Plans for East Kentucky future must include repairing coal’s damage

130214MountainRally0378 copyHundreds will march to the state Capitol  Thursday for the 10th annual I Love Mountains Day protest of destructive strip-mining, as they did in this 2013 photo. Below, Gov. Steve Beshear and U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers attend the first SOAR summit, Dec. 9, 2013. Photos by Tom Eblen

 

Two large public gatherings are planned in the next week by groups trying to create a brighter future for Eastern Kentucky.

They come from different sides of the “war on coal” debate that has polarized discussion of these issues, but they have more in common than you might think.

The first event, Thursday in Frankfort, is the 10th annual I Love Mountains Day, organized by the citizens’ group Kentuckians For The Commonwealth. (Information and registration: Kftc.org.)

In what has become an annual rite, hundreds of people will march to the Capitol steps and urge the governor and General Assembly to stop the coal industry’s most destructive surface-mining practices. And they will be ignored.

Few legislators will come out to hear them. Neither will the governor, nor any candidate for governor who has any chance of being elected. Most politicians think they must be unequivocal “friends of coal” to get elected, regardless of the toll on Kentucky’s land, air, water and public health.

131209SOAR-TE0093 copyThe other event, Monday in Pikeville, is the second summit meeting of Shaping Our Appalachian Region. SOAR is a bipartisan effort to improve life in Eastern Kentucky that was launched in 2013 by Gov. Steve Beshear and U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers. (Information and registration: Soar-ky.org.)

Eastern Kentucky’s coal industry has been eliminating jobs for decades as mines were mechanized, coal reserves depleted and deep mining replaced by “mountaintop removal” and other forms of surface mining.

But the job losses have mounted in recent years because of cheap natural gas, cheaper coal from elsewhere and the Obama administration’s better-late-than-never actions to fight pollution and climate change.

Politicians and business leaders have had to admit that most of Eastern Kentucky’s coal jobs are never coming back, and that new strategies are needed to diversify the economy.

That led to the creation of SOAR, whose 12 working committees have spent the past year conducting more than 100 “listening sessions” throughout the region to hear public comments, gather ideas, assess needs and set priorities.

Strategy Summit attendees will review the committees’ findings and discuss next steps. How those discussions play out could determine whether SOAR can build enough public credibility to make change.

An early criticism of SOAR was that its leadership was drawn almost exclusively from Eastern Kentucky’s power elite. There was little or no representation from coal industry critics or grassroots groups such as KFTC.

The question hanging over SOAR is whether leaders who have done well in Eastern Kentucky’s status quo can be expected to change it. We should get some indication of that Monday, when there will be at least a couple of elephants in the room.

Eastern Kentucky is one of America’s least-healthy places, with high rates of cancer, heart disease, diabetes and drug abuse. Smoking, obesity, poverty, poor eating habits and lack of exercise are to blame for much of it. But not all of it.

One of the biggest concerns citizens expressed in the health committee’s listening sessions was the health effects of surface mining. Scientific studies have increasingly found high rates of cancer, birth defects and other problems in mining areas that can’t be dismissed by other factors. Will SOAR explore that issue, or ignore it?

Another elephant in the room will be President Barack Obama’s Feb. 1 proposal to release $1 billion in abandoned mine land funds to create jobs on environmental cleanup projects.

The long-overdue action could be a huge boost for Eastern Kentucky. But many politicians have reacted cautiously, since it comes from a president they love to hate. This proposal should be a big topic of discussion at the summit. But will it be?

Eastern Kentucky needs many things to have a brighter future: better schools, better infrastructure, less-corrupt politics, more inclusive leadership and a move diverse economy. And, as much as anything, it needs a healthier population and a cleaner environment.

Coal mining has done some good things for Eastern Kentucky over the past century. Although its role will continue to diminish, coal will be an important part of the economy for years to come. But the coal industry’s damage must be reckoned with. The best way to start cleaning up a mess is to stop making it bigger.



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