Kentucky voices

George Ella Lyons: Sanctuary proposal for coal a sign of sickness

February 23, 2011 

Let me see if I've got this right. My legislators are considering a resolution to make Kentucky a sanctuary state for coal companies. Is this possible? House and Senate committees voted to protect the destroyers of our water, our air, the foundations of our houses and health?

My friends, we Kentuckians are in a very sick family. Our government is owned by big corporations and the result is obscene. Sanctuary — sacred protected space — is declared for those who are abusing the basis of our survival. How long do you think we can live without clean water and air?

Does continuous blasting have to crack the foundation of the Capitol to awaken our lawmakers to reality? Does water from their fountains have to run orange, electric green or not at all? Does rock dust have to cover their desks and fill their children's lungs? Must we roll a boulder off a Frankfort hill and crush a sleeping child?

What about blowing up those hills and bringing elk to graze on gravelly grass on compacted soil? Or maybe they'd like a sludge impoundment dam to break above their heads, like one in Martin County in 2000, and send 350 million gallons of toxic waste roaring across their marble floors.

Legislators with vested interests in coal (through family business or coal-funded campaigns) call those working to stop mountaintop removal crazy environmentalists. In classic sick-family pattern, they protect the abusers by demonizing anyone speaking out against the abuse. And Gov. Steve Beshear, joining the coal companies' suit against Environmental Protection Agency enforcement of the Clean Water Act, is barricading the doors of our house to keep out help.

I grew up in Harlan County. I've got coal dust in my bones, and I honor all the miners who put it there. I am not against mining. I am against this version in which human and environmental costs outweigh the benefits for everyone but the coal companies.

It pains me to be portrayed as wanting to put people out of work. No one wants that. Mountaintop removal itself does it, using far fewer miners than underground mining. But when this country's economy is struggling, things are always worse in the mountains, and fear of job loss is very real. Playing on this fear is one of Big Coal's favorite strategies. The abuser always says, "Without me you have nothing. You are nothing."

The question is, if not mountaintop removal, what? Part of the answer is safe responsible mining of remaining underground seams. Too expensive? Cheap coal is a myth. Mountaintop removal is not cheap. It externalizes costs. Nearby residents pay with their health, safety and quality of life to generate corporate profit and lower our electricity bills.

What comes after coal? The powers that be do not want us to ask.

Coal has hemorrhaged from our mountains for over a century, and very little of its wealth has been reinvested in communities which labored and suffered to mine it.

Now is the time to change that. We must stop confusing runaway capitalism with democracy and require big corporations — not just coal companies, not just in Appalachia — to be accountable for their exploitation and invest in people and places who have supported them. We as a nation owe it to Appalachian people to build wind farms, solar and other green energy factories on the 89 percent of mountaintop removal sites that have never been developed.

We must do this for Eastern Kentuckians because it is right, and we must do it for all of us because we cannot live if we destroy our land and water. The future ends when the well runs dry.

George Ella Lyon is an author and teacher.

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