Tell it on the mountain

Combating mountaintop removal mining through activism, conservation and legislation

Feb 17, 2010 at 6:00 am
Tell it on the mountain
Photo by Emeran Irby

It’s 20 degrees outside, and Oscar Lee Riley Parsons is lighting a cigarette. In about an hour, Parsons’ band, Thomas A. Minor & the Picket Line, will take the stage at The Green Building’s Appalachian Love concert — a benefit show to raise money and awareness for anti-mountaintop removal (MTR) mining efforts. Sponsored by the nonprofit groups Kentuckians for the Commonwealth and Appalachian Voices, tonight’s show is free to anyone interested in the issue at hand, old-timey mountain music, or both.

A dozen or so people have staggered in from the cold and are milling about in the structure’s open foyer, most of them young and denim-clad, the males among them sporting all manner of wild facial hair/plaid-shirt-and-jeans-combos. In this sense, Parsons fits right in: Wearing a worn, severely abused “Old Granddad Whiskey” baseball cap atop a mane of explosive blond hair, a denim jacket and drab olive pants, he stomps his cigarette into the sidewalk ice.

“The hell with this cold,” he says. “You want to get a beer with me?”

Now accompanied by bandmate Greg, we duck into the Louisville Beer Store where, unbeknownst to these musicians, my intention is to discern if 1) they’re merely posers for a cause they know little about, 2) they’ve got MTR-chops on par with their picking abilities, or 3) one of them will pay my tab.

After about 20 minutes of conversation, I receive my answer: Parsons tells me of his grandfather, who worked an underground coal mine in the western hills of Virginia and died of black lung. He tells me about environmental degradation in Appalachia and the slaughtering of miners by coal-backed mercenaries, recommending books to read on the subject. Sipping his beer, he laments the tragedy befallen a people hundreds of miles away, all the while dropping more knowledge on the topic than his folk-hipster countenance would otherwise suggest.

If Parsons & Co. are the bearded face of urban environmental activism, they do well to downplay any misconceptions that surround anti-mountaintop removal mining activism that abounds even in this 21st century age of Tweets and Wikis; they’re knowledgeable, earnest and, as I witnessed later, very good at what they do.

Some 92 percent of the electricity used to heat this bar and cool its kegs comes from unseen power plants, most notably Louisville Gas & Electric’s Mill Creek plant, which burns coal produced by four MTR mining sites in Kentucky and West Virginia. The sites are far enough removed from LG&E’s parent company, E.ON U.S. Energy, to underscore the disconnect between the family living in, say, Flatwoods, Ky., (population 7,605) near the base of a mining site and the urban energy consumers who unconsciously walk past E.ON’s glass-and-steel headquarters in downtown Louisville every day.

Besides a preference for import drafts, could there be an additional disconnect, then, between people like Parsons and their Appalachian counterparts? How about the hundreds of people who marched in Frankfort last week for the annual “I Love Mountains” rally sponsored by Kentuckians for the Commonwealth? Do they really understand what it’s like to live in Kentucky’s coal country? Can we truly empathize with people we’ve never met and whose sob stories make our electric Snuggies buzz with warmth?

“It’s a sentiment I’ve encountered. There’s a lot of people who live in Lexington or in coal-producing parts of the state who are like, ‘You don’t live here, you don’t know what it’s like,’” says Julie Martinez, a spokeswoman for the University of Kentucky’s Center for Visualization and Virtual Environments who is crafting a documentary about all things coal in the commonwealth. “They say, ‘If you lived in our community you would understand why it’s such a big deal. You don’t have coal trucks driving by your house and shaking your home.’”

In the course of conducting interviews for “Coal in Kentucky,” Martinez has spoken with people on all sides of the issue — coal executives, environmental regulators, residents of Appalachian coal fields — and has gleaned from them a fairly surprising conclusion: It doesn’t matter what you think about coal, really, because it effects all of us (albeit in different ways).

