Front Porch Blog

Speaking Out At EPA Hearings in Kentucky

Upon our arrival, we definitely stood out. I wondered if we exuded “tree hugger,” but it’s more likely that the “I Love Mountains” buttons gave us away. While no one approached us directly to ask what we were doing there or to start an argument, the rally cries and fire-and-brimstone speeches in the background gave me pause. On the other hand, my fellow AppVoicers seemed comfortable, even delighted, to approach people participating in the coal rally and engage in dialogue.

The June 4th U.S. Environmental Protection Agency hearings were held at the Eastern Kentucky Expo in Pikeville, a massive stadium that seats 7,000. Individuals gathered to voice their opinions on the EPA’s denial of 36 mine permits because of water quality issues. Following the hearing, the EPA will be receiving comments until June 21st.

While things seemed relatively calm during the rally outside, within the Expo things turned nasty. None of the jeering was too off-putting, but the feeling of tension and the combative tone pro-coal individuals took with EPA officials and environmentalists made everyone in our small group uneasy.

Four members of Appalachian Voices spoke at the hearing, Eric Chance, Erin Savage, Matt Wasson, and myself. We talked about Kentucky’s troubled history of failing to enforce clean water protections, and agreed with the EPA that the permits in question lacked appropriate scientific data and safeguards to protect watersheds. We also commented on the devastating health impacts from water pollution caused by mountaintop removal coal mining, and countered coal industry propaganda with data about the recent rise in the region’s coal employment. A member of the Sierra Club, Alex DeShay, also spoke, and we all received very vocal disapproval from the crowd. I wondered if we were in a precarious situation by being the only people who were openly supportive of the EPA’s initiatives.

This is not the Eastern Kentucky I know.

Eastern Kentucky has been my home since I was three years old, and it was strange to see such a polarized community, to hear the angry comments, and to hear the fear. In truth, we’re all fearful of the changes occurring. In conversations with friends from home, it’s evident that we all understand that this is a complex issue and that we are operating within structures, like market forces and the declining amount of Appalachian coal, that are beyond our control. The future is uncertain, but community members from home have always been open to discussing real solutions for Central Appalachia. Yet, at the EPA hearing my community members were turning into obstinate and aggressive adversaries.

I could see that some of this hyper-division between “us” and “them” had to do with the community identifying us as outsiders. I’m well aware of the tension between insiders and outsiders within Appalachia—and it’s not an irrational reaction. Appalachia became, and, in some ways remains, a spectacle for the rest of the nation during the War on Poverty. This distrust Appalachians have of outsiders is a consequence of decades of excruciating manipulation, stereotypes, misunderstanding, and abuse. In moments of conflict, the easy route is to distinguish between “us” and “them,” but this does not allow for real solutions to be created. This dividing of “us” and “them” happens in both pro-coal and environmental groups, and this perception of “sides” needs to end for any steps forward to occur.

In the time that I’ve been involved in the anti-mountaintop removal movement, I’ve been reminded that I’m in a weird grey area: I’m an insider and an outsider, all at the same time. And while I know that I’ve never known a home outside of the coalfields, one’s own understanding and construction of identity is never truly free of how others perceive your identity.

This Eastern Kentucky mountaintop removal mine is just one of many — over 500 Appalachian mountains have been similarly blasted in pursuit of dwindling coal reserves. Photo by Matt Wasson, Flight Courtesy South Wings.

I will always believe that I have as much claim to the land as a 7th or 9th generation Appalachian. I believe this fervently because I love the people of this region. They raised me and taught me compassion and integrity. They showed me the value of loving one’s neighbor, the danger of building physical and emotional walls, and to value relationships over valuables. They welcomed my family though we were strangers and showed me that while this nation is not post-race, being an American was deeper than one’s skin color and embedded in ideals and character. Going to college and spending time in far-away Philadelphia makes me value my home even more and helps me see its beauty in more than just mountains: it’s also in the people.

I am also here because all individuals’ liberation is bound up in this region’s liberation. The conflicts and struggles within the Appalachian region make it a microcosm of the issues playing out across the nation and the globe: corporate greed and irresponsibility over the common good, rising unemployment, partisan politics, and other social ills that result from corruption and misguided priorities.

But the coal industry has no ethical ties or obligations to uphold the wellbeing of communities, so I find it increasingly distressing to see community members rallying to protect an industry that has historically abused the region. The 36 denied permits are indicative of the complete disregard of these companies towards my community, my family, and myself.

Even more distressing is the fact that Kentucky’s Division Of Water accepted these permits. In each case, EPA found that the Division of Water had provided an incomplete analysis as to whether or not the proposed discharges had a reasonable potential to cause or contribute to a violation of Kentucky’s water quality standards. This analysis has made it clear that permits in Kentucky are inadequate, and, to add insult to injury, aren’t even being enforced by the state.

I do not hold one group, or one individual, responsible. The purpose of going to these hearings was to call upon our federal government to step in and do what is best for all the people of the region, something that the Kentucky state government cannot do due to internal power plays between corporations and local politicians. We have sacrificed too much and placed our trust in politicians who have consistently only thought of short-term gain—short-term gain that would result in their reelection.

For too long they have proclaimed that coal is our heritage. But it is not. Yes, it is a part of the Appalachian people’s narrative, a history that is long and full of bravery in the face of adversity, but it is not the Appalachian narrative. And we, concerned citizens, environmentalists, humanitarians, be it insiders or outsiders, are here to make sure that the Appalachian people’s narrative outlasts and perseveres beyond that of coal’s.





