Bevin could show a conservative can care about conservation

November 14, 2015

Kentucky is blessed with a beautiful landscape and abundant water resources, and we have been trying for more than a century to ruin it.

Too often, Kentuckians have been presented with a false choice: We can either have jobs and economic prosperity or clean water, air and land — but not both.

That kind of thinking has left Kentucky near the bottom in national rankings of wealth, health and well-being. It is no coincidence that this state’s most environmentally damaged places are also its poorest and sickest.

Twenty-first century reality is the opposite of that false choice. Pollution may bring a measure of prosperity in the short-term, but it harms it in the long-term. Balancing commerce with conservation ensures that Kentuckians will be able to live, work and prosper here forever.

These issues are worth thinking about now because a new governor will soon take office. Many people who care about the environment fear that Republican Matt Bevin, with his business and Tea Party background, will make things worse.

I’m not so sure about that.

Kentucky’s environment has suffered under both Democrats and Republicans. That suffering has included irresponsible surface mining, industrial pollution, poorly designed sprawl and costly highway projects designed more to enrich land speculators, road contractors and developers than to meet real transportation needs.

A recent investigation by Erica Peterson of WFPL radio in Louisville used state records to show how polluters have faced less scrutiny during the administrations of Democrat Steve Beshear and Republican Ernie Fletcher than they did before.

At the same time, pollution increased. Under both administrations, there was much less funding for enforcement and less political will to go after polluters, especially when they were coal companies.

The consequences of that have been real. For example, more than 500 miles of streams in the Lower Cumberland basin were classified as fully supporting aquatic life in 1992. By 2012, that number had fallen to about 100 miles, state records show.

Big polluters — such as the people behind the “war on coal” propaganda campaign — try to make Kentuckians think that the only people who care about the environment are liberal tree-huggers. But that’s not true.

An increasing number of conservatives realize the importance of environmental protection, for a variety of reasons. Hunters, fishermen and farmers have been powerful conservation advocates for decades.

There is a growing Creation Care movement among conservative Christians, who cite Genesis 2:15 and other scripture. Influential groups include the Evangelical Environmental Network and Lexington-based Blessed Earth.

Christian environmentalists recently got a powerful ally in Pope Francis, whose encyclical, Laudato Si: On Care for Our Common Home, makes it clear that destroying God’s creation for profit is a sin.

Conservative businessmen such as Alltech’s Pearse Lyons have realized for years that there is a lot of money to be made in helping society become more environmentally responsible. He is a bright beacon for Kentucky’s future.

On the flip side, libertarians are speaking out against the crony capitalism that allows corporations to pay off politicians to protect their pollution and stifle innovation.

It doesn’t take a genius to see that solar and other renewable energy industries are growing rapidly as Appalachia’s coal industry shrivels and dies. But the coal barons’ money and power have kept Kentucky politicians, both Republicans and Democrats, toeing its line. At least until now.

Bevin seems to be a smart, independent man who doesn’t owe many people favors. That last attribute puts him in a unique position compared to his predecessors.

The self-funded candidate wasn’t put into office by coal magnates, highway contractors and developers. Coming from outside the political establishment, he isn’t steeped in the crony capitalism that has long corrupted state government.

Bevin is under less obligation than his predecessors were to protect Kentucky’s economic past. He has political cover to pursue new ideas and more environmentally friendly approaches to economic development.

Bevin could create a powerful legacy by showing Kentucky that conservative and conservation come from the same word. Does he have the courage to be different?

Ignore political scare tactics; EPA’s Clean Power Plan will be good for Kentucky in the long run

August 9, 2015

Here’s some advice for Kentucky politicians freaking out about the Environmental Protection Agency’s new Clean Power Plan: Calm down, take a deep breath and face reality.

On second thought, maybe they shouldn’t take that deep breath. Kentucky has some of America’s dirtiest air, and most of that pollution comes from the coal-fired power plants those politicians are trying to protect.

Kentucky leads the nation in toxic air pollution from power plants, according to a 2012 study by the Natural Resources Defense Council. Those plants also are the main source of man-made greenhouse gasses that are causing climate change.

The Clean Power Plan, unveiled in final form last week, is the Obama administration’s better-late-than-never attempt to fight climate change. Its goal is to cut carbon dioxide emissions from the nation’s power plants by 32 percent from 2012 levels by 2030. That is tougher than the 30 percent in an initial proposal, but states would be given more flexibility and two additional years to meet their targets.

Still, the EPA’s goal is modest by international standards. Many European nations have pledged to do more, and scientific studies show carbon emissions must be cut dramatically if the world hopes to curb the disastrous effects of climate change.

Despite the politicians’ howling, Kentucky was on track to meet its initial EPA target of an 18 percent cut in carbon emissions. That’s because utilities already were planning to phase out old coal plants or convert them to natural gas to save money.

The final plan calls for Kentucky to cut emissions by nearly 30 percent — a tougher goal, but still one of the least-stringent among the states. In addition to phasing out coal-fired power plants, Kentucky can meet its target by adding more renewable power sources and improving the energy efficiency of buildings, two areas where it lags behind many other states.

As with previous environmental rules, segments of corporate America and the politicians they sponsor are fighting back.

Kentucky is one of 16 states suing to block the Clean Power Plan, with Attorney General Jack Conway taking a lead. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has urged states to simply ignore the EPA’s requirement to submit a compliance plan — and risk having one imposed on them if the new rules are upheld in court.

It is no coincidence that Kentucky, West Virginia and other states leading opposition to these rules are places where the coal industry dominates the economy or politics, or where energy-intensive manufacturers have long enjoyed cheap electricity subsidized by damage to the environment and public health.

It will be up to the federal courts to decide whether the EPA’s modest and long-overdue plan to cut carbon emissions, clean the air and water, and improve public health will take effect next year.

But Kentuckians should ignore the scare tactics of politicians, who know they must toe the coal industry’s line if they want to get campaign contributions and votes.

The EPA’s Clean Power Plan won’t ruin the economy or “kill jobs.” It will require some difficult transition. But a number of studies predict that, in the long run, the move toward cleaner, renewable power will create a stronger economy with more jobs. At least for those states that embrace inevitable change rather than fight it.

Think about it: Since environmental laws first were enacted 40 years ago, each new regulation, from cutting automobile emissions to curbing acid rain, has been met with corporate and political opposition and dire predictions of economic disaster.

Those predictions have never come true. In fact, just the opposite. That is because environmental regulations have stimulated innovation, creating jobs and growing the economy. Since 1970, air pollution nationwide has been cut by 70 percent and the size of the U.S. economy has tripled.

Regardless of your views on climate change, cleaner air and water mean a better quality of life, a stronger work force and better public health. Those are not small issues in a state like Kentucky, which has some of the nation’s highest cancer and asthma rates.

Kentucky and its leaders have a simple choice. They can cling to the past and fight a losing battle to preserve pollution. Or they can face reality and realize that change is inevitable, pollution is unhealthy, global warming is a threat, renewable energy is the future, and innovation will create a stronger economy.

Kentucky priest thankful for Pope Francis’ environmental message

July 18, 2015
Father Al Fritsch, a Jesuit priest with a doctorate in chemistry and a long history of environmental activism, stands on the porch of the rectory at St. Elizabeth Catholic Church in Ravenna. Photo by Tom Eblen |

Father Al Fritsch, a Jesuit priest with a doctorate in chemistry and a long history of environmental activism, on the porch of the rectory at St. Elizabeth Catholic Church in Ravenna. Photo by Tom Eblen


RAVENNA — Pope Francis’ pronouncements about the immorality of social injustice and environmental degradation have rattled economic conservatives worldwide, and nowhere more than in King Coal’s Appalachia.

But the message isn’t new for Catholics in some parts of Kentucky, where Albert Fritsch — Jesuit priest, scientist and activist — has been writing, preaching and teaching for nearly four decades.

“I call myself a true conservative,” Fritsch, 81, said when I visited him at his home beside St. Elizabeth Catholic Church in Estill County. “I am fiscally and socially conservative.”

But the jovial minister with a shock of white hair, who most people call Father Al, has always been a critic of economic conservatism. Now, he has some powerful backup.

Pope Francis, the Argentine cardinal elected pope in March 2013, issued an encyclical, or statement of church doctrine, last month that sharply criticized capitalism, consumerism, pollution and denial of human-induced climate change.

These are not political issues, the leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Roman Catholics said, but moral and religious issues. Christians must start behaving differently, he said, or risk destroying the Earth.

Father Al Fritch, a Jesuit priest with a doctorate in chemistry and a long history of environmental activism, stands on the porch of the rectory at St. Elizabeth Catholic Church in Ravenna. Photo by Tom Eblen |

I thought this would be a good time to visit Fritsch. As expected, he is pleased with Pope Francis’ leadership. “What he says is, to me, great stuff,” he said. “We need him in this age very badly.”

Fritsch said his interest in the environment began on his family’s farm near Maysville, where his father grew their food and cared for the land. His love of nature led him to science.

Fritsch earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Xavier University and a Ph.D. in chemistry at Fordham. He did post-doctorate research at the University of Texas.

