FRANKFORT — Each year, I notice more young people attending I Love Mountains Day. The rally against mountaintop-removal coal mining is organized by the citizens group Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, and it has been a Valentine's tradition since 2006.
The young people join hundreds of their elders from across Kentucky in marching to the Capitol steps to hear speakers that have included writer Wendell Berry and actress Ashley Judd. This year's main speaker was writer Silas House.
Before the speeches, many marchers visit legislators and urge them to curb the coal industry's worst environmental abuses, to no avail.
But this year, there was something new for the young people to see: the Capitol Education Center, which had its grand opening Feb. 8. The center was the brainchild of First Lady Jane Beshear, and it is located in a formerly vacant building beside the Capitol that once housed heating and cooling equipment.
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Beshear thought the 60,000 students and teachers who visit the Capitol each year needed a place to rest and eat their lunch. Then, the former teacher realized that this recycled building could play a role in teaching students about one of the most important issues facing Kentucky's future: environmental sustainability.
The building got a "green" renovation that included recycled materials and energy-efficient technology. Solar panels and a wind turbine that feed into the utility grid were installed on the roof. Rain water is recycled to water a roof garden that will provide food for the Governor's mansion kitchen.
The Kentucky Environmental Education Council coordinated a dozen universities and state agencies in developing interactive multimedia exhibits for the building. They teach students about Kentucky history, civics and geography — but mainly about energy efficiency and alternative energy sources.
The project was funded with $1.1 million from the Finance Cabinet and a $250,000 donation from Duke Energy. General Electric donated appliances for a commercial kitchen that Beshear hopes to use for demonstrations of healthy cooking and eating. (For more information, go to: Cec.ky.gov.)
In an interview, Beshear said these issues are "so important for the future. The more we as a state get into energy efficiency and alternative sources, the better off we'll be."
This education center is outstanding, and the First Lady's vision for it is inspired. But it was hard to ignore the irony when I took a tour on I Love Mountains Day.
That event was created eight years ago to push for the so-called "stream saver" bill, which would ban coal companies from burying streams with mining debris. KFTC says the practice has obliterated more than 2,000 miles of Appalachian waterways.
But thanks to the coal industry's enormous clout in Frankfort, the proposed legislation has gone nowhere. Most elected state officials proudly call themselves "friends of coal". That friendship, which comes with lots of campaign cash, has always meant that public health, mine safety and environmental stewardship take a back seat to coal company profits.
Kentucky's coal industry is in decline because of depleted reserves, cheap natural gas and the Environmental Protection Agency's newfound willingness to do its job. But, like the National Rifle Association, the coal industry has always fought every attempt at common-sense regulation. Anyone who threatens the industry's freedom to mine with impunity is branded as an enemy of coal.
There was an added emphasis for this year's I Love Mountains Day: House Bill 170, which would require utilities to use increasing amounts of renewable energy and put more emphasis on energy-efficiency programs.
In short, this bill, sponsored by Democrats Kelly Flood of Lexington and Mary Lou Marzian of Louisville, would put into law some of the good ideas showcased at the new Capitol Education Center.
Change is hard, and progress can be slow. But I can't help but be encouraged when I attend I Love Mountains Day or see something like the Capitol Education Center. Politicians will always be captive to power and money, I suppose, but it is good to see other Kentuckians working for a better future.
Few legislators have the courage to attend I Love Mountains Day, and the coal industry would go after any governor who dared show his face there.
But it is perhaps worth pointing out what Gov. Steve Beshear was doing shortly before the crowd arrived for I Love Mountains Day. He was in the Capitol rotunda with former Wildcat basketball star Derek Anderson, calling for legislation to create a statewide public smoking ban.
If you had told me 20 years ago that a Kentucky governor would do such a thing, I would have said you were crazy.