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Quakers vs. PNC on mountaintop coal removal

William Penn wasn’t messing around when he founded the state of Pennsylvania in 1681, and Quakers aren’t messing around today as they get ready to walk across the state to protest PNC Bank’s financing of mountaintop removal coal mining.

Quakers don't mess around.  William Penn (a Quaker) wasn't messing around when he founded the state of Pennsylvania in 1681, and Quakers aren't messing around today as they get ready to walk across the state to protest PNC Bank's financing of mountaintop removal coal mining.

On Monday, members of the Earth Quaker Action Team (EQAT) will depart from Friends Center (8 a.m.! Free breakfast!) and make the 16-day, 200 mile trek from Philly to PNC's headquarters in Pittsburgh.

The walk, part of EQAT's Bank Like Appalachia Matters campaign, is intended to "shine the Light" on the social, environmental, and health impacts of PNC's investments in mountaintop removal. PNC, which likes to tout its green initiatives, is a major financier of mountaintop removal coal mining in Appalachia, according to a Rainforest Action Network report on the issue. PNC appears to talk the green talk, but not necessarily walk the green walk when it comes to the big stuff.

According to EQAT member Ingrid Lakey, the idea for the Pittsburgh pilgrimage came about when her father (George Lakey, a local professor and activist who turns 75 this year) decided that "he was ready to walk the walk, literally. He wanted to walk to PNC headquarters to confront the bank's CEO."

Since 2010, EQAT has engaged in nonviolent protest and conversations with PNC to try and persuade the bank to withdraw its investments from mountaintop removal projects.  That year, PNC announced that it would not finance any corporation that obtains the majority of its coal from mountaintop sources or fund any individual mountaintop removal projects.  While this was a victory for EQAT, the policy may not have had any actual impact on mountaintop removal practices given the companies that PNC finances. According to EQAT, PNC has refused to disclose any evidence of the policy's impact on its investments.

PNC Bank officials replied to our request for a response by stating that they "have no comment on the walkers," and directed us to their 2011 Corporate Responsibility Report, which summarizes their policy on mountaintop removal financing.

Mountaintop removal is a form of surface mining where the tops of mountains are removed (literally) to access coal. The "spoil" — the non-coal, and thus non-wanted part of the mountain removed — is dumped into the valleys below (called "valley fills"), and the residue from cleaning the coal (called "slurry") is impounded in ponds or injected into old mine shafts.

Since they contain things like lead, manganese, beryllium, selenium, uranium, radium, and sulfates, spoil and slurry are not good for the public's health.  A review article in Environmental Health Perspectives, a peer-reviewed journal published by the National Institutes of Health, highlights some key research and concerns.

A survey of 37 Appalachian streams found that only 10 percent of those below valley fills met Clean Water Act standards, while 100 percent of those not below valley fills did. Does such contamination result in health impacts?

One study found a significant relationship between the "ecological integrity" of streams  and respiratory, digestive, urinary, and breast cancer incidence and mortality in surrounding areas. Two 2011 studies found associations between mountaintop removal practices and cardiovascular disease and birth defects in affected areas, after controlling for other risk factors.

In 2010, hundreds of West Virginia residents filed law suits against a coal company for "slurry syndrome" — a nasty combination of diarrhea, rash, tooth abnormalities, and kidney stones purportedly caused by drinking slurry-contaminated water.

To be sure, none of the above proves cause and effect. But it is more than enough to raise concerns, particularly when a key player is touting its commitment to the environment.

Persuasion is prevention in its purest form.  By persuading PNC to stop financing a practice that is likely to have adverse public health impacts, and calling the bank out on the contradiction between its "green" commitment and mountaintop removal financing activities, the Quakers are truly walking the public health walk.

It's easy for most of us to act on our support for the environment by, say, not littering or not using disposable cups. But we rarely stop and think about how decisions that are two or three steps removed — which bank we use, or what we invest in through a 401(k) — might have an even greater impact.  Most of us, not just PNC Bank, are walking contradictions.

Don't want to be a walking contradiction . . . but also not quite ready to walk across Pennsylvania?  Here's what you can do to support EQUAT: volunteer to help out with the walk, or even walk a bit; make a donation;  or, if you're a PNC member, join the Green Your Money initiative to show the bank's executives that you know it's the financing decisions they make, not just the paperless bank statements they offer, that really have an impact on the environment, and on the public's health.

Read more about The Public's Health.