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  1. Pallavi on June 19, 2012 at 3:44 pm

    Thanks for your comment, Mark. To answer your questions, I have a couple of thoughts.

    Mountaintop removal coal mining provides less than 5% of the United States’ energy portfolio. Eliminating mountaintop removal coal mining, and all of the inherent problems with it, will not only NOT leave an energy hole in our country, it will protect the communities where it would be taking place, preserving the area for other industries to move in. Mechanization of coal mining (mountaintop removal or surface mining), has actually REDUCED miner jobs in Appalachia — underground coal mining provides far more jobs than surface mining.

    While many mines are operated by local people, the six largest coal operators in Eastern Kentucky (Arch, Alpha, James River, TECO, Frasure Creek and Gilliam), who are responsible for more than half of production, are all based out of state. Frasure Creek is owned by Essar Group, which is not even based in the United States. Other companies, such as Nally & Hamilton, are based in Kentucky. Such companies should be most concerned with protecting water resources within their own communities; however, based on our recent lawsuit against Nally & Hamilton, they are clearly not concerned.

    Coal is often portrayed as an industry that brings wealth to the region. A study, by MACED, determined the revenue generated by coal for Kentucky is $528 million, including the $224 million coal severance tax; however, the SAME study found that coal costs the state $643 million in expenditures. The costs consist of $239 million to address the industry’s impact on the coal haul road system, expenditures to regulate the environmental and health and safety impacts of coal, support coal worker training, conduct research and development for the coal industry, promote education about coal in the public schools and support the residents directly and indirectly employed by coal. It also includes the $85 million in tax expenditures designed to subsidize the mining and burning of coal. The result is a net negative to the state.

    Coal makes up only 1% of statewide employment. That being said, mining accounts for over 10% of total employment in eight eastern Kentucky coal counties (Breathitt, Floyd, Bell, Harlan, Letcher, Leslie, Perry, Pike, Martin, and Knott). To truly put coal employment in perspective, we have to look at unemployment in coal counties. Mining was shown to account for a large percentage of county wages not because mining jobs are so numerous, but because other jobs are so scarce.

    You asked what companies would move to the mountains, and I will admit this is a complicated question to answer. Coal has been an economic mainstay for Eastern Kentucky for decades but it is on the decline with economically-recoverable coal reserves diminishing and the rising competitiveness of natural gas. This region’s dependence on coal does not make it strong, rather, it makes it vulnerable to current and future shifts in the energy market. Current and upcoming market shifts may leave Eastern Kentucky no choice but to attract new business; therefore, it would be best to prepare for this change as soon as possible.

    We have to recognize that no one single idea or industry will create a stronger economy. An initiative by KFTC and MACED, called the Appalachian Transition, works to support economic diversification in Central Appalachia. The options range from education and workforce development, supporting small-businesses, environmental restoration, health and community based services, telecommunications, renewable energy and energy efficiency, and many other sectors.

    To speak to the potential of wind and solar energy, reports indicate that Kentucky actually has enormous potential in these areas:

    Additionally, in a recent study by Downstream Strategies, researcher Rory McIlmoil found that Kentuckians could generate more than one-third of our electricity needs from small-scale distributed energy technologies alone by 2025. There is a webinar being hosted THIS THURSDAY, June 21st from 7:30-8:30 p.m. during which McIlmoil will present and discuss his findings. Everyone is welcome to participate and it is sponsored by Kentucky Sustainable Energy Alliance.

    To speak to the public health concerns that the mining, processing and burning of coal presents, from 2007 to the present, 21 peer-reviewed scientific studies have proven the negative impacts that coal mining has on the economy, ecology, and human health in Central Appalachia. These are the same studies cited in both my colleague’s comments and my original blog. The specific report that you alluded to was a 2011 study titled “Falling behind: Life Expectancy in U.S. Counties from 2000 to 2007 in an International Context”. This report showed that the life expectancy, not mortality rates, in Eastern Kentucky coal counties were comparable to the life expectancy rates of Vietnam.

  2. Mark Porta on June 15, 2012 at 11:20 am

    I attended all three EPA sessions and spoke at one. I manage Eastern Operations for Whayne Supply Co serving the coal industry. My grandparents are from Middlesboro and I have lived in Eastern Ky for many years, today I live in Louisville.

    I find several of the comments made by you and your supporters questionable. First, the coal companies mining coal in Eastern KY are by far and away run by local people to the area. Only Arch in St. Louis is out of the coal fields. Who is mining coal in the region and taking these profits out of the coal fields? Duff, Hoops, James River, Nally and Hamiliton, CAM?

    If the “streets should be paved in gold” because of the profits of the coal companys then the same should be so for Detroit, Chicago, Denver or any other large city where industry dominates, however I know of no such paving occuring in any city.

    Do you know how much the Coal companys and suppliers give to the regions in which they mine?

    Please list for me the companys you believe will move to the mountains and offer employment. UPS, Ford, Toyota, GE? If not these then who, what is your economic plan?

    Explain to me the comment made by one of your supporters that Eastern KY mortality rates are “about like Vietnam” I looked up this data, and I am interested in your comments on the data that is available on this claim.

    For KY, our climate will not support large energy sources from wind and solar. Hydro and Nuclear have no support in our state due to enviromental issues. What energy source do you believe provides a replacement for coal? What is your energy plan?

    Do you believe water quality is impacted in Eastern Ky more from straight pipes or mining, and what data supports your position?

    I would be interested in your response to these questions, and the facts that point to your position. I would be happy to answer your questions on where you believe we have overstated the coal positiion. Thank you

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