Carl Shoupe: Tired of Big Coal telling our pols what to do

May 7, 2014 

Carl Shoupe lives in Benham.

I recently read that Kentucky Coal Association President Bill Bissett warned U.S. Senate candidate Alison Lundergan Grimes she better not accept any campaign contributions from a particular political donor who's involved in fighting climate change.

I understand why some folks are pretty outraged that the coal association would have the nerve to tell a U.S. Senate candidate what she can or cannot do, but I can't say I was surprised.

You see, I grew up and still live in Harlan County in the very heart of the Appalachian coalfields and I've been watching coal operators and coal companies tell our political leaders what they can and can't do all my life.

My grandfather and father were coal miners and my son is a coal miner. After my tour as a Marine in Vietnam, I returned home and went to work in the mines, until a massive rock fall almost took my life and put me in the hospital for more than a year.

For years and years, I've listened as the coal companies told our political leaders they'd better not support mine-safety laws, they'd better not support black-lung protections and they'd better not vote for laws to protect our precious water.

When our little community organized against a mine permit that would have destroyed our public water system, word came down from county politicians that if we didn't back off, our town wouldn't get any severance taxes the next year. I wonder where that message originated.

Today, our community of Benham is working hard to figure out what we're going to do next. We believe we can build an economy here with new jobs and new opportunities if we all work together, and if we get a little bit of support from elected officials.

Oh, they're going to dig coal around here for awhile, but the industry has been leaving Eastern Kentucky for decades. Anyone who believes that coal will make a big comeback here is whistling past the slag pile.

Maybe some folks feel Bissett was just looking out for the interests of his association members. After all, the coal industry is definitely on the ropes here. Every serious industry analyst agrees that cheap natural gas produced by fracking is what has taken market share away from coal, not the president or any environmental safeguards.

That makes me wonder whether Bissett has issued a similar warning to Mitch McConnell, since our senior senator is one of the top recipients of contributions from oil and gas folks.

According to the Center for Responsive Politics, McConnell has taken hundreds of thousands of dollars — the fourth most of any member of Congress in recent years — from the oil and gas industry, the very companies that actually have been putting Kentucky coal miners out of work.

I guess I must have missed Bissett's warning to McConnell that any such donations would be a sure sign that he's "against the production and use of Kentucky coal."

It's true that I'm pretty tired of the coal corporations and coal barons telling our elected leaders what they can and cannot do. But I am absolutely sick and tired of political leaders — or candidates — who let them.

We are starved for leaders who will look out for Eastern Kentucky instead of doing what the coal companies tell them. We are ready for leaders who will help us build the bright future we deserve here. There are people in every county working to develop the next economy here in Eastern Kentucky. Slowly but surely — and with precious little help from our elected leaders — we are working to create new jobs in energy efficiency, local food, shops and markets, and more.

It's hard work filled with risk but also built on hope. We need more political leaders with the courage and the conviction to do what's right for Eastern Kentucky, not what is allowed by the coal association.

We don't want much here, just the same thing as everyone else. We want respect for our culture and our communities, we want a healthy local economy with options for our workers, we want opportunities for our kids and grandkids. I'm looking for a U.S. senator who will help us create those things. And I know a lot of other Eastern Kentuckians are, too.

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