“As Kentuckians, we should all be concerned about it,” she says. “(Coal) addresses the issue of power and money and its effect on people’s livelihoods. It touches so many areas where people feel so deeply... Maybe that’s another piece of common ground we can try to stand on, and to not make it a fireball fight lobbing negativities at each other when we could be asking, ‘Where are we really?’ and considering solutions together.”

While Martinez’s approach tries to strike a balanced tone between perpetrators and hapless bystanders to arrive at a certain kind of truth, the view from Rick Handshoe’s home is pretty real, too, and reflects policies and practices that have little respect for such egalitarian notions of balance in lieu of gigantic sums of money.

Handshoe’s Perry County property has been in his family for 200 years and sits near the county line of neighboring Magoffin County (whose unemployment rate of 21.4 percent — nearly 30 percent if you don’t ignore certain demographics — is the highest in the state). The panorama resembles a scene more akin to Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road” than a glossy tri-fold brochure published by Massey Energy, the largest coal company in central Appalachia.

“I go down in (that valley) to hunt, and there’s nothing there,” says Handshoe, adding that because of the contaminated runoff generated by local mountaintop removal mining operations, the water line had to be dismantled, and water is now piped in from elsewhere at a greater overall cost.

“Some of the people here, they call people from Louisville and Lexington ‘outsiders,’” he says. “But you’ve got a stake in this too. You guys are drinking the water that’s coming from here. Why is Lexington running their water from the Ohio (River) now? ‘Cause the water here is too polluted. It’s costing you more to clean your water ‘cause of what’s happening here.” In fact, over three-fourths of Kentucky’s waterways and tributaries are classified as being too toxic for “wading,” much less to receive a “Louisville Tap” label.

One of the many events us “outsiders” routinely fail to notice occurred last October, when Handshoe attended a town hall meeting in Pikeville concerning the issuance of new mining permits (aka NWP-21s) by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to salivating coal companies. The purpose of the meeting was to give area residents and interested parties the opportunity to hash out the pros and cons of establishing new regional mines.

Yet the companies, following a tried-and-true practice of rigging the system in their favor, imported their own town to attend the meeting: On-the-clock miners were bussed to the hearing at the expense of coal companies, and according to Handshoe, they “outnumbered us 150 to 3,000 ... I was talkin to some of ’em, and they said, ‘Look, we got paid to be here, we don’t know why we’re here.’” The perception of this manufactured pro-mining sentiment was swallowed handily by local news media, which fed this regurgitated “evidence” of support, pelican-like, into the maws of coal-funded elected officials.

Like the maw of state Rep. Jim Gooch, D-12. The vast majority of the people I interviewed for this story all used a variation of the word “embarrass” when discussing the chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, particularly for recently embarrassing himself and the state on ABC’s “Good Morning America.” Specifically, when the anchor pointed out his wife has strong ties to the coal industry, he deflected and said, “We have a citizen legislature in Kentucky,” as if invoking democracy somehow absolves him of his campaign contributions from Big Coal. Of course Gooch knows better than the false climate hogwash he routinely spews, but when you’re bought and paid for by any special interest you tend to be kind of willing to lie your ass off for millions of viewers if there’s a check waiting for you at the end of the day.

If you wonder why someone in Gooch’s position is allowed to repeatedly kill the routinely unsuccessful Stream Saver Bill — which would significantly reduce the toxic pollution created by surface mining — every time the bill lands in his committee, you don’t have to look much farther than the governor’s mansion. Earlier this month, Gov. Steve Beshear traveled to the White House to harass the president about cap-and-trade and the status of some 50 mining permits currently held up by the EPA.

Given the industry voluntarily adopted a set of surface-mining regulations last December, the chances of a Stream Saver Bill even being filed during the 2010 regular session was slim to none despite environmentalists’ concerns that self-regulation wouldn’t be effective. However, Lexington state Sen. Kathy Stein, D-13, recently filed the very stream saver-like Senate Bill 139.

