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Sit-in ends, coal protest gains steam in Frankfort

by Joe Arnold

WHAS11.com

Posted on February 14, 2011 at 11:30 PM

(WHAS11)  A Valentines Day rally in Frankfort drew about one thousand people who proclaimed their love of Kentucky's mountains and protested the coal mining that blasts the tops off some mountains in eastern Kentucky.

"What do we want?" a bullhorn voice asked as the protestors marched on Capitol Avenue just before noon.

"Clean water!" the marchers replied.

The fight is not just for the mountain tops, but against what's being dumped in the valleys and streams.

The "I Love Mountains Day" march followed a three day sit-in of the governor's office by 14 protestors -- who emerged for the rally .

That group, known as Kentucky Rising, met with Gov. Steve Beshear (D) to urge him to end his support of mountaintop removal, a form of surface mining they contend has buried more than 2,000 miles of Appalachian streams, polluting the watershed and leading to other problems.

The coal harvesting practice blasts the tops off of mountains.

Protesters also want the governor to withdraw from a lawsuit he filed against the Environmental Protection Agency over coal permits not issued in accordance with the Clean Water Act.  The governor has declined that request, yet has agreed to visit homes in Eastern Kentucky the group says have been damaged by mountaintop mining.

During his State of the Commonwealth Address on February 1, Beshear announced his support of the lawsuit against the EPA, saying "Get off our backs!"  The comment drew a standing ovation from the General Assembly, and the ire of the environmentalists.

One of the sit-in participants, Stanley Sturgill, is a former coal miner and federal coal mine inspector in Harlan County.  Stugill said he fears for his hometown as two coal operators move in.

"We're going to end up without any water one of these days if we don't do something about it," Sturgill said.  The 40 year coal mining veteran choked back tears when the crowd greeted the sit-in protestors with cheers.

"When these activists suggest we move beyond coal, it is important to ask them - Move to what?" countered Bill Bissett, President of the Kentucky Coal Association in a statement to WHAS11.

"Without coal production, Kentucky's electricity rates will skyrocket, which will put every electricity-based job at risk in the Commonwealth," Bissett continued.

"Protect the people, not the industry," the protestors chanted.

"We came because the land, its forests and its streams are being destroyed by the surface mining of coal," said venerable Kentucky author Wendell Berry in a speech to the rally.  Berry was one of the 14 protestors who participated in the sit-in of the governor's office.

Berry later said he hopes the issue is now part of a public conversation, and bristled when asked about the coal association's concerns about electricity rates.

"We're not here to talk against coal," Berry responded, "We know that we are going to be dependent on coal for awhile.  What we are talking against are abuses by the coal industry."

Berry suggested that deep mining rather than strip mining and mountaintop removal would be an acceptable compromise to save Appalachia from environmental destruction. 

"We're taking a temporary resource, namely coal, that is only of value when it is burning.  We're destroying a permanent resource which is the forest," Berry said

"The coal reserves being mined with mountaintop mining," responded the coal association's Bissett, "could not be effectively mined through any other process.  While the EPA suggests that many of their overreaching actions would only affect surface mining, their reinterpretation of existing rules would harm both underground and surface mining."

The Kentucky Coal Association is suing the Environmental Protection Agency because the EPA is using the Clean Water Act to selectively deny some coal mining permits in Kentucky. 

In October, Kentucky Governor Steve Beshear directed the Energy and Environment Cabinet to join the coal association's lawsuit against the EPA. 

Then, on February 1, Beshear made the "Get off our backs" comment during the State of the Commonwealth address.

The rally leaders fired back today, saying the coal industry should get off eastern Kentucky's back.

"Our people are crying out for leaders to help build a clean energy economy in eastern Kentucky," said Teri Blanton, a spokeswoman for Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, which organized the rally, "Yet, legislators are so stuck in the past, they've become friends with a rock."

U.S. Rep. John Yarmuth (D-KY Third Congressional District) made a case not only for doing away with mountain top removal, but for moving away from coal.

"I think a lot of what you are hearing is unjustified fear factor," Yarmuth said when asked whether coal is needed in Kentucky to preserve inexpensive electricity rates and industrial jobs.   "We can have a clean power environment and not have high electricity costs."

"Kentucky coal mining is 40% surface mining and 60% underground mining," explained the coal association President's statement, "Check the activists' websites and look for messages about 'New Power' and 'Beyond Coal' featured prominently. These messages in no way suggest a position that only attacks mountaintop mining, but has the goal of ending coal mining in Kentucky and causing increased electrical rates by other means of generation. This regressive move would be disastrous to Kentucky's economy and anyone's job that depends on electricity."

For the people in Louisville who don't live in the valley of a coal mining operation, the protestors argue that everyone lives downstream.

"They don't have clean water a lot of the time because of the greed of the coal companies," said  Barbara O'Hara of Louisville, "And any decent God fearing person would care about that, whether it's in your backyard or not."

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