A mine worth saving?

Laudato Si’ debate hits close to home

Brent Malley is a coal miner who says it’s his duty to be a steward of the environment, especially among an escalating fight over coal in northwest Colorado.

The 37-year-old plant operator works at the Colowyo Mine near Craig, a coal-mining town in Moffat County, targeted by the activist group WildEarth Guardians intent on banning coal.

Craig's Colowyo Mine, which supplies power to 1 million people in the state, has become a hub of debate over environmental responsibility only heightened by the release of Pope Francis' encyclical on responsible ecology.

Craig’s Colowyo Mine, which supplies power to 1 million people in the state, has become a hub of debate over environmental responsibility only heightened by the release of Pope Francis’ encyclical on responsible ecology. Photo by Colowyo Coal Company L.P.

Malley said his approximately 220 co-workers and the townspeople are speaking out against a lawsuit generated by activists that threatens to shut down the mine, which is a major source of energy for the state and has won awards for creating habitats and reclaiming mined land.

The town is one of many places finding itself at the center of dialogue on environmental responsibility as Pope Francis’ encyclical Laudato Si’: On the Care of Our Common Home was officially released June 18.

“What I read was (the pope) thinks we should be good stewards of the earth,” said Malley, who attends St. Michael Parish in Craig. “I completely agree, 100 percent. I believe it’s a sin to go out and to damage the earth and to not fix it.”

He said it’s a moral duty to be responsible and take care of God’s creation.

“I believe it is our duty as Catholics to go out and explain to people what we do (at the mine),” he said.

Father Jason Wunsch, parochial vicar at St. Michael, said it’s been a perfect storm of debate in Craig as the lengthy 184-page letter was released urging a discussion about solutions to a damaged earth.

“Already our community is hanging on by a thread,” he said. “It has an affect on everybody and the community.”

The debate is not only political and legal, but moral. Father Wunsch said he’s been speaking in homilies and reaching out to the community to discuss the moral implications of environmental responsibility. He said the Church has a voice in the matter.

“It’s a moral issue because it’s a gift from God, because it has a beauty, goodness and wisdom that reflects him. To destroy (creation) is to offend God,” he said.

Creation itself must be considered, but so must its impact on people.

“You cannot hurt the environment without hurting people,” he said.

In Craig, the townspeople fear the environment is made a higher priority by environmentalists who they feel assert nature above people.

The ColoWyo Mine is has won awards for the land it reclaims and turns into protected habitats for wildlife.

The ColoWyo Mine is has won awards for the land it reclaims and turns into protected habitats for wildlife. Photo by Colowyo Coal Company L.P.

Father Wunsch said there needs to be a balance. The ideology of the environmentalists is damaging and fails to recognize the order of creation—that humans are above animals and nature, he said.

“The environmental movement has become an ideology,” he said. “The pope, as well his encyclical, talks about this. They take an idea that nature is good and dignified but then impose it on reality, versus letting reality form our ideas. It’s imposing ideas before we even look at reality and it does damage to the human community.”

The prevailing ideology drove Wild-Earth Guardians to file a lawsuit and threaten the Colowyo Mine. In May, a U.S. District court judge in Denver ruled that the federal office overseeing the mine had 120 days to take another look at the environmental impact of the mine and gather public opinion on its expansion. If the U.S. Office of Surface mining fails to meet the judges’ request, the court could order the mine to shut down.

The town, whose local economy relies on the mine, reacted with concern about job loss and the impact on energy supply. The Colowyo Mine supplies the CraigStation, one of the largest coal-fired plants in the area with the capacity to produce 1,303 megawatts of electricity, which is enough to supply demands for 1 million people in Colorado and neighboring states.

The mine is one of the most responsible in the nation, receiving recognition for having one of the lowest violations-per-inspection-day rates in the United States’ coal industry and a record of no environmental notices of violation resulting from inspections, according to Drew Kramer, public affairs manager of Tri-State Generation and Transmission, the parent company of the mine.

But Craig’s residents could learn from the Church and the encyclical by thinking beyond their town, Father Wunsch said.

“We shouldn’t wait for a crisis point in our community to act at all,” he said, adding that the town could focus on recycling more often.

“People in Craig could be more Catholic in being more concerned for the world,” he said. “We have to be concerned with the poor.”

Malley said everyone has a responsibility to act consciously.

“This is our backyard here in Moffat County and we take this seriously,” he said.

The story of Craig and the debate over coal was heightened after the release of Pope Francis’ encyclical. Colorado Public Radio interviewed Father Jason Munsch and Brent Malley for a story about the Catholic perspective on ecology and environmental responsibility. Read wider coverage of the discussion here.


Elk run on reclaimed land previously mined for coal near Craig.

Elk run on reclaimed land previously mined for coal near Craig. Photo by Colowyo Coal Company L.P.

COMING UP: Q&A: USCCB clarifies intent behind bishops’ Eucharist document

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Last week, the U.S. bishop concluded their annual Spring meeting, during which much about the Church in the U.S was discussed. In particular, the bishops voted to draft a document on the meaning of Eucharistic life in the Church, which was approved by an overwhelming majority.

Since then, speculation about the nature of the document has run rampant, the chief of which is that it was drafted specifically to instigate a policy aimed directly at Catholic politicians and public figures whose outward political expressions and policy enactment do not align with Church teaching.

The USCCB has issued a brief Q&A clarifying the intent of the document, and they have emphasized that “the question of whether or not to deny any individual or groups Holy Communion was not on the ballot.”

“The Eucharist is the source and summit of Christian life,” the USCCB said. “The importance of nurturing an ever
deeper understanding of the beauty and mystery of the Eucharist in our lives is not a new topic for the bishops. The document being drafted is not meant to be disciplinary in nature, nor is it targeted at any one individual or class of persons. It will include a section on the Church’s teaching on the responsibility of every Catholic, including bishops, to live in accordance with the truth, goodness and beauty of the Eucharist we celebrate.”

Below are a few commonly asked questions about last week’s meeting and the document on the Eucharist.

Why are the bishops doing this now?

For some time now, a major concern of the bishops has been the declining belief and understanding of the Eucharist among the Catholic faithful. This was a deep enough concern that the theme of the bishops’ strategic plan for 2021-2024 is Created Anew by the Body and Blood of Christ: Source of Our Healing and Hope. This important document on the Eucharist will serve as a foundation for the multi-year Eucharistic Revival Project, a major national effort to reignite Eucharistic faith in our country. It was clear from the intensity and passion expressed in the individual interventions made by the bishops during last week’s meeting that each bishop deeply loves the Eucharist.

Did the bishops vote to ban politicians from receiving Holy Communion?

No, this was not up for vote or debate. The bishops made no decision about barring anyone from receiving Holy Communion. Each Catholic — regardless of whether they hold public office or not — is called to continual conversion, and the U.S. bishops have repeatedly emphasized the obligation of all Catholics to support human life and dignity and other fundamental principles of Catholic moral and social teaching.

Are the bishops going to issue a national policy on withholding Communion from politicians?

No. There will be no national policy on withholding Communion from politicians. The intent is to present a clear understanding of the Church’s teachings to bring heightened awareness among the faithful of how the Eucharist can transform our lives and bring us closer to our creator and the life he wants for us.

Did the Vatican tell the bishops not to move forward on drafting the document?

No. The Holy See did encourage the bishops to engage in dialogue and broad consultation. Last week’s meeting was the first part of that process. It is important to note that collaboration and consultation among the bishops will be key in the drafting of this document.

Featured photo by Eric Mok on Unsplash