PIKEVILLE — The heated politics and news surrounding coal in the last year have trickled down to schoolchildren, evident at the annual multi-county coal fair showcasing 430 projects in subjects from art to science, hosted by a coal education and advocacy group.
Among the usual coal-diamond comparisons and model mines were a letter to President Barack Obama, a mathematical examination of coal's economic value titled "COAL: Can Obama's America Live Without It?", and a portrait of the president holding an hourglass that symbolized, in part, time running out for coal. The annual fair, for kindergarten through 12th-grade students in several Eastern Kentucky counties, is hosted by Coal Education Development and Resource, a non-profit organization that gives grants to teachers who develop coal-related study units.
"I think it's good," said John Justice, president of CEDAR. "They are making the connection from the Oval Office to the kitchen table."
That connection has been easier to make this year as industry advocates vocally challenged new Environmental Protection Agency policies and the possibility of cap-a nd-trade legislation. Advocacy groups' bumper stickers and license plates, not to mention pro-coal rallies and concerts, influence students, said Austin Casebolt, a Pike County Central High School sophomore who won a first-place ribbon for his portrait of Obama with the hourglass.
Austin said he liked that his drawing could be interpreted differently by many people on the political spectrum. He said he intended to show that Obama holds the world's energy in his hands, and everyone is hoping he makes the right decisions about coal. But not everyone agrees about what the right decision is. His Obama portrait was included in the portfolio that recently got him a spot in the Governor's School for the Arts this summer, he said.
The portrait caught visitors' attention on Friday. Children and adults walking by the art displays paused and squinted, or pointed and said "Hey, that's Obama."
The subject matter isn't what made the drawing a first-place portrait, said judge Gequetta Bright Laney, a social studies teacher in Wise County, Va. She said the layers of meaning and accurate details in the Oval Office and desk, and the president's face, made the drawing stand out.
Laney, who also teaches music privately, and who participates in CEDAR's Virginia organization, said she has noticed a "more profound" interest in politics and national events among students this year.
She noted that many students' projects examined Gov. Steve Beshear's state energy plan, and several students memorialized or studied aspects of the Massey Energy Upper Big Branch Mine explosion in April.
Delbert Billiter, manager of fuels technical services for the utility company E.ON, was a judge of the math projects. He said he didn't know whether politics were more prominent at the fair this year, but given the political climate, he wasn't surprised if they were.
The judges talked about their different interpretations of Austin's Obama portrait, Billiter said.
"I took it as though the president has the mining industry, the control of it, in his hands. He's narrowed the opening of it down to a trickle," Billiter said.
Judge Darrell Mahone, an independent marketing management and energy consultant, said his favorite projects didn't have a political flavor.
He said he thought an experiment with mine ventilation fans and a storybook about a girl's grandfather teaching her about coal mining were better examples of the coal fair's purpose.
"The political rhetoric that's out there doesn't help sometimes because it's black and white," Mahone said. "That's a scary situation sometimes for children."
CEDAR, the organization that hosts the fair, is funded by coal industry and business donations as well as a state Department of Energy grant, $50,000 this year.
CEDAR's mission is to sway public opinion towards what Justice called a balanced view of the coal industry. It reviews teachers' CEDAR-funded lesson plans for accuracy, particularly if the group thinks too much unsupported anti-coal sentiment is driving the curriculum.
The fair helps students voice the importance of coal to their home region, Austin said.
"It is what fuels our nation," Austin said. "My purpose is not necessarily to show that coal is the best way, but that coal is the way right now."