Tom Eblen: UK needs to tell both sides of coal story

Herald-Leader columnistFebruary 13, 2011 

Donors have given the University of Kentucky $7 million to build the Wildcat Coal Lodge.

Not only will the University of Kentucky's proposed Wildcat Coal Lodge honor the mining industry, it apparently must praise it.

UK has agreed to create an exhibit in the new basketball dormitory's main lobby to serve as "discussion of and tribute to the importance of the coal industry to the Commonwealth of Kentucky."

Who must approve the tribute's content? Joseph W. Craft III, the head of Alliance Coal Co., who organized the donors who gave UK at least $7 million to build the lodge. Craft also was a major donor to the Joe Craft Center, which houses UK's basketball practice facility and athletics offices.

The Wildcat Coal Lodge has stirred controversy ever since UK's Board of Trustees agreed in 2009 to accept the donations and the strings attached to them. (The name itself is ironic: in addition to being UK's mascot, "wildcat" is an old nickname for irresponsible mining.)

Critics have accused UK of selling out to the coal industry to create an even more lavish athletics program, which often seems to overshadow the university's academic mission. The writer Wendell Berry, a retired UK English professor and critic of mountaintop-removal coal mining, withdrew his academic papers in protest.

But the public learned this latest wrinkle in the deal only last week, after Herald-Leader reporter Linda Blackford used the state Open Records Act to obtain a copy of the agreement between UK and the Craft group.

It made me wonder: assuming this tribute provides less than a complete picture of Kentucky's coal industry, how does UK plan to tell the rest of the story? Should a second exhibit be planned elsewhere on campus to provide balance?

Perhaps UK could memorialize Kentuckians who have died in mining accidents by putting each of their names on a seat in Rupp Arena. Or it could dedicate a wing of the new UK Hospital to miners who have suffered and died from black lung disease.

Water in one of UK's fountains could be made to run orange occasionally, to remind people of what surface mining sometimes does to Eastern Kentucky's streams.

E-mail me any suggestions you have, although I'll say up front that I don't think it would be a good idea to strip-mine The Arboretum.

Seriously, UK's apparent willingness to cuddle up to the coal industry in return for money — as it did years ago with the tobacco industry — raises questions of intellectual honesty and independence, which is something a university should care about.

Kentucky has an old and complex relationship with coal and the industry that mines it. It is a story complicated by tradeoffs.

Coal really does "keep the lights on," as the industry says. Mining provides many good-paying jobs in poor mountain counties, although the number has been declining for years. Because we have never accounted for coal's true costs, cheap electricity rates have enabled Kentucky to develop important manufacturing industries.

But coal mining also has damaged Kentucky's land, water and people — often irreparably so. The industry has created some multi-millionaires, but it also has contributed to some of the nation's worst pockets of poverty.

Can UK tell a balanced story of coal? It can, and it has. One of the best summaries of this complex story is a documentary film, Coal in Kentucky, produced last year by UK's College of Engineering and the Center for Visualization and Virtual Environments. If you haven't seen it, you should, no matter which side you are on.

Somehow, though, I don't think this is the kind of "tribute" the coal industry has in mind.

Pork futures

It is ironic, and in an odd way reassuring, that the Kentucky Republican known as the "Prince of Pork" has become chairman of the House Appropriations Committee at this moment in time.

The GOP's Tea Party wing in Congress seems to want to all but eliminate taxes, spending and government regulation to create some kind of Ayn Rand fantasy land of right-wing economic theory. Their pledge to immediately slash $100 billion in federal spending, if enacted, would wreck the country.

Hal Rogers' new job is ironic because his skill over the years at securing earmarks for his southeast Kentucky district is just the sort of thing GOP hotheads are now vilifying — with some justification. Still, Rogers also knows how important much of the government's spending actually is to public well-being.

Here's hoping Rogers can give the Tea Partiers some much-needed adult supervision.

Reach Tom Eblen at teblen@herald-leader.com or (859) 231-1415 or 1-800-950-6397, Ext. 1415. Read and comment on his blog, The Bluegrass & Beyond, at Kentucky.com.

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