But Fritsch became disillusioned that advances in chemistry were being used and abused for corporate profit. He went back to school to become a priest, studying theology at Bellarmine and Loyola universities.

Fritsch threw himself into advocacy, first as a science adviser with Ralph Nader’s Center for the Study of Responsive Law and then, in 1971, as a co-founder and co-director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest in Washington, D.C.

By 1977, Fritsch decided he could have more impact in Kentucky. He moved to Mount Vernon and started Appalachia Science in the Public Interest, which focused on environmental issues.

Since 2002, Fritsch has ministered to Catholic congregations in Frankfort, Somerset and, currently, Ravenna and Stanton. But half his time is still spent on environmental work through his non-profit Earth Healing Inc.

He has authored or contributed to dozens of books and articles. Berea College Special Collections recently came to get his personal papers for preservation.

Fritsch writes daily reflections and records videos for his website, His website manager thinks that Francis, before his election as pope, was among Fritsch’s online readers.

laudato-si400-255x363By focusing on wealth and its moral consequences, the Pope has made a lot of powerful people nervous. “The system that we have today, the capitalistic system as such, is really a state religion,” Fritsch said.

Pope Francis’ message is especially tough to hear in Kentucky, where the coal industry has a big influence in politics and the economy.

“A lot of Catholics are not taking this too well,” Fritsch said. “So many of them are committed to their way of life. One fellow got up and called me a communist and walked out.”

The man came back, Fritsch said, and asked him to lead a series of congregational meetings to discuss the encyclical. They begin next month.

Fritsch said one of the things that frustrates him most is that environmentalism has been politicized.

“When I started in environmental work in 1970, both Democrats and Republicans were in favor of the environment,” he said, noting that Republican Richard Nixon presided over creation of the Environmental Protection Agency. “Only after Reagan and with time did it become a partisan issue.”

The real issue is money, which is why Fritsch thinks politicians in both parties and institutions that depend on corporate money are dragging their feet. Renewable energy threatens investments in fossil fuels.

The Pope’s encyclical doesn’t offer solutions. Rather, Fritsch said, it calls for society to change and for people to frankly discuss these problems and seek solutions.

“We need to do a lot of talking in Kentucky,” he said. “This is a new frontier in theology, that we have a duty to save an earth that is threatened with destruction. Our grandparents didn’t have this. It’s a secular thing, but it’s also deeply religious.”

The biggest challenge, Fritsch thinks, is that the pace of climate change leaves us no time to waste.

“Things are changing, and we’ve got to be prepared for these changes,” he said. “I think that’s what Pope Francis is trying to say. And I think people are listening, because there’s a whole world out there that knows something is deeply wrong.”

New MACED president says timing right for new ideas in E. Ky.

March 14, 2015

Peter Hille first came to Eastern Kentucky the day after he graduated from high school. He and other members of his Missouri church youth group piled into vans and drove to Breathitt County to run a summer camp for kids.

“I had this image in my head, probably from watching CBS documentaries on the War on Poverty, that Appalachia was black and white,” he said. “I got down here, and, of course, it was green.

“It was the first week in June,” he said. “You know how the mountains are the first week in June: fireflies all over the hillsides and locusts singing. I thought, I love this place!”

Hille, 59, has nurtured that love for more than four decades, and he is now in a unique position to express it: as the new president of the Mountain Association for Community Economic Development, a non-profit organization based in Berea that works throughout southern Appalachia.

Hille, a graduate of Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania, moved to Eastern Kentucky in 1977 and spent more than a dozen years as a woodworker, cabinetmaker and home builder. It gave him an appreciation for the challenges so many Appalachians face.

“They know this is where they want to be,” he said. “But it’s real challenging to figure out how to earn a living.”

150315PeterHilleHille got into community work and spent 22 years at Berea College’s Brushy Fork Institute, which develops community leaders.

He served nine years on MACED’s board and was chairman until he joined the staff three years ago as executive vice president. He was named president last month, succeeding Justin Maxson, who left after 13 years to become executive director of the Mary Reynolds Babcock Foundation in Winston-Salem, N.C.

Hille is currently chair of the Eastern Kentucky Leadership Foundation, a board member of the Central Appalachian Institute for Research and Development and an advisory board member for the Institute for Rural Journalism. In the 1990s, he was facilitator for the Kentucky Appalachian Task Force.

“I do feel like everything I’ve done up to this point has been leading up to this,” said Hille, who lives with his wife, artist Debra Hille, in a passive solar house on a wooded farm near Berea.

Founded in 1976, MACED has become a respected voice in discussions about Appalachia’s economic transition. It promotes enterprise development, renewable energy and sustainable forestry. MACED also has become an influential source of public policy research through its Kentucky Center for Economic Policy.

“We are at such an exciting time in Eastern Kentucky,” Hille said. “The challenges are as great as they’ve always been, but I think we’ve got some opportunities now that we haven’t always had.”

Perhaps the biggest opportunity, Hille said, is the bipartisan Shaping Our Appalachian Region initiative launched by Gov. Steve Beshear and U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers in 2013.

“It is the kind of clarion call for unity that we so badly need in the region,” he said.

Another opportunity is the Obama administration’s proposal to release $1 billion in Abandoned Mine Lands funds for environmental reclamation and economic development in mining regions.

“We would have to scramble to figure out how to make good use of that money,” he said. “But I think there are a lot of ways to do it.”

While coal will continue to be important to Eastern Kentucky for decades, it will never be what it was, Beshear and Rogers have said. That acknowledgment creates an opening for new and creative thinking, Hille said.

More emphasis should be put on developing renewable energy sources and focusing on energy efficiency. MACED has worked on home energy-saving retrofits for years.

“However much we can scale that up, that is money that is invested in the region, that stays in the region, that is paid back from the savings in the region,” he said.

But the biggest goals should be creating more entrepreneurs and businesses in Eastern Kentucky, and attracting more investment capital. Hille thinks the place to start is by looking at the region’s needs, such as better housing and health care.

“All of those needs represent economic development opportunities,” he said. “What are the opportunities to meet those needs in the region? Or is the first step in health care getting in the car and driving to Lexington?”

Another focus should be on regional assets, such as forested mountains that could be sustainably managed for long-term jobs in timber, forest products, agriculture and tourism. “We haven’t invested in enough possibilities,” he said.

Part of the challenge is changing century-old attitudes about work.

“Instead of trying to find somebody to give you a job, it’s about creating a job for yourself,” he said. “It’s about feeding that entrepreneurial spirit in young people, and then creating the entrepreneurial ecosystem that is going to support those budding entrepreneurs and encourage them to stay here.”

When a region is economically distressed, it means markets are broken in fundamental ways. Government and non-profit assistance may be needed to fix them. But long-term success will only come with the development of strong markets and capital within Eastern Kentucky.

“With economic development, you’ve always got to ask, ‘Where does the investment come from? What kind of jobs are being created?'” Hille said. “In the long run, if we’re only creating jobs and we’re not building assets, if we’re not creating durable capital in the region, if we’re not building sustainable businesses and industries, then outside investments may or may not serve the needs of our communities.”

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

February 10, 2015

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:

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:

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.

Robert F. Kennedy Jr.: clean environment is good economic policy.

January 17, 2015

KennedyRobert F. Kennedy Jr. speaks at Transylvania. Photo by Mark Mahan.


It was a breath of fresh air, especially after an election in which Kentucky politicians of both parties competed to see who could be the biggest sock puppet for the coal industry.

Robert F. Kennedy Jr. spoke at Transylvania University on Wednesday about “Green Capitalism: Why Environmental Policy Equals Good Business Policy.”

Kennedy, 61, son of the slain presidential candidate and nephew of the slain president, is an accomplished environmental lawyer, anti-pollution activist and partner in a renewable-energy investment firm.

Kennedys are like Bushes; most people either love them or hate them on principle, without actually listening to what they say. But this talk was worth listening to, because Kennedy clearly explained our nation’s biggest problem, what could be done to solve it and why that isn’t happening.

Surprisingly, his message had as much appeal for libertarians as liberals. Conservatives could find a lot to agree with, too, if they care about conserving anything besides the status quo.

Kennedy’s main point was that Americans don’t have to choose between a clean environment and a strong economy. In fact, the only way to have a strong economy in the long run is to take care of our nation’s air, water and land.

The best way to do that, he said, is a combination of true democracy and free-market capitalism. Trouble is, polluters have used their money and influence to corrupt the political process and distort free markets.

“You show me a polluter, and I’ll show you a subsidy,” he said. “I’ll show you a fat cat using political clout to escape the discipline of the free market and forcing the public to pay his production costs. That’s all pollution is.”

Kennedy told how he started his environmental career working for commercial fishermen on the Hudson River in New York. Their industry was devastated by General Electric, which for three decades dumped more than a million pounds of cancer-causing PCBs into the Hudson.

“They saw their fishery destroyed, not because they had a bad business model, but because somebody had better lobbyists than they did,” he said.

“One of the things I learned from them was this idea that we’re not protecting the environment so much for the sake of the fishes and the birds; we’re protecting it for our own sake,” he said. “Nature is the infrastructure of our communities.”

