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Mining official abandons diocese

Special to the National Catholic Reporter

Jim Mottet, a practicing Catholic from Signal Mountain, Tenn., doesn’t attend Mass at St. Augustine Parish in his hometown anymore.

He now drives his family across the state line to a church in Georgia where his tithes won’t go to a diocese that advocates against the way he earns his living.

Mottet is the president and general manager of Skyline Coal Co., which is seeking approval to mine inside the watershed of Fall Creek Falls State Park. Skyline has maintained that strip-mining will not harm the watershed. But local environmentalists, led by the activist group Save Our Cumberland Mountains, want the watershed declared unsuitable for mining. They argue that mining would pollute the water, threaten the land and endanger the native wildlife and vegetation.

During Mass two years ago at St. Augustine, Mottet learned in a rather abrupt fashion that he and Knoxville Bishop Anthony J. O’Connell were on opposite sides of the debate.

Marcus Keyes, who codirects the diocesan Office of Justice, Peace and Integrity of Creation with his wife, Glenda, read a strongly worded letter from O’Connell.

“If mining occurs in this area of the Sewanee coal seam, considered the most toxic coal seam in Tennessee, the local ecology, including the people and wildlife, will be devastated and the ‘face of Christ that is etched in every part of creation’ will be defaced and even obliterated,” the bishop wrote.

Mottet was shocked. He wrote a letter to O’Connell, rebutting many of the charges made in the letter and asking him to come out and see the mining operation for himself.

Edgar Miller, editor of the diocesan newspaper, The East Tennessee Catholic, accepted Mottet’s invitation, as did St. Augustine’s pastor, Fr. Paul Valleroy. Mottet said Miller then wrote a fair story about Skyline’s operations in which he quoted Valleroy saying he was “favorably impressed with the mining operation and its reclamation.”

Several months passed, however, before Mottet heard from the bishop. Although Mottet had left St. Augustine, his daughter was preparing for confirmation there. Before the ceremony, Mottet said O’Connell saw her name on the roster and wrote to him.

Mottet said O’Connell apologized for any negative feelings stemming from his letter. But Mottet explained that his decision to leave the diocese did not hinge on that letter or on the incident at St. Augustine.

“He missed the boat,” Mottet said in a recent phone interview. “He was concerned that I was embarrassed that it was read in church. As an active Catholic, I’m concerned that if he’s making uninformed decisions on other things like he did on mining, then I didn’t want to participate in the Knoxville diocese or St. Augustine’s.”

O’Connell told NCR he takes stands on many issues based on information provided to him by his advisers. Although he taught physics and chemistry for 25 years, O’Connell said he is not a mining expert and did not feel as if he had enough technical knowledge to view a tour of Skyline’s operations in an objective light.

Like many in the area, O’Connell, who grew up in the west of Ireland, loves the outdoors and especially the park.

“You can’t live in a place like this and not feel as if we have a serious obligation to rebuild what has been damaged and to preserve it,” he said.

O’Connell has relied on information supplied by the diocesan Justice and Peace office to keep abreast of the Fall Creek Falls mining situation. The diocese hasn’t funded the effort to resist mining there. However, the diocesan office does actively advocate for the cause in the community.

O’Connell didn’t know that the group was going to read the letter to St. Augustine’s congregation. It was addressed to the government Office of Surface Mining.

That Mottet happened to be there is unfortunate, the bishop said.

“When I wrote him, I expressed my sadness about that and I apologized,” he said.

National Catholic Reporter, October 16, 1998