Last week at the White House, President Barack Obama awarded Kentucky author Wendell Berry the National Humanities Medal.
Last week on the campus of the University of Kentucky, work began in earnest on the Wildcat Coal Lodge.
Because of the latter, UK can claim no institutional pride in the former. And that is sad.
Because President Lee T. Todd Jr. and the UK Board of Trustees agreed to insert the word "coal" into the name of the new men's basketball dorm, in exchange for $7 million from a group of coal operators, Berry announced last summer that he was withdrawing his papers from UK and severing all ties with the university.
"The University's president and board have solemnized an alliance with the coal industry, in return for a large monetary 'gift,' granting to the benefactors, in effect, a co-sponsorship of the University's basketball team," Berry wrote in a letter to UK Special Collections, where over 100 boxes of his papers were housed. UK's action, he wrote, "puts an end to my willingness to be associated in any way officially with the University."
Like other great Kentucky writers — Bobbie Ann Mason, Ed McClanahan, Gurney Norman and James Baker Hall — Berry attended UK as an undergrad and later returned to Lexington to teach writing there. Together, those writers represent a literary tradition that should be one of the university's greatest sources of pride. But now, when we in the UK community should be celebrating such a prestigious award bestowed upon one of our own, we must face the hard reality that an ill-conceived alliance with the coal industry has made that impossible.
The $7 million was raised by Joe Craft, the chief executive of Alliance Energy, who in the end gave $4.5 million of his own money. But there is a problem with this money.
Twenty-five days after the tragedy that killed 29 miners in Montcoal, W.Va., last year, two miners were killed in Kentucky when a roof collapsed on them 500 feet underground. That occurred at one of Craft's mines, a mine that had an even worse safety record — 2,974 violations over the last five years — than the Upper Big Branch.
In the last five years, nine other miners have died at Alliance mines because of violations of safety laws.
There is no other way to say this: the $4.5 million that UK accepted from Craft was blood money.
Todd said recently that hiring Billy Gillispie to coach the men's basketball team was the worst decision he made during his tenure at UK. No. Taking Craft's money, and then allowing him to dictate the terms of that "gift" was his worst decision.
Part of those terms, we recently learned, is that the lobby of the Wildcat Coal Lodge must house a tribute exhibit to coal. I wonder, will there be a memorial to those 11 dead miners, or will the walls be lined with treeless photos of "reclaimed" strip mines? Will we see Bob Stroud's photo of the Widow Combs being dragged off her own land by sheriff's deputies because she stood in front of a bulldozer trying to strip the land above her home? Or will we see videos extolling the merits of "cheap energy?"
I can imagine a very moving tribute to the men and women who perform, as Sarah Ogan Gunning once sang, "the most dangerous work in our land today." And I would like to see that. But even if that were the kind of tribute Craft has in mind, we must remember this: The history of coal in Kentucky cannot be the future of coal in Kentucky. The reasons are obvious.
First, coal burning is the leading cause of our climate crisis. Deniers can argue about temperature fluctuation all they want, but the polar ice sheets are melting fast, and to deny that is, as Daniel Gilbert writes, to sleep in a burning bed.
Second, the health effects of the strip mining and the burning of coal are simply unacceptable. In a report due out this month in the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, Dr. Paul Epstean of Harvard Medical School estimates that Americans spend $187.5 billion a year on health costs linked to the emissions from coal-fired power plants, which cut short 24,000 lives every year.
That doesn't even account for the cancers and kidney problems caused by selenium and other heavy metals that run off strip mines.
Third, mountaintop removal is itself a fatal practice that, if left unchecked, will destroy forever the Appalachian Mountains.
Finally, the economic reality is that this country uses far less Appalachian coal than it used to, or ever will again, because Wyoming coal is more abundant and it's cheaper to mine and transport. That, plus the mechanization of the strip-mining industry, is why there are fewer coal jobs in Eastern Kentucky.
To blame the Environmental Protection Agency, as Gov. Steve Beshear does, is dishonest and disingenuous. My hope is that UK's next president will do two things: Reach out to Wendell Berry and attempt to draw the state's most distinguished writer back into the UK community.
Also, push researchers and economists at the state's flagship university to prepare the eastern part of the state for what is obviously coming — an energy economy that must move beyond coal.