Kennedy said we are now seeing a struggle between rich, old-energy industries that create a lot of pollution — coal, oil, gas and nuclear — and new, renewable-energy technologies that are cleaner and increasingly cheaper.

Pollution destroys our natural infrastructure and creates huge public health costs, both in terms of dollars and lives. “It’s a way of loading the costs of our generation’s prosperity onto the backs of our children,” he said.

Fossil fuel industries also receive more than $1 trillion in annual taxpayer subsidies, ranging from direct payments and tax breaks to the huge military presence in the Middle East to secure oil-production assets. Meanwhile, these industries lobby to eliminate the small subsidies offered to encourage alternatives.

If a truly free market forced the oil industry to internalize its costs, gasoline would sell for $12 to $15 a gallon. “You’re already paying that,” he said. “You’re just paying it from a different pocket.”

Kennedy argued for more market-based systems, such as cap-and-trade, to account for the hidden costs of fossil fuels. That would expose their inefficiencies and waste and level the playing field for solar, wind and geothermal.

“You need to devise rules for a marketplace that allows actors in the marketplace to make money by doing good things for the public, rather than forcing them to make money by doing bad things to the public,” he said.

Kennedy likened it to the abolition of slavery in Britain and the United States in the 19th century, a moral decision that helped spark an explosion of innovation in labor-saving technology and wealth that we now know as the Industrial Revolution.

The biggest barrier to renewable energy replacing fossil fuels is the lack of a modern national electric grid, he said. Government investment in that grid would create opportunities for entrepreneurs to flourish, just as previous investments in the Internet, interstate highways, railroads and canals did.

A good way to start would be laws to allow homeowners and businesses to profit, rather than just break even, from electricity they generate with solar panels and wind turbines and sell to utilities.

“It will turn every American into an energy entrepreneur, every home into a power plant, and power this country based on American imagination and effort and innovation,” he predicted.

It also would be good for national security. “A terrorist can blow up one power plant,” Kennedy said, “but he would have a hard time blowing up a million homes.”

Replacing fossil fuels with renewable energy will be complicated. “But it’s not as complicated as going to war in Iraq,” Kennedy said. “It’s something that we can do. We just need the political will.”

Lessons for Appalachia in Wales’ recovery from coal’s collapse

September 29, 2014

SouthWalesThe Tower Colliery near the village of Hirwaun, in Glamorgan, South Wales, in 2009. Tower Colliery was the oldest continuously worked deep-coal mine in the United Kingdom, and possibly the world. Photo by Kirsty Wigglesworth/Associated Press. 


People in the remote hills and valleys were subsistence farmers before the mining industry came. For generations afterward, King Coal provided most of the decent jobs and dominated almost every aspect of life.

But mechanization gradually eliminated tens of thousands of mining jobs. When economic and political conditions suddenly changed, most of the coal industry shut down. Communities were left with high unemployment, a ravaged landscape and an uncertain future.

This is the story of Eastern Kentucky. It also is the story of South Wales.

These two regions separated by the Atlantic Ocean share many traits and experiences. Community leaders working to create a post-coal economy in Central Appalachia think there are lessons to be learned from Wales, which has been dealing with many of the same challenges for three decades.

Two longtime coal community leaders from Wales will be in Eastern Kentucky on Oct. 7 to speak about their experiences. The 7 p.m. program at Appalshop Theatre, 91 Madison Avenue in Whitesburg, is free and open to the public.

Hywel Francis and his wife, Mair, are no strangers to Kentucky. They have been coming here for years as part of a community exchange program started in the 1970s by Helen Matthews Lewis, a well-known Appalachian scholar and activist.

“The interest between these two areas has been there for a long time, but it has really picked up as we’ve seen the sudden decline of mining jobs here,” said Mimi Pickering of Appalshop. “We think this is an exciting opportunity for folks to talk with people from another place who have been though this.”

Francis is a member of the British Parliament, a college professor and labor historian. His wife is a founder of Dulais Opportunity for Voluntary Enterprise, known as the DOVE workshop, a women’s education and job-training organization.

South Wales was a few decades ahead of Central Appalachia, both in the development and collapse of its coal economy.

Beginning in the early 1800s, coal mines in South Wales fueled Britain’s industrial revolution and, in many ways, the British empire. At the industry’s peak just before World War I, more than 250,000 men labored in nearly 500 Welsh deep mines and open pits.

As in Appalachia, mechanization steadily reduced mine employment. After World War II, British mines were nationalized. In the mid-1980s, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher closed unprofitable mines, sparking a bitter miners’ strike. The industry all but collapsed and 85,000 miners lost their jobs. Only a few hundred miners still dig coal in South Wales.

Tom Hansell, a filmmaker and professor at Appalachian State University in Boone, N.C., is finishing After Coal, a documentary comparing the experiences of coal communities in South Wales and Central Appalachia. He said it will be shown on Kentucky Educational Television next year or in 2016.

Hansell also helped organize a program in Elkhorn City two weeks ago about what Eastern Kentucky could learn from Wales’ tourism industry, which now employs 30,000 people.

A third forum will be at 6 p.m. on Oct. 28 at the Harlan campus of Southeastern Kentucky Community and Technical College. Richard Davies of College Merthyr Tydfil in Wales will lead a conversation about the role of youth and the arts in preserving vibrant coalfield communities.

While working on his film, Hansell said he made three trips to Wales. He noted that some of its circumstances are different than in Central Appalachia.

Because Welsh mines were owned by the government, laid-off miners got good severance payments to help them start businesses or train for new jobs. Britain also has a stronger social safety net than the United States, including a public health care system.

But Hansell said there is one smart thing Britain did that the United States could emulate: the government invested heavily in environmental reclamation, cleaning up the mess from generations of coal mining.

“There were jobs created with that, but more importantly it provided a foundation for future economic development,” he said.

Another good strategy: community funds have been created around major industrial investments, such as a wind turbine farm built by a Swedish company. The funds are similar in some ways to Kentucky’s coal severance tax, but transparently managed by local community boards rather than state and local politicians.

Wales has a focus on entrepreneurship and small-business development, which organizations such as Kentucky Highlands Investment Corp. have done here. Everyone realizes that the future is lots of small employers rather than a few big ones, Hansell said.

“It would be misleading to say that Wales has solved all their economic problems,” he said, noting that unemployment remains high and many people in former mining communities commute to jobs in coastal cities. “But towns have found ways to survive and find creative ways to re-invent themselves.”

Eastern Kentucky jobs outlook: health care and more broadband

August 11, 2014

crouch1Ron Crouch is the director of research and statistics for the Education and Workforce Development Cabinet in Frankfort. He says a growing health care industry in Eastern Kentucky should help offset jobs lost to coal’s decline. Photo by Mark Mahan


There is more talk than usual about the need to create jobs and a more diverse economy in Eastern Kentucky because of the coal industry’s decline.

It made me wonder: what are the latest trends? For some answers, I called Ron Crouch, director of research and statistics for the Education and Workforce Development Cabinet. He previously headed the Kentucky State Data Center for two decades and is better than anyone I know at analyzing this sort of information.

People are alarmed because coal-industry employment in Eastern Kentucky has dropped to about 7,300 — half what it was five years ago. Coal-mining jobs have been important to the region because they pay well: about $65,000 a year.

President Barack Obama’s critics have blamed stricter environmental regulations for the sudden drop in coal employment. But the biggest factors have been cheap natural gas and the fact that Eastern Kentucky’s best coal seams have been depleted over the past century; the coal that is left is more costly (and environmentally damaging) to mine.

But Crouch notes that coal employment in Eastern Kentucky has been declining steadily for more than six decades — even accounting for periodic booms and busts — mainly because of mechanization. Coal production peaked in 1990, but coal employment peaked in 1950, when there were 67,000 miners.

Some Eastern Kentucky leaders have pursued manufacturing as a source of new jobs. But Crouch says the long-term prospects for manufacturing aren’t too good, either, also because of automation.

“Manufacturing is coming back to the United States, but not necessarily manufacturing jobs,” he said. “We’re producing far more goods, but with far fewer workers.”

Still, Crouch sees hopeful signs for Eastern Kentucky.

While the region still lags the state in college degrees, high school graduation rates have improved significantly, as have the number of people completing other levels of training between high school and a bachelor’s degree. Many new, good-paying jobs are for people with that level of education.

Those areas include health care as well as professional, scientific and technical services. Some of these jobs pay well. For example, the number of registered nursing jobs, which pay about $55,000, is growing significantly.

Eastern Kentucky’s health care industry should see big growth in coming years. One reason is demographics. Baby Boomers are now entering their 60s and 70s and will require more health services. Another reason is the Affordable Care Act.

“You’re going to see a huge increase in the number of people in East Kentucky who have health insurance,” Crouch said.

Because Eastern Kentucky families are smaller than in the past, there will be less pressure for young people to leave.

“You now have a population with more people in their 40s, 50s and 60s than in their teens and 20s,” Crouch said. “If those young people can get the education and training they need after high school, there will be jobs for them in East Kentucky.”

