HAZARD — Environmentalists' campaigns against strip mining and coal-fired power plants have been so successful in swaying public opinion recently that the coal industry has started to take a more aggressive, visible approach to protect its interests, Kentucky activists say.
New industry-sponsored groups in the coal fields are sponsoring charitable efforts, concerts and rallies, and distributing stickers, T-shirts and license plates across the region.
A new multistate public relations campaign called FACES of Coal was officially launched last week in Kentucky; its aim is to educate people outside the mining regions about the benefits organizers say coal brings to the state: low electricity rates that attract other industries, high-paying jobs in poor areas, and flat land for development where there used to be unusable mountainsides.
"We're under attack," said Haven King, the Perry County clerk and director of Coal Mining Our Future, an industry-sponsored non-profit group he formed in response to the so-called stream saver bill that was intended in 2008 to halt valley fills — low places filled with rock and dirt leftover from strip mining.
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King credits his group's letter-writing campaign and rallies with keeping the bill from being passed in the General Assembly. In the year that followed, Coal Mining Our Future spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on senior citizens centers and other charities.
The group was the first responder with food, clothing and supplies to victims of Breathitt County flash flooding in May, King said. A "Friends of Coal" license plate developed this year is the fastest-selling special-interest plate ever in the state, King said. Schoolchildren who receive clothing or food through their school resource centers in some counties are told a coal miner provided it through Coal for Kids, a charitable effort Coal Mining Our Future helped start.
Coal Mining Our Future, sponsored by companies such as TECO, ICG and Pine Branch Coal, chartered 28 buses to take about 15,000 Eastern Kentuckians to a Labor Day rally in Holden, W.Va., sponsored by Massey Energy, King said. A Coal Mining Our Future rally brought about as many to a Knott County surface mine site in August.
Coal companies have always given back to the communities, King said, but without fanfare and often without credit. "The reason they are tooting their horn is because of me," he said.
Coal coalition campaign
Growing the "base support" is only part of the equation, said Phil Osborne, a Lexington marketing executive who is director of the industry coalition FACES, which stands for Federation for American Coal, Energy and Security. The FACES of Coal public relations campaign was launched several months ago in West Virginia and has organized efforts in Kentucky, Tennessee and Virginia. Osborne said he is on retainer as the Kentucky director of the campaign, which is not incorporated in Kentucky but is funded by a coalition of coal companies.
FACES of Coal ads that have appeared in West Virginia television markets that overlap Eastern Kentucky claim to portray teachers, retailers, construction workers and other professionals who say they are dependent on the success of coal.
The group has received criticism from environmentalist groups for using generic stock photos, not real West Virginians, in early ads. King leveled criticism against media and environmental groups for highlighting only photos of ugly in-progress mountaintop mines, not the end product of brick homes, industrial parks, cattle pasture and reforested mine land.
King said all the work he does for Coal Mining Our Future is volunteer, and he gets no salary
Osborne has spent the opening weeks of the campaign canvassing government officials in Frankfort and Eastern Kentucky, and businesses such as the East Kentucky Power Cooperative in Clark County and Toyota in Scott County. He said the effect of coal on the economy is being overlooked in the fight over climate change and environmental concerns.
"I think the tipping point may have been when the EPA put a hold on permitting," Osborne said, referring to the Environmental Protection Agency's recent hold on 79 surface mine permit applications that it says need more review before the Army Corps of Engineers can grant them. Forty-nine of the permits are for mines in Kentucky, and industry advocates fear that hundreds more pending permits might be affected by the EPA's hold when deadlines come up at the start of next year.
CAM Mining layoffs earlier this year, for example, were caused partly by a lack of permits, King said, although a glut of coal on the market and decreased demand for energy in a down economy play a part.
Scrutiny considered unfair
The problem with that argument is that even though coal mine output has increased in the last 20 years, some of the country's poorest counties are still in the coal fields of Eastern Kentucky, and surface mines employ far fewer workers than underground mines, said Lauren McGrath, the Sierra Club's Beyond Coal campaign representative in Lexington.
"The higher-ups in the industries are benefiting," not the local residents, she said.
Since the Sierra Club has worked to stop construction of 100 new coal-fired power plants and campaigned against mountaintop mining, McGrath said, coal is becoming a risky investment.
"The economics of it with newer regulations are going to make it tricky," she said.
Osborne pointed to a survey, released last week by the Kentucky Environmental Education Council and the University of Kentucky Survey Research Center, that for the first time in 10 years indicated mountain-top removal mining has become one of the top three environmental worries for Kentuckians. Coal advocates say other industries that produce valley fills — for example, road construction — are not given the same kind of scrutiny. They say the Appalachian region of the industry is unfairly targeted for regulation because of media hype.
Advocates' approaches vary
One tool of the pro-coal groups has been to fuel indignation among residents of the coal fields. Environmentalists in Lexington and Louisville "want to take your jobs," King called into microphones between musical acts at a recent concert in Breathitt County. "Our coal! Our children! Our mountains!" he had the crowd shouting.
The more extreme techniques used by Coal Mining Our Future and FACES of Coal are a departure from other pro-coal campaigns such as Friends of Coal, an organization that started with the West Virginia Coal Association and was adopted in Kentucky about two years ago, said Bill Caylor, president of the Kentucky Coal Association.
Friends of Coal takes a more "warm and fuzzy" approach to public relations, Caylor said, and tries to educate listeners without jumping into polarizing debates about topics such as mountaintop removal. Friends of Coal is incorporated as a non-profit organization, with board members from the Kentucky Coal Association, Western Kentucky Coal Association and Kentucky Coal Operators Association. It is funded by coal association members.
"I might not like mountaintop removal, but I'm a friend of coal because my daddy was a coal miner," Caylor said of the campaign's philosophy when it started in West Virginia six or seven years ago.
Caylor acknowledged the newer groups are taking a more aggressive approach but said any positive message about coal is a good thing.
With coal prices, mine regulations and public opinion in their current state, many coal operators "are getting fairly desperate," Caylor said.