“We need to have a bill for folks to rally around,” Stein says, mentioning that fellow progressive and Louisvillian Rep. Mary Lou Marzian, D-34, has filed a similar bill. “The thing that makes me so berserk are my mountain colleagues. They continue to support the coal industry and everything that they say — that coal’s so good for the economy — but if you look at the poverty rates in some of these counties with coal producers, you find it’s not the case. If you’re so damn good for eastern Kentucky, then why does eastern Kentucky end up perpetually one of the poorest regions in the nation?”

Stein is realistic about S.B. 139’s chances in the hands of Gooch, knowing full well it will be strangled, slowly, like a helpless puppy, in his committee.

“A measure of progress for the bill will be the kind of coverage we get for things like mountaintop removal mining,” she says. If the bill manages to get out of Gooch’s hands, adds Stein, it will go to Hazard Rep. Brandon Smith, R-30, another coal industry darling who reportedly drives an Escalade with a coal-themed vanity plate.

It should be noted that, as of press time, another bill was filed involving coal by Rep. Ancel Smith, D-93. The fact that part of Smith’s district includes Magoffin County should cast the previous sentence in a different and scarier light, because Smith’s H.B. 409 would allow coal trucks to block public roadways for up to 60 minutes and would do wonders to further destroy Handshoe’s neighborhood. Smith’s rationale for the legislation — “to mine coal and build roads” — would be funny if it didn’t mean people could die from this, not to mention the fact it will destroy the very roads that need building; The Lexington Herald-Leader recently ran a story on the bill and quoted an engineer from Letcher County whose 16-year-old son died in a collision with one such coal truck.

And about that “mining coal” bit: Actual coal production is predicted to decrease by as much as 50 percent over the next decade while becoming increasingly expensive to mine, according to a report released last month by Downstream Strategies.

“The report kind of validates what a lot of us have already known,” says U.S. Rep. John Yarmuth, D-3. “What peripheral evidence has shown is that coal is something any economy cannot depend on. A third of the number of people in coal mining are employed now (compared to) the peak of production.” On the congressional level, Yarmuth has thrown his weight behind an amendment to the Clean Water Act, which would “severely curtail the amount of mountaintop removal mining that’s being done and might end it.” Though Yarmuth says there hasn’t been much advancement on the amendment, it’s somewhat comforting to know that, despite the inability of certain local politicians to refuse coal money, a few are doing the best they can for the unseen hollers.

Yarmuth recommends studying nuclear power as a realistic stepping-stone as we transition from coal to something greener. In the meantime, he advocates doing whatever you can to use less power and thereby decrease the demand for coal-created energy. “Certainly activism can also help,” he says. “From a personal standpoint, the more conservation we can implement, the more we can curtail our own use of power, it will ultimately make the price of coal go down and eventually drive these companies out.”

When people are given facts and an honest understanding of the political and environmental realities that ensnare Louisville, Hazard and cities across the globe to a common addiction to hydrocarbons, only then can we start to examine clearly the symptoms of that addiction: The destruction of lives, the environment and the socioeconomics of an entire state. As it stands, the vice grip of elected officials like Reps. Gooch, Smith & Smith — whose own purposeful manipulation of those facts makes them a danger not only to their constituents but to the planet as a whole — is too easily held by out-of-state energy conglomerates that don’t have to answer to anyone, making it difficult to rationally discuss.

In the meantime, Yarmuth’s suggestions will have to suffice: If you want to do something about coal, take to the streets and march, buy energy-efficient light bulbs, or consider getting some of those nifty solar panels that are becoming increasingly subsidized by Uncle Sam.

You can protest mountaintop removal mining on the steps of the state Capitol, go to a bluegrass show at The Green Building, whatever it takes — so long as you don’t forget to turn the lights off when you leave home to vote next Election Day. 

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