But many of the growing economic sectors in the region, such as health care, have traditionally been dominated by women, while shrinking sectors, such as mining and manufacturing, have been mostly male. In some Eastern Kentucky counties, women now have higher employment rates than men.

“The good news is the economy has been transitioning to a broader economy,” Crouch said. “But how do you transition a population of males who have been involved in mining and manufacturing to jobs in professional, technical services and food services and health care, which have largely been female?”

Crouch said improving broadband service in Eastern Kentucky, which has the state’s poorest connections to the Internet, is vital.

“That would accelerate the growth in higher-skilled jobs,” he said.

Crouch is troubled that many Eastern Kentucky counties have high percentages of working-age people not in the formal labor force. He thinks many are “getting by” in the cash and barter economy, some of which is illegal.

He also is concerned that much of the job growth has been in low-wage service industries. Because the legal minimum wage hasn’t kept pace with inflation, full-time work in many low-wage jobs doesn’t produce a living wage for a family.

“The good news is that East Kentucky is not having a brain drain, despite what people think; it’s having a brain gain,” he said. “But, as the saying goes, we’re halfway home and have a long way to go.”

Kentucky needs leadership for change, not the politics of fear

June 8, 2014

I have had mixed emotions since the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced its long-awaited plan to reduce coal-fired power plant pollution, setting a goal to cut carbon dioxide emissions 30 percent by 2030 from 2005 levels.

I felt happy that my government was finally taking some action to fight manmade climate change, which threatens humanity’s safety, prosperity and future.

But I felt sad as I watched a bipartisan majority of Kentucky politicians fall all over each other to condemn this long-overdue action. Pandering to public fear may be good politics, but, in this case, it is an irresponsible failure of leadership.

SenateCandidatesRepublican Sens. Mitch McConnell and Rand Paul called the EPA’s plan illegal and vowed to repeal it. (It is legal, according to a 2007 U.S. Supreme Court ruling.)

Not to be outdone, McConnell’s Democratic challenger, Allison Lundergan Grimes, launched an ad blitz repeating the coal industry’s “war on coal” talking points.

“The Obama administration has doubled down on its war on Kentucky coal jobs and coal families,” said another industry parrot, U.S. Rep. Andy Barr, a Republican from Lexington.

State House Speaker Greg Stumbo, a Democrat from Prestonsburg, called the pollution-cutting plan “a dumb-ass policy.”

Let us review the facts:

An overwhelming majority of climate scientists think manmade carbon pollution is contributing significantly to climate change. We are already seeing the disastrous results: more frequent killer storms, droughts, shrinking glaciers and rising seas.

Public opinion polls show that a substantial majority of Americans, even in coal-dependent states, understand these realities and want stricter carbon limits.

In addition, health experts say the EPA plan will reduce cancer, heart disease and lung disease through fewer emissions of mercury, nitrogen oxide and sulfur dioxide. The American Lung Association says the plan will prevent as many as 4,000 premature deaths in its first year alone.

So why all the political nonsense? It’s simple: the coal, utility and business lobbies that fund these politicians’ campaigns will see their profits suffer, at least in the short term.

The coal industry’s disinformation campaign portrays the desire for cleaner air and water as a “war on coal.” In reality, there are two “wars” on coal, and environmental regulation has only a minor role in each.

The first “war” is one on coal-company profits. It is being waged largely by natural gas companies, whose fracking technology has produced cheaper energy and hurt coal sales. Solar, wind and other renewable energy sources pose another threat.

The second “war” is being waged by coal companies and their political allies against miners and their communities. Kentucky lost about 30,000 coal mining jobs between 1979 and 2006, mostly because of industry mechanization. Add to that a historic disregard for mine safety. Kentucky legislators recently cut the number of state safety inspections at mines from six per year to four.

It is worth noting that the EPA’s new rule could have hit Kentucky much harder had it not been for the coal-friendly administration of Gov. Steve Beshear, a Democrat. Energy Secretary Len Peters pushed a plan, which the EPA adopted, to give states flexibility in achieving carbon-reduction goals. It set different targets for each state. Kentucky will be required to cut power-plant emissions by 18 percent, much lower than the national average of 30 percent.

Kentucky now gets more than 90 percent of its electricity from coal. The state has some of the nation’s cheapest power because the true cost of coal mining and burning to our health and environment has never been reflected in the rates.

America is gradually moving away from coal toward cleaner energy sources. This will happen no matter how loud and long Kentucky politicians scream. Unless this state acts aggressively to develop alternative energy sources to eventually replace diminishing coal reserves, Kentucky will be left behind — again.

Entrenched business interests have always predicted that each new environmental regulation would destroy the economy. It has never happened. Instead, regulation has sparked innovation that created new jobs and economic opportunities and made America a healthier place to live.

More limits on pollution will raise electricity rates in the short term. But Kentuckians will be rewarded with better health, a less-damaged environment, more innovation and a stronger economy in the future.

Change is hard, but it is necessary. Forward-thinking business people and citizens must demand that our politicians stop pandering to fear and become the leaders we need to make this inevitable transition as painless as possible. A brighter future never comes to those who insist on living in the past.

Could Eastern Kentucky’s coalfields learn from Eastern Germany?

January 25, 2014


An old mine in eastern Germany is used for a film screening.  The metal construction is the retooled front end of an overburden spreader that will function as a pier once the lake in the former mining pit has filled.  Photo by Frank Doering


Coal is still mined in this region, but the industry employs only a fraction of the people it did for more than a century. Huge tracts of damaged land must be reclaimed. Leaders struggle to build a new economy, create jobs and keep young people from leaving.

Eastern Kentucky? No, eastern Germany.

Frank Doering, a German-born freelance photographer who has lived in Lexington for nearly two decades, spent three years documenting the land and people of eastern Germany’s Lausitz region.

Except for the flat topography, this area the size of Rhode Island has much in common with the coal-rich mountains of Central Appalachia. And it could offer a few ideas for Kentucky leaders grappling with the same issues, Doering said.

Coalscapes, an exhibit of Doering’s compelling photographs, opened last Thursday at Institute 193, the small, nonprofit gallery at 193 N. Limestone. The free show continues through Feb. 26.

140123FrankDoering0006Doering, 55, grew up in western Germany and earned degrees in German literature, history and philosophy. He came to this country to earn a Ph.D. at Princeton University, where he met his wife, Wallis Miller, an architectural historian.

They lived for several years in Europe, where Doering worked as a cognitive science researcher at the École Polytechnique in Paris. Miller was hired in 1994 by the University of Kentucky, where she is an associate professor of architecture.

Doering taught philosophy at Johns Hopkins University and the University of Cincinnati before quitting in 2000 to pursue photography, a hobby since his youth. He now works on personal projects between commercial commissions.

The Coalscapes project grew out of a 2004 trip to Canada, where the couple visited a huge, open-pit asbestos mine.

“It was visually overwhelming,” Doering said. “I’ve always been interested in the industrial underpinnings of society and the scale on which it happens. This was a chilling landscape because it was all manmade.”

The experience made Doering want to photograph large surface mines in Eastern Kentucky, but the mountain topography and lack of access made that difficult.

When Miller made a research trip to Berlin, Doering discovered the Lausitz region, less than two hours away. It had been an industrial powerhouse of the former East Germany, but state-owned industries there all but collapsed after German reunification in 1990.

Only three of 17 former mines still operate there, he said, but they are vast. More than 136 villages have been obliterated by mining, and more are targeted by Germany’s decades-long mine-planning process.

The region has some of the world’s richest deposits of lignite coal, used primarily to fuel nearby electric power plants. Despite Germany’s ambitious commitments to solar and wind energy, it uses a lot of coal and will for decades.

Still, Lausitz is economically depressed. Since the Berlin Wall fell, many former miners have been employed by the government, which has spent billions to dismantle old industrial plants and reclaim former surface mines.

“Many people there feel they have gotten the short end of the stick since reunification,” Doering said, adding that the region has a stigma within Germany similar to what Appalachia has in this country. “There is a distrust of outsiders.”

But the more trips Doering made to Lausitz, where he rented an apartment, the more locals opened up to him and the better his pictures got. The project was supported by a grant from the Graham Foundation in Chicago.

Although initially attracted by the raw landscape, he said, “The project took on much more of a human side. The industrial history and the people’s life stories are unbelievably interesting.”

Doering’s photographs document efforts to restore old mine pits as lakes that will attract tourists. Former mines have even been used for concerts and film screenings, and even public art installations.

There is also a push for “industrial” tourism — with mining companies building observation platforms so visitors can watch the mining process, which Doering said is fascinating because it is done on such a super-human scale. For example, the conveyor assemblies that remove soil above the coal seams are twice as long as the Eiffel Tower is tall.

“People from different backgrounds come and look at stuff they wouldn’t normally look at,” he said. “It starts some unexpected conversations” about balancing energy needs and the environment — conversations that rarely happen in an Appalachia polarized by “war on coal” rhetoric.

One metal fabricating company, which used to make industrial buildings, now makes innovative housing for locals and vacation rentals. It reminds Doering of the UK College of Design’s efforts to retool idled houseboat factories near Somerset to make energy-efficient modular housing.

