Protesters hold sleepover outside Kentucky Governor's office

bmusgrave@herald-leader.comFebruary 12, 2011 

FRANKFORT — Bags of groceries packed with bread, sandwich meat and granola bars lined the interior of Gov. Steve Beshear's outer office on Friday night as a group of high-profile environmentalists hunkered down for a weekend sit-in at the Capitol.

The group, which includes noted Kentucky authors Wendell Berry, Silas House and Erik Reece, was not satisfied by a meeting with the governor earlier Friday about mountaintop mining. They had said they were going to stay until they were arrested.

But the group was told shortly before 3 p.m. that they would be allowed to spend the weekend at the Capitol.

Kerri Richardson, a spokeswoman for Beshear, said the state decided the group appeared not to be violating any laws.

"As far as we can tell, they aren't doing anything wrong," Richardson said.

Mickey McCoy, an Inez native and a member of the group, said they plan to stay in the Capitol at least until Monday, when the annual "I Love Mountains" rally is held in Frankfort.

"I've slept in a lot worse accommodations," McCoy said Friday afternoon, as he looked around Beshear's outer office, which includes two large desks and several chairs.

By late Friday afternoon, the group had brought in pillows, blankets, water and food. Fourteen people, including Berry, were staying through the weekend.

When asked if Beshear's invitation to stay at the Capitol thwarted their attempt to gain publicity by being arrested, McCoy said the group may get more publicity now because they are staying.

"There's a slumber party going on in the governor's office," he said.

The group set up camp in Beshear's outer office around 10 a.m. Friday, demanding that Beshear withdraw from a lawsuit against the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and accept a longstanding invitation to view the effects of mountaintop-removal mining in Eastern Kentucky.

The governor met Friday afternoon with the environmentalists to hear their concerns. After a more than 20-minute impromptu and sometimes pointed discussion, Beshear said he would like to continue the conversation but acknowledged that the two sides may have to "agree to disagree" on certain issues.

Berry said the group has tried to speak with Beshear on various occasions to express their concerns about mountaintop removal, a type of mining that blasts the tops off of mountains to extract coal. Environmentalists say the mining technique is detrimental to the watershed and causes other serious, long-term problems in Eastern Kentucky.

"We visit with the legislators and nothing happens," said Berry, a longtime environmentalist and author. "There at least needs to be a debate."

The group last met with Beshear in May to discuss their concerns but thought those complaints fell on deaf ears, Berry said. Beshear also has met with the environmental activist group Kentuckians for the Commonwealth at least twice before, Beshear's staff said.

The Beshear administration angered many environmentalists by joining a lawsuit against the EPA over the Clean Water Act. In his State of the Commonwealth speech on Feb. 1, Beshear told the EPA to "Get off our backs." The line garnered the loudest and longest applause from the 138 members of the legislature.

During Beshear's discussion with the protesters, many said they did not understand why the state was suing the EPA, which has stepped up enforcement efforts under President Barack Obama's administration.

"The EPA needs to be here, and the EPA needs to be doing its job," said Teri Blanton of Berea.

But Beshear countered that the EPA had agreed to a certain set or rules regarding the issuing of mining permits and then later changed its course. It was only after state officials thought that the EPA was being arbitrary and unreasonable that the state decided to join the lawsuit with the coal industry, he said.

Stan Sturgill, a retired coal miner from Lynch, pointed to a Mason jar filled with water from the home of Beverly May of Right Beaver Creek in Floyd County. The water was murky and had particles in it.

"Does that look like the state's doing its job protecting our water?" Sturgill asked Beshear.

Beshear asked if the water had been tested and if it was found to be safe. May said that she occasionally receives notices that there were higher-than-allowed pollutants in the water but that those notices were often sent two or three months after the pollutants were found.

Others asked Beshear to visit their homes, where they say pollution from strip mining has destroyed their water supply and made their families ill. May asked Beshear, who is running for re-election this year, to not take any campaign money from coal companies and asked that his opponents do the same.

Beshear countered that his ideas and beliefs are not for sale and that he has accepted donations from a host of different groups, including Kentuckians for the Commonwealth.

Beshear said he thinks surface mining can be done responsibly.

"I do think we can surface mine in a responsible way and reclaim the land and protect the water," he said.

When some of the protesters began to laugh, Beshear reminded the group that he had respectfully listened to their concerns.

"I didn't laugh at you when y'all were talking," Beshear said. "I appreciate the same respect."

Berry said the discussion with Beshear was a start, "but I don't think that we're anywhere near the conversation that we're going to have to have before we're satisfied."

Bill Bissett, president of the Kentucky Coal Association, noted that Beshear met with the group even though he did not have to.

"I appreciate their passion," Bissett said. "But their tactics and their message are out of step with the vast majority of Kentuckians."

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