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?


Voters should push back against pro-pollution politicians

February 17, 2014

Politicians say a lot of dumb things. What’s puzzling, though, is how much we listen to them.

Some of the dumbest things politicians say these days involve criticism of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and other state and federal environmental watchdogs. These politicians are indignant that “regulators” are enforcing the laws they and their predecessors passed to keep air fit to breathe and water safe to drink.

The Democrats and Republicans who passed those environmental laws and created the watchdog agencies during the last half of the 20th century were smart enough to realize that pollution spoils our nation, makes us sick and, in the long run, is bad for business.

So why are many politicians today fighting for more pollution? It’s really very simple: Companies pay them to.

If you look at these politicians’ campaign funds, you will see big contributions from polluters: coal companies, chemical companies, electric utilities and other corporations that make more money when they can push the environmental costs of their businesses off on the public.

The politicians who complain loudest about environmental regulation tend to get the most money from polluters. Funny how it works that way.

When these politicians can’t repeal or ignore environmental laws and regulations, they argue that they should be enforced by state rather than federal agencies. That’s easy to understand, too: the smaller the watchdog, the easier it is to muzzle.

Federal prosecutors last week launched a criminal investigation into the relationship between North Carolina regulators and Duke Energy after 82,000 tons of coal ash and 27 million gallons of contaminated water spilled into the Dan River on Feb. 2. It was the third-largest coal ash spill in U.S. history.

The Associated Press reported last week that North Carolina regulators repeatedly thwarted attempts by environmental groups to use the federal Clean Water Act to force Duke to clean up leaky coal ash dumps near its power plants.

Two recent incidents in West Virginia, another state where politicians are frequently hostile to environmental regulation, also has raised questions about cozy political relationships with polluters.

The water supply for more than 300,000 people in nine counties around Charleston hasn’t been right since Jan. 9. That’s when storage tanks owned by Freedom Industries leaked as much as 7,500 gallons of coal-processing chemicals into the Elk River.

Freedom Industries has filed for bankruptcy protection to avoid lawsuits. The spill will cost taxpayers millions of dollars.

Then, last Tuesday, a pipe ruptured at a Patriot Coal processing plant about 18 miles from where the chemical spill occurred. It sent more than 100,000 gallons of coal and chemical slurry into Fields Creek, a Kanawha River tributary. State officials said the spill “wiped out” six miles of stream, causing “severe, adverse environmental impact.”

We’ve heard these stories many times before. Remember the 2008 coal ash pond collapse in East Tennessee that released 5 million cubic yards of ash and cost $1.2 billion to clean up? Or the spill in Martin County, Ky., in 2000 that sent 306,000 gallons of coal sludge into two tributaries of the Tug Fork River? And there are many more smaller incidents that never make headlines.

Does this sound like environmental regulation that is too strict, or too lax?

Many Kentucky politicians like to complain about the “war on coal” — a phrase coined for a well-financed industry propaganda campaign. But the real war is being waged against Kentucky’s land, water, air and public health by companies that want more freedom to blast mountains, bury streams and release toxins into the environment.

Many people support polluters because they buy into the argument that you can’t have both a strong economy and a clean environment.

Sure, sometimes environmental regulation does cost jobs and raise costs in the short run. But history has shown that it has always been good for the economy in the long run because it creates a healthier environment and sparks job-creating innovation. Perhaps the best example is government fuel-efficiency standards for automobiles, which over several decades have given us better cars and cleaner air.

How long will some politicians keep fighting for more pollution? As long as polluters keep paying them to. And as long as we keep listening to and re-electing them.


Focus on Kentucky coal’s future, not this futile ‘war’

July 10, 2011

Kentuckians love to embrace a lost cause, especially one that deserves to be lost.

The state stayed in the Union during the Civil War, yet many Kentuckians switched sides and mythologized the Confederacy after the war was over. Long after everyone else recognized smoking’s deadly toll, Kentucky leaders remained apologists for tobacco.

Now, federal regulators are finally acting to curb the damage mining and burning coal does to human health and the environment. So where are Kentucky’s leaders? Many have stormed the ramparts, vowing to fight what they call the “war on coal.”

The hollering grew louder Thursday when the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced new standards that will require utilities in 27 Eastern states to reduce power-plant emissions. The EPA says the stricter limits will prevent tens of thousands of premature deaths, heart attacks and cases of bronchitis and asthma, creating up to $280 billion in annual benefits by 2014 — well beyond the cost of compliance.

These science-based standards have been in the works for years, and big business has been fighting them every step of the way. But pollution is becoming harder to ignore as health-care costs rise and the damage is more obvious and measurable.

Kentucky is the third-largest coal- producing state, and federal regulators have gotten more aggressive about reining in destructive mining practices.

Federal regulators eventually will limit carbon dioxide emissions from burning coal, a major contributor to disastrous climate change. Yet, many Kentuckians continue to deny climate science.

Burning coal generates more than 90 percent of electricity in Kentucky and 46 percent nationally. Many business and political leaders complain that the economy can’t bear the cost of cleaning up after coal, which will include higher power rates. As if sickness, death and pollution don’t have huge costs, too.

But here’s the thing: We will be burning coal for decades, because we must. No other energy source can replace coal any time soon. Environmentalists who demonize coal are ignoring reality just as much as the business people and politicians who demonize regulators and fight to protect pollution.

“I wish we could get away from this ‘war on coal’; it doesn’t help anybody,” said John Morgan, a mining engineer and president of Morgan Worldwide Consultants Inc. “We should be having debates about facts and not hyperbole, and quit demonizing everybody.”

Morgan’s Lexington-based firm has found a niche helping the mining industry and regulators figure out more environmentally friendly ways to mine. “If you’re going to mine coal, you need to do it both economically and with less impact, and realize that mining is a temporary land use,” he said. “It’s not just the industry that needs to think more creatively, but the regulators.”

That means designing mines that produce more coal while disturbing less land and fewer streams. And it means more planning for uses of reclaimed mine land.

Morgan points out that tighter regulation hasn’t hurt coal production. And after nearly three decades of decline, the number of Kentucky jobs in underground and surface mining has been rising since 2004. “People say the war on coal is hurting employment, but the numbers tell a different story,” he said.

One reason more jobs are being created is that mine productivity has been falling since a peak in 2000. Easy-to-mine Kentucky coal is becoming more scarce, so the trend of bigger machines and fewer miners is reversing. “As productivity goes down, it’s going to mean more people,” Morgan said.

“Long-term, there’s going to be more underground mining because easily minable surface reserves are almost gone,” he said.

Kentucky mines will get smaller. Permits will need to be more sophisticated. And all of that means there will be more demand for well-trained mining professionals, even as some work is automated. “The biggest long-term challenge is the human resource side,” Morgan said.

The lost cause that so many Kentuckians have embraced is not coal but the idea we can continue mining and burning it in the same old ways. Rather than fighting a doomed “war” to preserve the past, our leaders should focus on the future and the role Kentucky coal must play.