.

Haley and the West Virginia Group

Larry Gibson, an environmental activist, fought tirelessly for over twenty years to stop the coal companies from destroying the Appalachian landscape through MTR. He passed away in September; but his legacy lives on through his son Larry Gibson, Jr., who has promised to carry on his father’s mission. On one particularly memorable day during our trip, he gave us a tour of Kayford Mountain, land that has been in his family since the 18th century. After a long hike, we stepped over what Larry called “Hell’s Gate” and stood in awe of the scene in front of us. We were on an island in a sea of mountaintop removal sites. Instead of gorgeous trees and mountains, all I saw was complete destruction.

I, like countless West Virginians, cannot seem to fathom why the process of MTR is being performed in the coal industry. Not only is MTR destroying our precious planet but also polluting the air and water and causing numerous health problems for the people of Appalachia. With our constant increase in energy needs, it seems that the only solution to our problem is to keep mining coal in any way that it can be obtained. In our current political atmosphere, the United States is incredibly divided; and West Virginia is in the same situation. Either you are a “tree-hugger” who wants to stop MTR but as a result eliminate jobs, or you are a “big bad bully” of the coal industry who supports job growth and economic profit but are consequently hurting the environment. This clear separation leads to no compromise or effort to find new renewable energy technology.

Thankfully, my group was given the opportunity to talk to Center for Coalfield Justice and the American Friends Service Committee, organizations who ignore political barriers and look for middle ground. Their utmost concern is the environment and people of Appalachia; and every day they fight for justice, whether that involves talking to a distressed homeowner about their property damage caused by a coal mine or raising money for the future of West Virginia. I was truly inspired and uplifted by their work, and they give me hope for a resolution to this complex and hostile issue. Although I am a friend of the mountains, I will work towards the day when there are not two sides but only one.

Haley Henriksen
2015 Graduate
Major: Public Relations
Host Site: Appalachian Institute, Wheeling WV


The CCSJ blogs are meant to be a place for Creighton students, faculty, staff, alumni/ae, and friends to reflect on their experiences with programs sponsored by the office or related to its mission. The views expressed in these reflections, and all other blogs found on or linked to from this website, are those of the individual authors and are not necessarily those of Creighton University, the Creighton Center for Service and Justice (CCSJ), or any of the University’s affiliates. The University and the CCSJ are not responsible for the actions, content, accuracy, or opinions expressed in these blogs.