Doering said his photos have been used in Germany to both document and promote the sparsely populated region, where leaders realize they must rebuild to high standards. “It had better be cutting-edge stuff, because that’s the only way to attract outsiders who might pour some money into the area,” he said.

Doering said he doesn’t know enough about Eastern Kentucky to say what lessons its leaders might learn from Germany. But he said the keys to progress there have been locals and outsiders overcoming traditional fault lines to find creative solutions.

“They have forged some odd alliances,” he said. “They have found a way to work together and get stuff done.”


If you go

  • What: Coalscapes, a photography exhibit
  • Where: Institute 193, 193 N. Limestone.
  • When: Now until Feb. 26. The gallery is open 11 a.m.-6 p.m., Wednesday through Saturday, and by appointment. Admission is free.
  • More information:,,
Read more here:


Click on each photo to see larger image and read caption:

Will SOAR be a new beginning, or just more talk about Appalachia?

December 8, 2013

You have to wonder: Will the Shaping Our Appalachian Region summit Monday in Pikeville be the start of something big, or just another feel-good effort that doesn’t amount to much?

More than 1,500 people have registered to attend the conference called by Gov. Steve Beshear and U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers, who said they wanted ideas from throughout Eastern Kentucky for strategies to diversify the region’s economy.

There have been dozens of conferences on this topic over the years, but this one offers some hopeful signs. For one thing, it is the first high-level, bipartisan effort. Politicians who usually dance to the tune of the all-powerful coal industry are actually asking other people what they think.

But once the talking is over and the reports are written, will leadership, public investment and private capital get behind the good ideas? Will anything really change?

soarlogoCreating a sustainable, broadly prosperous economy in a region that has never really had one will be a monumental challenge.

Eastern Kentucky has never lacked for intelligent, hard-working people. But it has been handicapped by isolation, lack of education and opportunity, corrupt politics and powerful economic forces beyond its borders and control.

Since the late 1800s, the region has gone from subsistence farming to large-scale timber extraction to increasingly destructive methods of coal mining. The result has been a classic colonial economy, where most of the wealth flowed out of the region, or to a small local elite, while a large underclass survived on welfare and charity.

This cycle of poverty and dependence has led to hopelessness, drug abuse and other social problems, as was outlined in the most recent chapters of the excellent series Fifty Years of Night, by Herald-Leader reporters John Cheves and Bill Estep.

Can a new and different chapter be written for Eastern Kentucky?

In calling this summit, Beshear and Rogers cited the loss of more than 6,000 coal jobs over the past two years. But they wisely avoided their usual “war on coal” rhetoric, which blames the industry’s problems on long-overdue environmental regulation and enforcement.

The main reasons for declining coal production are cheaper Western coal and even cheaper natural gas. Besides, coal employment in Eastern Kentucky has been falling for three decades, from a high of 37,505 in 1981, primarily because of industry mechanization and a shift from deep to surface mining.

Eastern Kentucky’s current coal employment is 7,951, the lowest in generations, and that is unlikely to improve much. Coal will continue to be a presence. But because the large, easy-to-mine reserves are gone, most of the coal jobs will never return.

There are no “magic bullet” solutions to replacing Eastern Kentucky’s coal-based economy. (Not that coal itself was ever a magic bullet. Even when coal employment and production were at their peaks, the coal counties were still among the nation’s poorest.)

The citizens group Kentuckians for the Commonwealth has some good ideas about what a new Eastern Kentucky economy should aspire to. Those principles would be a good starting point for Monday’s conversations.

KFTC’s vision calls for a “just” transition that promotes “innovation, self-reliance and broadly held local wealth.” It urges more citizen participation in decision-making, and calls for restoration and protection of the environment and public health. It also urges leaders to “consider the effects of decisions on future generations.”

Tourism and outdoor recreation are often mentioned as potential economic opportunities, but that will require cleaning up some of strip mining’s environmental damage. Kentucky should lobby for money to do that work from the federal Abandoned Mine Lands fund, which could keep thousands of former coal miners employed for years.

Home-grown entrepreneurship and technology jobs are other often-mentioned possibilities to building Eastern Kentucky’s middle class, but they will require serious state investments in education and infrastructure to attract private capital. Kentucky’s tax-phobic politicians and the citizens who elect them have never been willing to make such serious investment, and that must change if anything else is to.

Shaping a new Eastern Kentucky economy will require a lot of creativity, commitment and hard work, not to mention leadership, inclusion and accountability.

There will be many obstacles to overcome, not the least of which is cynicism. It will be a long process. But Monday in Pikeville is as good a time and place to start as any.

How about some real leadership rather than a phony ‘War on Coal’

July 13, 2013

Kentucky has plenty of politicians and business executives. But at this critical moment in history, what it really needs are leaders.

President Barack Obama recently decided to bypass a dysfunctional Congress and have the Environmental Protection Agency enforce the Clean Air Act by setting limits on carbon pollution from coal-burning power plants. It was about time.

Scientific consensus is overwhelming that man-made carbon and other pollutants are warming Earth’s climate with disastrous results — floods, droughts, monster storms, melting glaciers and rising sea levels. It already has inflicted billions of dollars worth of damage, and it threatens many aspects of civilization.

The nation’s 600 or so coal-burning power plants produce about 40 percent of our carbon pollution. Plus, studies increasingly show other tolls that coal mining and burning take on our land, water, air and health.

The transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy will shape the global economy of the future. The sooner the United States gets behind that trend, the more economically competitive it will be. But changing the status quo is hard, especially when entrenched special interests have much to lose.

Most Kentucky politicians’ reaction to Obama’s call for a less-polluted nation was predictable: “War on coal!” they screamed.

A few of our more willfully ignorant legislators voiced skepticism about climate change, or implied that it was somehow God’s will. Most others just complained that improving public health and protecting Kentucky’s land, water and air would cost too much money and eliminate some existing jobs.

The coal industry has long been one of the most powerful forces in Kentucky. And it has resisted every significant effort to limit the environmental damage it does. The multimillion-dollar public relations campaign built around the “war on coal” theme is just the latest example.

But the current slump in Appalachia’s coal industry is largely the result of cheap natural gas, rather than government regulation. And with the richest reserves already mined, many Kentucky coal operators must resort to ever-more costly and destructive methods of surface mining to claw out what remains.

When the coal is all gone in the not-to-distant future, what then? Will Kentucky be positioned for future success? Or will it simply be left with a lot of damaged land, water and people as the world’s economy moves on?

Leaders would approach this problem much differently than most Kentucky politicians and executives are. Since Kentucky still has coal, and coal will by default be a big part of the nation’s energy mix for decades to come, leaders would champion efforts to mine and burn it more responsibly. They also would double down on research to see if “clean coal” technology can become a reality rather than an oxymoron.

Leaders would lobby the Obama administration and Congress for funds to help Kentucky make the transition, soften costly adjustments and create sustainable energy jobs. Remember how tobacco-settlement money helped reshape Kentucky agriculture? What similar models could be created for coal counties and utility customers?

Ambitious leaders might even set a goal to make Kentucky a manufacturing center for solar panels or energy-efficient modular homes. At the least, they would set out to make Kentucky the nation’s energy-efficiency leader through smarter design of new buildings and retrofitting of old ones. Kentucky already leads the nation in energy-efficient school construction, including several of the first school buildings to generate more electricity than they consume.

The General Assembly missed an opportunity for leadership last year when it failed to pass House Bill 170, which would have required electric utilities to use increasing amounts of renewable energy and do more to help customers cut energy consumption. Leadership is needed to pass a version of that bill next year.

Simply allowing citizens and businesses to profit, rather than just break even, by feeding power they produce into the utility grid could make a big difference. With photovoltaic panel prices falling all the time, many people might be willing to invest in solar-panel systems if it could be profitable. Germany now generates 22 percent of its energy from renewable sources — much of it solar — despite having less sunshine than Kentucky.

Each major environmental regulation since the 1960s — from acid-rain legislation to auto-emissions standards — has been met with predictions of economic doom that never materialized. Instead, those regulations not only cleaned up the environment but they also provided the poke private industry needed to innovate.

The stakes of climate change are greater than anything we have faced before. We can’t risk being distracted by the fearmongers. We owe it to ourselves and our descendants to try to limit potential disaster.

Market-based solutions would be preferable to government regulation. But after the demagoguing that so-called “cap and trade” proposals got a few years ago, that seems politically impossible. Industry needs a powerful nudge to innovate, wherever it comes from.

Rather than fighting a war against progress that cannot be won, Kentucky should reinvent itself as an energy innovator. We should show the world that a state settled by pioneers can pioneer again. But that will take leadership, not business and politics as usual.


Authors document Robinson Forest in the hope of preserving it

May 7, 2013



In their new book, “The Embattled Wilderness,” Erik Reece and James Krupa write this: “To look out over the forest’s steep ridges — slopes that novelist James Still called ‘a river of earth’ — is to understand that Robinson Forest is simultaneously one of the most biologically diverse landscapes in North America and one of the most threatened.” Photos by Tom Eblen  


JACKSON — As we hike uphill through beech and yellow poplar trees, a wild turkey flies out of the woods and across the trail in front of us. A few hundred yards higher, Erik Reece stops suddenly and points at a scarlet tanager foraging among the oaks.

