Anti-coal protesters march on Joe Craft Center at University of Kentucky

lblackford@herald-leader.comSeptember 5, 2012 

An anti-coal rally at the University of Kentucky ended Wednesday with police asking a group of protesters to leave the Joe Craft Center, the nerve center of UK Athletics.

A couple dozen students marched first to UK's new Wildcat Coal Lodge, which houses the UK men's basketball team and was paid for by $7 million in donations from coal operators. They shouted "Ho, ho, hey, hey, Wildcat Coal Lodge needs a new name!"

The protesters, part of the UK Beyond Coal Coalition, want UK Athletics to drop sponsorships from the coal industry, which has been a generous supporter of sports.

Last year, the Friends of Coal group paid $85,000 to sponsor several basketball and football games. Joe Craft, the CEO of Alliance Resource Partners, donated $6 million for the basketball practice facility that bears his name. He also spearheaded the donation for the Wildcat Coal Lodge, stipulating the building hold a tribute to coal in the lobby.

In response, writer Wendell Berry, one of UK's most famous graduates, removed many of his papers from the university.

The group slowly marched by the lodge and over to the Joe Craft Center, followed by two UK policemen. When they entered the building and marched upstairs, still shouting, Lt. John Barefoot told them he would give them one warning to leave before arresting them for disorderly conduct.

People in the crowd left slowly, but not before UK sophomore Kate Byrne deposited a pile of asthma inhalers stuffed with personal notes from students. One of the notes was from her roommate, Mattie Conley, a junior from Ashland who has suffered from thyroid cancer since she was in high school.

The event was the first protest for Conley, who said she thinks pollution from coal and other sources has led to what she called a "rampant" level of thyroid cancer in the Ashland area.

"The more I look into it, the more it makes sense," Conley said of her environmental link theory.

Student Sam Beavin called the UK Athletics-coal link a "symbol of a wider problem: The relationship between the university and industry that has hurt the commonwealth in so many ways."

UK officials have been silent on the idea of ending coal industry sponsorships. It's also not clear how open they are to the UK Beyond Coal Coalition's other request: to retire UK's coal-fired power plants.

"We are counting on our universities," Mary Anne Hitt, director of the Sierra Club's national Beyond Coal Campaign said to a crowd of about 50. "It is time to retire that coal plant."

Hitt said 60 university campuses in the United States still use coal-fired plants. Today, 20 of those are slated for retirement.

Another speaker, family physician John Patterson, talked about the health concerns of breathing air so close to coal-fired plants. He called on UK officials to show the same leadership they exhibited when UK instituted a tobacco ban on campus.

Not everyone was convinced. John Rathbone is a research assistant at the mining engineering department (to which Craft has also donated).

"I'm not against green energy," he said. "I just think for now it's a resource we have and ought to use."

UK has two coal-fired boilers that make steam heat. A third energy plant uses natural gas. Last school year, UK officials said it used coal to produce 48 percent of its energy, compared to 52 percent from natural gas. On average, UK spends $3.6 million a year for natural gas and $3.7 million for coal.

The coal boilers have to meet state pollution requirements, but pollution from those boilers contributed to a 2008 report by the Brookings Institution, which found that Lexington had the largest carbon footprint per person of the 100 cities studied.

Bob Wiseman, UK's vice president for facilities, declined to address specifically the idea of closing the coal-fired boilers.

"However, the changing nature of regulations, current and future permit limitations on use of coal, along with the need to meet stringent permit requirements make it increasingly more likely that our reliance on natural gas will increase," he said.

Linda Blackford: (859) 231-1359. Twitter: @lbblackford.

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