Franklin County

Protesters keep climbing mountain

FRANKFORT — Again this year, for the fifth year in a row, there is a "stream saver" bill before the General Assembly that would curtail mountaintop removal coal mining in Kentucky.

Again this year, for the fifth time, supporters of the bill showed up to listen to speakers condemn "mountain bombing." They marched from the Kentucky River bridge, circled the Capitol, then rallied on the front steps.

One organizer of the "I Love Mountains Day" rally joked that a clear sign of progress at Thursday's event was that twice as many legislators showed up.

That would be four — one senator and three representatives. None predicted victory in turning the bill into a law.

"This will be a long, long journey, this will not be overnight," said Rep. Jim Wayne, D-Louisville.

So far, the bill's best year was 2008, when, through a bit of legislative sleight of hand, it got a hearing, but didn't get out of committee.

The coal industry has convinced most legislators that the bill would sharply drive up the price of coal, wrecking the state's economy and putting thousands of people out of work.

Mickey McCoy, an activist from Martin County, told the crowd that they must "elect men and women in this state that turn their heads away from the coal lobby and toward the people."

K.A. Owens, chairman of Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, did find some signs of progress: The federal Environmental Protection Agency is holding up some mining permits for a closer look, and new state guidelines adopted last month could mean fewer streams are buried "if they are enforced."

Organizers of the rally say that only 100 people turned out for the first "I Love Mountains Day" rally, and that 1,000 were on hand last year to hear speakers that included actress Ashley Judd.

At Thursday's rally, they said, 650 people took part in the march, and the crowd swelled to 800 at the Capitol. The weather — 25 degrees in Frankfort, and ice-covered roads in the coalfields — may have contributed to the lower numbers.

In the year since the last rally, the coal industry has gone on the offensive, said Sen. Kathy Stein, D-Lexington, who is sponsoring the stream saver bill in her chamber.

"They have called us environmental jihadists," she said. "They have frightened people in Eastern Kentucky."

Country music singer Kathy Mattea was the featured speaker and entertainer.

"Since learning about mountaintop removal, I've had a deep ache in the pit of my stomach, a deep yearning for these mountains I know so well and love so much," she said.

She spoke of the divisions that are created when some people live with the environmental damage caused by mining, and others depend on it for their livelihood.

"Everyone is scared, she said. "If my house has turned from a quiet sanctuary into a living nightmare, I am in deep anguish.

"On the other hand, if I have a decent job, and suddenly I'm going to be without a way to provide for my family, I am in deep anguish."

"How do we honor the deep human needs on both sides of this conflict?"

Mattea also sang Kentuckian Jean Ritchie's Black Water. Although written four decades ago, Mattea said, its lyrics were similar to the complaints against mountaintop removal today.

The crowd included a large number of young people, including Jacob Day, 21, a Harlan County native and student at Georgetown College.

"I think mountaintop removal is sinful because it destroys God's creation," he said.

Also on Thursday, about 200 people turned out for an "I Love Mountains Day" rally to support the first stream saver bill before the Virginia legislature, said Kayti Wingfield of Wise Energy for Virginia. An equal number of people showed up to oppose the bill, she said.

The Virginia bill got a lengthy committee hearing, with a vote expected next week.

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