At the crest of the ridge, we climb an old fire tower and are rewarded with a spectacular view of Robinson Forest. On this clear, spring morning, the forest looks like a rolling “river of earth,” as James Still described the natural landscape of Eastern Kentucky in his classic 1940 novel, River of Earth.

The green waves roll out in every direction until they suddenly stop at Robinson Forest’s boundary. Beyond the boundary are huge, gray scars from surface mining and the flattened, denuded remnants of “reclaimed” coal-mine land, now struggling to support foreign grasses and scrubby trees.

“We hope more people will go to Robinson Forest, but a lot of Kentuckians won’t, so we wanted them to experience it vicariously,” said Reece, co-author with James J. Krupa of the new book,The Embattled Wilderness: The Natural and Human History of Robinson Forest and the Fight for Its Future (University of Georgia Press, $24.95).

Reece will sign copies of the book from 6 to 7:30 p.m. Friday at The Morris Book Shop, 882 E. High St.


Erik Reece on Lewis Fork creek in Robinson Forest.

Reece is a UK English professor best known for his award-winning 2006 book, Lost Mountain: Radical Strip Mining and the Devastation of Appalachia. Like Lost Mountain, this book has a forward by renowned Kentucky author Wendell Berry.

Krupa is a UK biology professor who over decades of study has explored every ridge and valley of the main 10,000-acre block of the 14,786-acre forest, which contains some of the state’s cleanest streams.

“It is one of the last and largest examples of the oldest, most biologically diverse ecosystem in North America — the mixed mesophytic,” the authors write in their introduction.

“Unfortunately, industrial development has churned under the mountains surrounding these 14,000 acres, turning Robinson Forest into an island of biological diversity surrounded by an ever-expanding desert,” they write, adding that there is every reason to believe that coal and timber interests want to plunder this land, too.

Reece and Krupa are both fine writers. In this small, engaging book, they alternate chapters, explaining the natural and human history of this unique corner of Breathitt, Perry and Knott counties and making a case to preserve it.

Krupa describes the geological history of Robinson Forest and the surrounding Cumberland Plateau, which was formed before there were dinosaurs, mammals or even flowering plants. These mountains were once covered by a shallow inland sea and then swamps. Dead ferns and trees sank to the bottom for thousands of years, forming peat and eventually bituminous coal.

Krupa also discusses his research into the ecological diversity of the current forest. Who knew lichens and wood rats could be so fascinating?

Reece’s chapters describe the forest’s human history, from settlement to the early 20th century, when Cincinnati business partners F.W. Mobray and E.O. Robinson bought the forest and cut virtually all of its timber.

In 1923, Robinson gave the wasted land to the University of Kentucky for research to “tend to the betterment of the people of the mountain region of Kentucky.” Under UK’s stewardship, most of the land has regenerated over the past 90 years into a second-growth version of the biologically diverse, native forest.

But coal operators, who wield considerable clout, have periodically pressured UK to allow mining in the forest. Reece said he and Krupa decided to write this book after the UK Board of Trustees’ controversial 2007 decision to clear-cut 800 acres of the main forest.

Although the forest recovered from clear-cutting a century ago, critics doubt that can happen again because of the extensive surface mining on surrounding land and the planting of invasive species as part of mine “reclamation.”

Reece said he and Krupa hope their book will prompt UK officials to rethink their management strategy for Robinson Forest and embrace a broader ecological research mission. A part of such a mission could be helping Kentucky adapt to climate change.

Specifically, the authors urge broader input into decision-making about the forest. Currently, Robinson Forest is managed by UK’s Forestry Department. Also, they want UK to separate research and revenue goals, so that there is not periodic temptation to log or mine Robinson Forest to make money for the university.

Reece is up for tenure this year, and he acknowledges this book won’t be popular in some corners of the university. But he thinks Robinson Forest is worth fighting to preserve.

He said the book was inspired by The Unforeseen Wilderness, which UK commissioned Berry to write in 1971. It advocated for preservation of the Red River Gorge at a time when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers wanted to destroy it with a flood-control dam.

“We want to give readers a sense of why Robinson Forest is worth saving,” Reece said. “If you can convince people to love something, they won’t destroy it.”

Click on each thumbnail to see larger photo and read caption:

Excerpts from the final chapter of The Embattled Wilderness

“Robinson Forest is many things: it is one of the most important eco-systems in Appalachia, it is a laboratory for crucial research and teaching, and it is a gift held in trust for future generations of Kentuckians. But it is also a model for how we must proceed in our habitation of the natural world. In fact, Robinson Forest represents a model for an entirely new definition of “economy,” whereby our American systems of exchange, both of wealth and energy, are brought in 130508ReeceBookCover001line with the most important and inescapable economy of nature.”

“What we as 21st century Americans must finally come to understand is that the economy of consumption operates in direct opposition to, and at the peril of, the economy of nature. … Kentucky should look to Robinson Forest as a model for a sustainable, post-coal economy. We must replace the industrial logic of the strip mine with the much more ancient wisdom of the forest.”

“To abandon wilderness places like Robinson Forest would be to abandon ourselves. To ignore the natural laws of its watersheds for the logic of our own industrial imagination would be to abandon our better selves — to abandon a sustainable future for the sake of short-term avarice and indulgence. But to preserve the world will mean learning the lessons of Robinson Forest, and in doing so learning to preserve that embattled wilderness.”


Capitol Education Center shows progress can penetrate coal politics

February 17, 2013

A group of Louisville high school students in Frankfort to attend the I Love Mountains Day events toured the Capitol Education Center roof, which has solar panels, a wind turbine and a roof garden. Below, an interactive exhibit inside shows how much less power LED and compact florescent lights use than traditional incandescent bulbs. Photos by Tom Eblen


FRANKFORT — Each year, I notice more young people attending I Love Mountains Day. The rally against mountaintop-removal coal mining is organized by the citizens group Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, and it has been a Valentine’s tradition since 2006.

The young people join hundreds of their elders from across Kentucky in marching to the Capitol steps to hear speakers that have included writer Wendell Berry and actress Ashley Judd. This year’s main speaker was writer Silas House.

Before the speeches, many marchers visit legislators and urge them to curb the coal industry’s worst environmental abuses, to no avail.

But this year, there was something new for the young people to see: the Capitol Education Center, which had its grand opening Feb. 8. The center was the brainchild of First Lady Jane Beshear, and it is located in a formerly vacant building beside the Capitol that once housed heating and cooling equipment.

Beshear thought the 60,000 students and teachers who visit the Capitol each year needed a place to rest and eat their lunch. Then, the former teacher realized that this recycled building could play a role in teaching students about one of the most important issues facing Kentucky’s future: environmental sustainability.

The building got a “green” renovation that included recycled materials and energy-efficient technology. Solar panels and a wind turbine that feed into the utility grid were installed on the roof. Rain water is recycled to water a roof garden that will provide food for the Governor’s mansion kitchen.

The Kentucky Environmental Education Council coordinated a dozen universities and state agencies in developing interactive multimedia exhibits for the building. They teach students about Kentucky history, civics and geography — but mainly about energy efficiency and alternative energy sources.

The project was funded with $1.1 million from the Finance Cabinet and a $250,000 donation from Duke Energy. General Electric donated appliances for a commercial kitchen that Beshear hopes to use for demonstrations of healthy cooking and eating. (For more information, go to:

In an interview, Beshear said these issues are “so important for the future. The more we as a state get into energy efficiency and alternative sources, the better off we’ll be.”

This education center is outstanding, and the First Lady’s vision for it is inspired. But it was hard to ignore the irony when I took a tour on I Love Mountains Day.

That event was created eight years ago to push for the so-called “stream saver” bill, which would ban coal companies from burying streams with mining debris. KFTC says the practice has obliterated more than 2,000 miles of Appalachian waterways.

But thanks to the coal industry’s enormous clout in Frankfort, the proposed legislation has gone nowhere. Most elected state officials proudly call themselves “friends of coal”. That friendship, which comes with lots of campaign cash, has always meant that public health, mine safety and environmental stewardship take a back seat to coal company profits.

Kentucky’s coal industry is in decline because of depleted reserves, cheap natural gas and the Environmental Protection Agency’s newfound willingness to do its job. But, like the National Rifle Association, the coal industry has always fought every attempt at common-sense regulation. Anyone who threatens the industry’s freedom to mine with impunity is branded as an enemy of coal.

There was an added emphasis for this year’s I Love Mountains Day: House Bill 170, which would require utilities to use increasing amounts of renewable energy and put more emphasis on energy-efficiency programs.

In short, this bill, sponsored by Democrats Kelly Flood of Lexington and Mary Lou Marzian of Louisville, would put into law some of the good ideas showcased at the new Capitol Education Center.

Change is hard, and progress can be slow. But I can’t help but be encouraged when I attend I Love Mountains Day or see something like the Capitol Education Center. Politicians will always be captive to power and money, I suppose, but it is good to see other Kentuckians working for a better future.

Few legislators have the courage to attend I Love Mountains Day, and the coal industry would go after any governor who dared show his face there.

