Activists gathered Saturday near the Kentucky River in Clark County to call for stronger enforcement of the federal Clean Water Act.
"We don't want this river to get any deader than it is," said Billy Edwards, a Sierra Club member and former Clark County Fiscal Court magistrate.
About 30 people rallied at Three Trees Canoe-Kayak Rental on Athens-Boonesboro Road to listen to speakers and then take in the natural beauty of the river by canoe.
The "Rally for the Rivers" event was one of about 10 around the state to call attention to threatened waterways, said Lauren McGrath of the Sierra Club.
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"We've got events from Paducah to Eastern Kentucky," McGrath said. "We want the Beshear administration to strongly enforce the Clean Water Act. ... If the Beshear administration was stepping it up, we would have cleaner water."
In his State of the Commonwealth address on Feb. 1, Gov. Steve Beshear told U.S. Environmental Protection Agency regulators to "get off our backs." Environmental groups such as the Sierra Club have criticized Beshear for attacking the EPA in speeches and in court, where his administration has joined the Kentucky Coal Association in a lawsuit against the EPA's more aggressive enforcement of water pollution rules.
"And citizens around the state that work on coal issues, that live near coal mines, that live near coal ash dumps, that live near power plants, were saying 'Actually, we feel like there is more pollution and we don't need to weaken laws, we don't need to weaken the regulatory agency's authority, but we need to strengthen it to protect health and protect water,'" McGrath said.
In a statement released Saturday, Beshear said: "My administration has a proven track record of actions and initiatives that highlight the Energy and Environment Cabinet's commitment to not only enforcing the Clean Water Act but also collaborating with the many stakeholders across Kentucky to improve processes and achieve clean-water goals."
The administration has worked with "research entities" and the coal industry in the development of alternative mining practices to meet more stringent environmental requirements. The administration also has conducted audit inspections of coal mining operations and their contract wastewater-testing labs to ensure compliance with permit requirements.
But those at the rally indicated that more needs to be done. Patrick Johnson, a member of the Green Thumb Environmental Club at the University of Kentucky, said he spent three weeks in Robinson Forest near the Breathitt-Perry County line to conduct water-quality research.
There, he drank from Clemons Fork, which he said is "known as one of the cleanest, clearest streams in the state of Kentucky."
Then, not far away, he saw another stream that was "as orange as your shirt" because of pollution from a coal-mining operation.
"When you actually go and see what the streams are supposed to be like, and what it's supposed to taste like, and then you go and see what we've done as humans to the streams of Eastern Kentucky and across the state, it's really disturbing," Johnson said.
From time to time, environmentalists tangle with Winchester-based East Kentucky Power Cooperative over these issues. The cooperative has coal-fired generators to produce electricity. Earlier this year, some Clark County residents were concerned about the cooperative's negotiations to buy property for a coal-ash landfill in the Ford area.
East Kentucky spokesman Nick Comer said the utility is no longer in negotiations for the property. Instead, the cooperative plans to seek a permit to use property at its 3,000-acre J.K. Smith Station at Trapp for a landfill, Comer said.
Edwards, the former Clark magistrate, said that's encouraging because the ash could be stored and then eventually go into a usable product, such as concrete.
During a brief rally, Edwards said people must put pressure on utility companies and politicians for alternative forms of energy.
"We've got to take 'em back and say, we want windmill farms, we want solar farms," Edwards said. "Where are they in the state of Kentucky? Tell me. Go to Indiana, go to Ohio, go to Michigan, go to Pennsylvania. They're everywhere ... making it happen. We are falling behind again."
Comer said East Kentucky Power has investigated renewable power, but it didn't pan out because is was either too expensive or not reliable.