As I drove to Frankfort early Tuesday, punching the buttons on my car radio, I came across one of those feel-good spots from the Kentucky coal industry. It ended with this line: "Never underestimate the power of coal."
That's been good advice in this state for more than a century. And never more true than inside the marble walls of the building where I was headed.
I came to the state Capitol on this sunny day to witness a different kind of power — the growing public sentiment against coal-mining methods that blast away mountains and fill headwater streams with the debris.
More than 500 Kentuckians — from toddlers on their parents' shoulders to seniors in their 80s — marched up Capitol Avenue and gathered on the Capitol steps for the annual I Love Mountains Rally. The citizens group Kentuckians for the Commonwealth organized the rally to push for legislation that would ban the burying of headwater streams with mining waste.
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The marchers carried signs proclaiming "topless mountains are obscene" and urging that "not one more mile" of streams be destroyed. They lacked the coal industry's economic or political power. Instead, they sought to harness moral power.
Ashley Judd added glamour to the event. The Kentucky actress, famous for reciting other people's words in movies, gave a 20-minute speech of her own that was passionate and eloquent. It was no celebrity puff piece, but a sharp critique of mountaintop-removal mining, the coal industry and the endless cycle of poverty she said coal has brought to Appalachia.
"There is no doubt that there is a crisis in Eastern Kentucky," Judd said. "The crises are systemic, and the system at the root of our 100-year-long crisis is the unchecked power of the coal companies.
"They assured us that each reform ... would be the end, the death of the coal industry," Judd said. "Well, by golly, what do you know. Here the coal companies still are — bigger, and badder and richer than ever. ... Make no mistake about it: The coal companies are thriving. Even in this bleak economy, they are thriving. What is dying is our mountains. And they are dying so fast, my friends, so shockingly fast."
U.S. Rep. John Yarmuth of Louisville pledged to fight mountaintop-removal mining through federal clean-water legislation. That may be necessary. The state "stream saver" bill is getting the usual cold shoulder from legislative leaders with close ties to the coal industry.
Silas House, a best-selling author from Eastern Kentucky, said he was disappointed Gov. Steve Beshear declined to attend the rally, even though it was just a few steps from his office.
"I think Governor Beshear is a good man and I don't understand why he won't come out and listen to us," House said, noting that many of his neighbors also are afraid to cross King Coal. "We've had a hundred years of being told not to speak out against the coal industry. It's hard to break out of that culture. We've been taught to feel powerless."
Beshear's spokesman, Jay Blanton, said the governor was in an important economic development meeting that had been scheduled weeks earlier, but left it to meet with Judd and a small group of KFTC members after the rally. Blanton said Judd spent Monday night at the governor's mansion, where she and Beshear "talked at some length about these issues."
KFTC said nearly 500 Kentucky mountains have been destroyed by mountaintop-removal mining. It cited figures from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that more than 1,400 miles of headwater streams in the state have been buried or damaged by mining since 1981.
The coal industry, which says it provides 17,000 jobs in Kentucky, argues that the "stream saver" legislation would virtually halt surface mining in Eastern Kentucky. And it notes that coal provides more than 90 percent of Kentucky's electricity at some of the nation's cheapest prices.
There's no doubt Kentucky needs coal — at least until we can develop alternative energy sources, let's hope before all of the coal runs out. But that doesn't mean coal must be mined by the most environmentally destructive methods. Electricity is cheap only if you don't include all of the hidden costs to Kentucky's land, water and people.
In the short run, economic arguments always seem to trump moral arguments, even when people know in their hearts what is right. In the long run, though, moral arguments usually prevail.
A few decades ago, it was blasphemy to speak out against the health dangers of smoking, because tobacco was so important to Kentucky's economy. A century and a half ago, many people argued that the economy couldn't survive without slavery.
"The environment is not a place where we go hiking; it's a place where we live," said Sam Avery, who lives in a solar-powered home in Hart County.
"When you grind up a mountain just for the coal, you destroy the trees, the animals, the insects, the water supply. The living world is that much smaller," Avery said. "From a biblical perspective, it's an abomination to the creator."