But it is perhaps worth pointing out what Gov. Steve Beshear was doing shortly before the crowd arrived for I Love Mountains Day. He was in the Capitol rotunda with former Wildcat basketball star Derek Anderson, calling for legislation to create a statewide public smoking ban.

If you had told me 20 years ago that a Kentucky governor would do such a thing, I would have said you were crazy.


Photos from today’s ‘I Love Mountains’ rally in Frankfort

February 14, 2013

I went to the annual “I Love Mountains” march and rally at the State Capitol today to gather material for my Sunday column — and to take photos. Here are a few of them:


Kentucky author Silas House, center, led the annual “I Love Mountains Day” march down Capitol Avenue to the State Capitol. The event was sponsored by Kentuckians for the Commonwealth in opposition to mountaintop-removal and other destructive forms of coal mining. Several hundred people attended. Many marchers this year were advocating for two pieces of proposed legislation: one would limit coal mine waste dumped into streams; the other would require more use of renewable energy by utilities in Kentucky.

Many children brought homemade signs. 

Eric Sutherland of Lexington, center, was among those cheering the rally’s speakers.

Writer Silas House, on the steps of the State Capitol, urged citizens to “clean this house” of politicians who do the bidding of the coal industry at the expense of Appalachia’s people and communities. 

Kentucky author Wendell Berry, right, shares a laugh with disabled coal miner Carl Shoupe of Harlan County, who spoke at the rally.

Ella Corder, a student at Meece Middle School in Somerset, waited for applause to die down so she could read the essay that won her a contest sponsored by Kentuckians for the Commonwealth.

Kentucky writers Bobbie Ann Mason, left, and Ed McClanahan were among hundreds who participated.

Daniel Mullins, 10, of Berea, makes his feelings known.

A Valentine’s Day reminder 


As you reflect on civil rights history, imagine the future

January 19, 2013

When I was a child, many white Americans, and most of them in the South, considered Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights activists to be radicals and trouble-makers. Some even called them “communists.”

Almost everyone now considers them heroes. Ideas about racial equality and justice that were then controversial are now common sense.

Segregationist leaders such as George Wallace, Lester Maddox and Orval Faubus are now remembered with contempt, when they are remembered at all. We pity the average people who enabled the bigots, either with their actions or their silence.

On Monday, we mark the 27th annual holiday honoring King, as well as the second inauguration of the nation’s first president of African descent. Looking back, it is amazing how much changed in so short a time. Racism still exists, to be sure, but it is no longer acceptable in mainstream society.

It makes me wonder: What controversial ideas today will seem like common sense in just a few years?

The first that comes to mind is gay rights. It is today’s most controversial civil rights issue, yet the nation has clearly turned the corner. You can tell it the same way you could tell by the early 1960s that we had turned the corner of black civil rights. The groundswell of support wasn’t just coming from the victims of discrimination, but from others who realized it was wrong and found the courage to say so.

If there has been a consistent theme of social progress during my lifetime, it is this: discrimination against any group of people because of who they are is un-American.

We saw an example of that last week when the small Perry County town of Vicco became the fourth municipality in Kentucky to ban discrimination against gays, joining Lexington, Louisville and Covington. Vicco officials said they weren’t endorsing homosexuality; they just thought discrimination was wrong.

Most opposition to gay rights comes from religious conservatives. During King’s lifetime, many white Christians found Biblical justification for segregation and discrimination, just as their great-grandfathers had for slavery. Everyone is entitled to their religious beliefs. What is problematic is when they try to impose them on others.

Wendell Berry, the renowned Kentucky writer and lifelong Baptist, made that point and many others to Baptist ministers meeting at Georgetown College on Jan. 11. Coverage of his talk has attracted a lot of attention. (Read more about what he had to say on my blog.)

When I think of other controversial issues that will seem like no-brainers in a few years, the reasons for our clouded judgment have more to do with economics than religion.

Kentuckians’ disregard for the environment reminds me of our willful ignorance about the health and social costs of tobacco just two or three decades ago. Only after the price-support system that made tobacco an economic mainstay of family farms was abolished did we stop trying to deny the obvious and defend the indefensible.

More than 30 local governments in Kentucky now have public smoking bans, and some legislators are pushing for a statewide version to curb soaring health-care costs. Restricting smoking in most public places is now common sense, yet it would have been unthinkable in Kentucky a generation ago.

Sit back for a moment and try to imagine conventional wisdom a few years from now. For one thing, I think, discrimination based on sexual orientation will be as unacceptable then as discrimination based on race, gender or national origin is now.

I also can imagine hearing comments like these:

Why did people back then allow the beauty and future economic viability of Eastern Kentucky’s mountains to be destroyed just so coal companies could extract the last measure of profit in return for a declining number of short-term jobs?

How could people back then have denied the scientific consensus about climate change and refused to act when the signs — melting glaciers, the increasing frequency of killer storms and droughts, year after year of record-high temperatures — were so obvious?

What were they thinking?

As we honor civil rights heroes Monday, and pity the bigots and their enablers, let us also give some thought to the future. Who will people honor then, and who will they pity?

And ask yourself: which side of history will I be on?

Blaming coal’s problems on regulators is a strategy for losers

August 12, 2012

We curse the cop when we see lights flashing in our rear-view mirror.

Kentuckians are an independent people. We have good reasons to speed! Besides, speed limits restrict our “freedom” and take away our “liberty.” They are downright un-American, forced upon us by politicians and government bureaucrats.

Of course, we know in our heart that the cop is just doing his duty for our own good. Without speed limits, crashes would claim a greater toll than the already obscene 32,000 deaths nationally each year, one-third of which are caused by speeding.

It is harder to visualize the tens of thousands of people who die prematurely or are sickened by air and water pollution caused by irresponsible coal mining and burning. This is a largely hidden toll, with no graphic video for television newscasts. But health researchers can prove and document it.

The National Resources Defense Council reported last week that Kentucky is the worst state in the nation for toxic air pollution from coal-fired power plants. It blamed that fact on state officials doing too little to force utilities to clean up.

The coal industry acts as if it is above the law. Kentucky government too often behaves as if it is owned and operated by coal interests.

Politicians love to rant about the Obama administration’s “war on coal.”

What they mean is that the Environmental Protection Agency, the Office of Surface Mining and other federal agencies are, for the first time in years, being better cops. They are enforcing environmental-protection laws, and they are trying to make state regulators enforce them, too.

Consider this recent example, at a joint meeting of the General Assembly’s Natural Resources and the Environment committee on Aug. 2.

The issue at hand was OSM’s demand that Kentucky follow the 1977 federal surface-mining law and require mining companies to post adequate reclamation bonds. If a company cleans up mined land as required by law, its bond is refunded. If it goes broke before the work is done, the bond is supposed to pay for cleanup.

The federal government has for years urged Kentucky to require higher bonds because in many of the 15 to 25 bond forfeiture cases each year there is too little money to do the work.

The Herald-Leader’s John Cheves reported that in an average year, the state Division of Abandoned Mine Lands faces more than $4 million in unfunded reclamation costs because bonds are too small. Land is left scarred, and neighbors’ property values are diminished.

The Beshear administration says that requiring adequate bonds would be “impractical and unaffordable” for many coal companies. The state Energy and Environment Cabinet has proposed raising bond requirements and creating a pool financed by fees on coal operations to help pay costs when an individual company’s reclamation bond falls short.

That seems like a reasonable solution, but you can bet it won’t happen unless federal regulators keep up the pressure. Most of us would find it reasonable to require an industry to clean up after itself. But to coal-industry apologists, it’s war.

“There is an assault on Kentucky, and really our way of life,” Rep. Jim Gooch, D-Providence, complained at the Aug. 2 meeting.

“I don’t want to roll over dead and play stoolie in front of the federal government, either,” said Rep. Keith Hall, D-Phelps, “because I believe in states’ rights.”

Despite earning their livings from coal-related businesses, Gooch and Hall are the chairman and vice chairman, respectively, of the Natural Resources and the Environment committee. No conflicts of interest there.

Federal regulators are not waging a “war” on coal. They are enforcing laws designed to limit pollution, sickness and premature death, which study after study have attributed to irresponsible coal mining and burning.

In the short term, the coal industry will find plenty of allies in this phony “war on coal.” Kentucky miners are desperate for jobs, and other businesses like having electricity that has always been artificially cheap because the full cost of producing it hasn’t been taken into account.

Western coal, cheap natural gas, renewable energy technology and the reality of climate change cannot be ignored. If Kentucky’s coal industry wants a future, it must clean up its act and find ways to reduce the health and environmental damage of its product.

The coal industry faces inevitable change, the kind of seismic economic shift that Kentucky slaveholders and tobacco growers once faced. Continuing to blame the environmental cops whose lights are now in the rear-view mirror is a strategy for losers.


A coal supporter talks straight with the industry

June 28, 2012

Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-WVa. Photo by Manuel Balce Ceneta/Associated Press.


Americans heard something on the U.S. Senate floor last Wednesday that they haven’t heard for nearly three years: a coal-state senator and longtime supporter of the coal industry speak eloquent truth to power.

