Strictly by the numbers, Tuesday’s battle of coal rallies wasn’t much of a match. About 100 environmentalists gathered in one part of the Capital Plaza complex to support the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s objections to 36 blocked mining permits. Elsewhere in the Plaza, more than 500 people, some of them miners bused in from eastern Kentucky, demonstrated in favor of granting the permits.
Majority rule is a fixture of American politics and Kentucky politicians in both parties have been more responsive to large numbers of people who expect to profit from leniency on surface mining than to smaller numbers who either live in the shadows of spoil banks or believe it’s just not right to roll over a vulnerable minority even when the majority demands cheap coal to produce cheap electricity. Gov Steve Beshear’s infamous call for EPA to “get off our backs” may have resonated with free-enterprise hard-liners who regarded it as a principled challenge to an overbearing bureaucracy, but sometimes it takes more courage to stand up for the rights of the few.
If majority rule were the only criterion, Southern schools would still be racially segregated. Because the U.S. Supreme Court decided the great-grandchildren of slaves had a right to equal protection under the law, children of all races share classrooms today and racial equality is an accepted fact of life in America.
Environmental protection has not attained that level of acceptance. Those who fight for prudent planetary stewardship have always been out-numbered, even in the euphoria of the original Earth Day four decades ago. Today, with more Americans worried that they won’t be able to pay their monthly bills, relatively few get worked up over coal operators blowing the tops off mountains in Appalachia. But that sin against nature does matter, quite a lot, to residents who live downstream from waterways suffocated by the blast debris and polluted with toxic metals and sediment.
In the capital, we’re well removed from the carnage to the east. The pollutants undoubtedly taint tributaries to the Kentucky River – our drinking water source – but most of us have implicit faith in the Frankfort Plant Board to filter out the nasty stuff before it reaches our kitchen faucets. Still, some local people do care, and have linked arms with eastern Kentuckians who lament the exploitation of their land, air and water. They’ve marched in the annual “I Love Mountains Day” rally – routinely ignored by the state legislators it’s intended to persuade – and they’ve joined sleep-ins and sit-ins outside the governor’s office to condemn the ongoing love affair between coal and state government.
EPA is a court of last resort for environmentalists deserted by parochial politicians wont to ridicule “tree huggers.” The agency held hearings this week in Frankfort and Pikeville on mining projects it maintains would unacceptably degrade Kentucky waters. Those unable to attend the hearings can still submit comments to www.epa.gov/region4/kycoalminehearings/comments.html.
EPA Regional Administrator Gwen Keyes Fleming, in an op-ed commentary, emphasized the necessity for balance between environmental protection and economic growth. There’s no plausible “war” on coal. We need the industry, but it should not be allowed to trample the rights of Kentuckians who live daily with the damages mining can inflict if indifferently controlled. Something is out of balance here, and it ought to be corrected.