HAZARD — In a provocative speech in the heart of coal country, a noted Appalachian scholar called for an end to surface mining for the good of the state's economy.
University of Kentucky professor Ron Eller, a Pulitzer-nominated author and former head of the university's Appalachian Center, said the state must recognize declining coal reserves, political opposition to coal-fired energy, and rising regulations on carbon dioxide emissions.
"We must begin, I think, by abolishing surface mining," and especially mountaintop removal, Eller said to about 250 people in the keynote speech at the East Kentucky Leadership Conference in Hazard.
Reaction was not entirely warm.
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"I think it would be devastating to the whole region" to quickly end surface mining, Letcher County Judge-Executive Jim Ward said after the speech.
House Speaker Greg Stumbo, a Prestonsburg Democrat, said that landowners have to give permission for coal companies to conduct surface mining. It wouldn't be fair to tell landowners they didn't have that option, he said.
Stumbo also said that land flattened by surface mining has been put to good use for developments such as industrial parks.
Stumbo lives on a site that was surface mined and developed into a golf course and subdivision.
Banning surface mining would be unrealistic because the country gets so much of its electricity from coal, Stumbo said.
Eller, however, said surface mining is not necessary to the coal industry, "it's just cheaper," and not compatible with clean water, clean air and the region's growing adventure tourism industry.
He said governments must foster entrepreneurship and a regional, homegrown economy that is not dependent on extractive industries.
Eller said jobs lost in surface mining could be buoyed by underground mining and replaced by sustainable forestry, tourism and green energy production. There is potential for tourism but only if the environment is preserved.
"Central Appalachia will never develop a viable tourism economy until the destruction of the mountains ceases ..." Eller said.