Sen. Jay Rockefeller’s 16-minute speech was remarkable for its wisdom and candor. It echoed a similar address in 2009 by another West Virginia Democrat and longtime coal-industry champion, the late Sen. Robert Byrd.

They both sounded like old friends trying to warn an alcoholic that his behavior had become unacceptably destructive, both to himself and to others.

The occasion for Rockefeller’s speech was a resolution before the Senate to disapprove of new Environmental Protection Agency rules reducing coal-fired power plants’ emissions of mercury and other toxic pollution.

The resolution was sponsored by Sen. James Inhofe, an Oklahoma Republican and climate-change denier, and endorsed by coal industry lapdogs including Sen. Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader from Kentucky.

“Coal has played an important part in our past and can play an important role in our future, but it will only happen if we face reality,” Rockefeller began. (To watch the video, go to

“The reality is that many who run the coal industry today would rather attack false enemies and deny real problems than find solutions,” he said. “Scare tactics are a cynical waste of time, money and, worst of all, coal miners’ hopes.”

Rockefeller then outlined some inconvenient truths that coal industry leaders gloss over when they attack environmental-protection laws and government regulation.

“First, our coal reserves are finite and many coal-fired power plants are aging,” he said. “The cheap, easy coal seams are diminishing, and production is falling — especially in the Central Appalachian Basin in Southern West Virginia. Production is shifting to lower-cost areas like the Illinois and Powder River Basins.

“Second, natural gas use is on the rise. Power companies are switching to natural gas because of lower prices, cheaper construction costs, lower emissions and vast, steady supplies,” he said.

“Third, the shift to a lower-carbon economy is not going away, and it’s a disservice to coal miners and their families to pretend that it is,” Rockefeller said. “Coal company operators deny that we need to do anything to address climate change despite the established scientific consensus and mounting national desire for a cleaner, healthier environment.”

Rockefeller, who was West Virginia’s governor from 1977 to 1985 and has been a senator ever since, said that in 2010, he proposed a two-year suspension of EPA carbon rules to try to help the coal industry adapt. Instead, the industry has fought all attempts at compromise. “This foolish action wastes time and money that could have been invested in the future of coal,” he said.

Rockefeller said the EPA’s actions are in the best interest of his state’s citizens.

“The annual health benefits of the rule are enormous,” he said. “EPA has relied on thousands of studies that established the serious and long-term impact of these pollutants on premature deaths, heart attacks, hospitalizations, pregnant women, babies and children.”

If coal is to have a future, it must solve its environmental challenges rather than keep trying to avoid them, Rockefeller said.

“It’s not too late for the coal industry to step up and lead by embracing the realities of today and creating a sustainable future,” he said. “Discard the scare tactics. Stop denying science. Listen to what markets are saying about greenhouse gases and other environmental concerns, to what West Virginians are saying about their water and air, their health, and the cost of caring for seniors and children who are most susceptible to pollution.

“And unless this industry aggressively leans into the future, coal miners will lose the most,” he said. “We have the chance here to not just grudgingly accept the future, but to boldly embrace it.”

I’m sure Rockefeller’s speech angered the coal barons, just as Byrd’s speech did in December 2009. Coal industry leaders don’t seem interested in listening to reason, even from politicians who have supported them for decades. They’re probably already raising money to try to defeat Rockefeller in his next election. After all, there’s no shortage of politicians willing to take the coal industry’s money and do its bidding, in Kentucky and in West Virginia.

If Rockefeller’s words have any impact, it is likely to be with the coal industry’s declining work force, and with coal-state citizens who are getting fed up with poisonous air, polluted water and higher incidences of sickness and disease. Coal will never have a bright future as long as its leaders cling to a dirty past.

Watch Rockefeller’s speech here:

What else Nikky Finney had to say about mountains

February 12, 2012

One of the challenges of newspaper writing is deciding what to cut. With any good topic, there is always more interesting information than newsprint space. My Sunday column about Kentucky’s fine writers mentioned many of them, past and present. But within minutes of it being posted online, readers were pointing out other good writers I left out.

What I really hated to leave out of the piece — but did, both for space and because it was a slight diversion from topic — was everything poet Nikky Finney had to say about the influence of the mountains on Kentucky and Kentucky writers.  Here are Finney’s full comments, which were sent as an email following up on our conversation the evening before:

 When speaking of the greatness of Kentucky writing I often hear people say, “must be something in the water!” I don’t think so. I think it’s in great part due to the mountains that rise and stretch out all around our homes and farms. Our greatness as writers has to do with the land. Our connection to it. A wonderful old man in South Carolina once told me this wonderful thing, “God ain’t making no more land.” He was right. He was trying to tell me to remember what was important in this life. We don’t really own the land. The land owns us. Mountains that have been with us here in Kentucky for a million years. We never credit the mountains enough for helping shape who we are, for giving us a specific lens through which to see the world, a lens to nurture what we have to say about our human presence in it. We never credit the mountains enough. We think that they are tough and resilient and can take care of themselves but more and more we know that is not true. We have to be better caretakers of this landscape that is so particular to our sensibilities. We act as if the mountains will always be there — surrounding, protecting, helping to situate our contemplative nature, and yet we know it just takes a little dynamite and greed to change all that. The history of Kentucky writing has been what it has been because the mountains that inhabit so much our our particular skyline have long been our favorite horizon; that wondrous place where our eyes land and lift.

If you agree with Finney about the importance of protecting Kentucky’s mountains from destructive surface-mining, you might want to be in Frankfort on Tuesday for the annual I Love Mountains Day march and rally. Click here for more information.



UPike plan should lead to discussion about raising coal severance tax to improve Kentucky education

January 15, 2012

The political wild card in this year’s General Assembly is a high-powered proposal to make private University of Pikeville a state-supported school.

The idea is being pushed by House Speaker Greg Stumbo and former Gov. Paul Patton, who is now the University of Pikeville’s president. The idea has solid support from southeast Kentucky legislators and community leaders. Gov. Steve Beshear has ordered a thorough study.

Like many ideas that sound good but get complicated as you dig into them, this proposal needs thorough study. But it also provides an excellent opportunity for broader public discussion about how more educational attainment could improve life in Kentucky and how we should go about paying for it.

Having the state assume ownership of a private school is a very Kentucky thing to do. That is how five of the state’s eight public universities came to be: Western and Eastern in 1906, Murray and Morehead in 1922 and the University of Louisville in 1970.

“This sounds like the same thing: We’ve got a campus here and all we have to do is make it a state school,” said Bill Ellis, a history professor at Eastern Kentucky University and author of the new book, A History of Education in Kentucky. “It all comes down to politics and who has the votes.”

Creation of those state universities was generally a good thing for Kentucky, Ellis said. It made education more accessible and brought economic development and culture to communities across the state.

Many people in southeast Kentucky argue that their region — with some of the state’s highest rates of poverty and lowest levels of educational attainment — has been shortchanged.

Southeast Kentucky is part of the service areas of Eastern and Morehead state universities, but both campuses are a long way from many of the region’s towns and hollows. Pikeville and surrounding areas would no doubt benefit economically and culturally by having a state university.

But for years now, the General Assembly has cut state support for higher education. Given that, can Kentucky taxpayers afford another university mouth to feed? Stumbo and Patton say that is not a problem: Rather than using general fund money, state support can come from Eastern Kentucky’s coal severance tax revenues.

At this point, let’s step back and look at the big picture. What do legislators really need to do to help Appalachian Kentucky catch up with the rest of the state — and Kentucky catch up with the rest of the nation?

Let’s begin with the notion that more state support for education is essential. That is because nothing has more power to improve Kentucky’s economy and society than educational attainment.

Regardless of whether Pikeville becomes a state university, lawmakers should find ways to reverse the budget-cutting trends that have contributed to skyrocketing tuition at Kentucky’s state universities and made them less affordable.

The stated goal of the University of Pikeville proposal is to make higher education more affordable and attainable for mountain students. But are there more cost-effective ways to do that?

Rather than taking on another campus, would Kentucky get more bang for the buck by using coal severance tax money to finance scholarships for mountain students at Kentucky’s existing public and private universities, including Pikeville?

Perhaps those scholarships could be supplemented with loans from severance tax money that would be forgiven if students lived and worked in the mountains for a few years after graduation. That could curb the region’s historic “brain drain.”

But let’s not stop there. The Pikeville proposal creates a perfect opportunity for a broader discussion about the severance tax that Kentucky has levied on the coal industry since the 1970s, and how that money should be used.

The severance tax rate of 4.5 percent, which hasn’t changed in decades, is among the lowest of major coal-producing states. It generates more than $200 million a year. But over the years, much of that money has been wasted on building vacant industrial parks and other political pet projects, plowed back into subsidies for the coal industry or gone to benefit parts of Kentucky nowhere near the coalfields.

If the severance tax’s goal is to improve life and create a new economy in the coalfields for when all of the coal is gone, there could be no better use for that money than improving educational attainment.

So regardless of whether the University of Pikeville receives state support, the General Assembly should take this opportunity to raise the coal severance tax to national norms and focus the money on education. That’s right: Turn this political wild card into a trump card for Kentucky’s future.