For the last several years on Valentine’s Day, hundreds have gathered at the Capitol to protest mountaintop removal mining, saying the process pollutes Kentucky’s waterways and causes health problems.
Now they say they can prove it.
“We finally have the peer-reviewed studies to back what we’ve been saying all along, that mountaintop removal’s been killing our people,” said Teri Blanton, a Berea resident and member of Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, as she prepared for Tuesday’s rally at the Capitol.
Nearly 1,300 – possibly the rally’s biggest crowd yet – braved the cold and rain for the 7th annual I Love Mountains Day to protest mountaintop removal mining, a type of surface mining used in eastern Kentucky where the tops of mountains are blasted off to reach the coal. The mountaintops fall into the valleys, which critics say destroys the land and pollutes the water.
“In recent months, people in this crowd have occupied many places, from the governor’s office to the streets of Louisville and Lexington,” Blanton, the rally’s emcee, told the crowd gathered on the Capitol steps.
“We continue to tell our politicians that we all deserve a better planet.”
Fliers passed out by KFTC, which organized the rally, highlighted information from three of the nearly 20 peer-reviewed scientific studies published in the last two years on coal production in central Appalachia and its effects on human health.
One says coal mining costs Appalachian communities nearly $75 billion a year in public health, and another found that babies born to mothers who lived near mountaintop removal sites during pregnancy had a 42 percent higher rate of birth defects.
But it was a study that found those living near mountaintop removal sites have higher rates of cancer than others in Appalachia that inspired the theme of Tuesday’s rally.
Many of the nearly 1,300 who took part in I Love Mountains Day held pinwheels, with each one representing 50 people who have cancer caused by coal mining.
The pinwheels represented a study done by Dr. Michael Hendryx, director of the West Virginia Rural Health Research Center at West Virginia University, that found 60,000 cases of cancer in Appalachia are linked to strip mining.
The pinwheels were stuck in a manmade mountain constructed of wood and Styrofoam that protesters later carried to the Governor’s Mansion. After the rally, KFTC members delivered the pinwheels to the governor’s office.
Many of the rally’s speakers referred to what the pinwheels represented in their speeches, and said the most recent data solidified what they already knew about surface mining in Kentucky.
“These numbers are shocking to many, but those of us that live in the coal fields understand them as part of our daily lives,” said Ada Smith, of Letcher County.
“We are asking for what we deserve: clean water, clean air and thriving communities. Please recognize the lives our communities are sacrificing for the rest of this state.”
Smith and other speakers urged Kentucky’s legislators to pass House Bill 231, the Stream Saver Bill, which would prohibit dumping mine wastes into Kentucky’s waterways.
Protesters also called for the legislature to pass House Bill 167, the Clean Energy Opportunity Act, which would “encourage greater energy efficiency, conservation, and the use of renewable resources in order to promote energy independence and security.” Supporters say it would create 26,000 jobs.
But protesters also acknowledged that those in the coal fields see supporters of I Love Mountains Day as people who appear to be trying to take away their jobs, something Adam Smith, a science teacher at Frankfort High School, who grew up in southeastern Kentucky near mountaintop removal sites, said he sympathized with.
“(Jobs with mountaintop removal mining) really are the only jobs that exist there, so you can’t fault those guys for trying to feed their families because they don’t know any different,” Smith said, as he stood on the Capitol steps with the Frankfort High School Earth Club.
“I think people in eastern Kentucky aren’t necessarily for mountaintop removal; they just don’t want to totally eliminate coal without something being in its place,”
Smith said he challenges his biology and AP environmental science classes to find a suitable industry to replace mountaintop removal in Appalachian Kentucky, because it’s the next generation that will be dealing with today’s environmental problems, he said.
“If they don’t understand what’s going on with our planet now, then everybody’s going to be standing around later with their jaws dropped being like, ‘We didn’t know – what do we do now?’”
Several people held signs at the rally advocating for renewable energy use in Kentucky.
But a report released last year by Kentucky Coal Association, titled “Coal Facts,” says Kentucky isn’t suited for a wind and solar energy industry because “Kentucky is geographically-situated in an area where the wind doesn’t blow, and the sun doesn’t shine consistently enough to generate reliable electric power.”
The report did say hydroelectric power, which provided 3.7 percent of the electricity generated in Kentucky in 2009, does have “future potential as a renewable energy source” in Kentucky.
Gov. Steve Beshear has consistently contended that mountaintop removal is an environmentally friendly and cost-efficient way to mine coal. Last week, he acknowledged “Sit-In for the Mountains,” a movement that’s been going on for the past nine months where groups of people held weekly sit-ins outside the governor’s office.
Beshear said he respects the protests, but he will continue to support mountaintop removal.
“They love the mountains of eastern Kentucky, and I do, too,” Beshear told The State Journal last week.
“… And I’m determined to not only continue the responsible mining of coal but also to continue to protect our mountains in the process.”
The sit-ins were a way to lead into I Love Mountains Day Tuesday, but Caroline Taylor-Webb, an environmentalist who helped organize the sit-ins, said the protests will continue until the governor takes action.
“This is the first time we’ve had a year-long demonstration … and I think we’re making them more aware,” Taylor-Webb said.
Protesters also called for Beshear to withdraw from a lawsuit filed against the Environmental Protection Agency challenging the EPA’s regulations and oversights regarding coal mining permits under the Clean Water Act.
Beshear directed the Energy and Environment Cabinet to join Kentucky Coal Association in the lawsuit against EPA in October of 2010. He said the Clean Water Act, if passed and enforced in Kentucky, could eliminate 18,000 coal mining jobs.
According to the Energy and Environment Cabinet, more than 92 percent of Kentucky’s electricity is generated from coal, and the coal industry employs more than 19,000 people in the commonwealth.
In a statement to The State Journal, EEC spokesman Dave Brown said because the coal industry plays such a big role in Kentucky, eliminating surface mining would have a negative effect on the state’s economy
“We must measure any attempts to limit the production of coal with the over-arching impact this would have on the price of electric rates for our manufacturing base, which employs an estimated 215,000 Kentuckians, as well as on the low income families in Kentucky that rely on low-cost energy,” Brown said.
Brown said the governor supports research on alternate sources of energy, but the state will continue to rely on coal for the time being.
“While we believe coal is going to continue to play an important role into the future, we also support diversifying our energy portfolio to include instate renewable energy resources, especially our abundant biomass resources, and reducing our energy consumption through efficiency.
“ … While we have some concerns about HB 167 in its current form, we always appreciate efforts to improve energy efficiency and innovation.”