FRANKFORT — Author Wendell Berry and 13 other environmental activists emerged from the state Capitol on Monday to roars of approval and applause, ending their four-day occupation of Gov. Steve Beshear's outer office.
The protesters joined several hundred people on the Capitol steps for the "I Love Mountains" rally, an annual event held to promote "stream saver" legislation that effectively would end mountaintop removal coal mining in Eastern Kentucky. Previous bills died for lack of action; similarly, this year's bills are languishing in committee.
"We came because the land, its forests and its streams are being destroyed by the surface mining of coal; because the people are suffering intolerable harm to their homes, their health and their communities; and because all the people downstream are threatened by the degradation and contamination of the rivers," Berry, who lives in Henry County, told the crowd.
Speakers criticized Beshear for attacking the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in speeches and in court, where his administration has joined the Kentucky Coal Association in a lawsuit against the EPA's more aggressive enforcement of water pollution rules.
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In particular, they mocked Beshear's demand, in his State of the Commonwealth address this month, that EPA regulators "get off our backs."
"Tell the coal industry to get off our damn backs!" said Teri Blanton, a member of citizen-activist group Kentuckians for the Commonwealth. A sign in the crowd read, "Governor, get off our mountains!"
"For the first time in 35 years, the EPA is doing its job by enforcing the Clean Water Act," Blanton said. "In the last two years, two regional administrators for the EPA have visited Eastern Kentucky, they have stood in our dying streams and looked in the eyes of our local people as they pleaded for help."
After the activists left the governor's office, Kentucky State Police officers secured the doorway to prevent any more occupations. Before exiting, Berry said with a chuckle that the governor's staff and state police had been so friendly that he almost was tempted to stay longer.
Beshear has agreed to visit Eastern Kentucky at the request of Berry and the other sit-in protesters, who want him to view some of the damage they say resulted from mining.
"He will go down there at some point in coming months, but we have not set a date yet," Beshear spokeswoman Kerri Richardson said.
House Bill 368 and Senate Bill 115, the stream saver bills, would stop coal mine operators from filling valleys and creek beds with excess waste from mountaintop blasting. The coal industry has lobbied against the bills for the past six years, arguing that they would drive up the price of coal while hurting production and employment.
The coal industry's argument has carried the day. The industry has given more than $1 million in state political donations during the past decade and employs, directly or indirectly, several key Kentucky lawmakers who decide the fate of legislation.
Although many of the protesters Monday live in the coal counties of Eastern Kentucky, they complained that none of their state lawmakers will support the stream saver bills or even take their calls on the subject. Instead, the bills are backed entirely by lawmakers from Lexington and Louisville.
"Our requests have always fallen on deaf ears," Stanley Sturgill, a retired coal miner and federal mine inspector from Harlan County, said at the rally. "But the same legislators will fight tooth-and-nail for Big Coal's greed."
U.S. Rep. John Yarmuth, D-Louisville, told the crowd he supports its efforts. Earlier in the day, Yarmuth said he regrets that Beshear, a fellow Democrat, wants to block President Barack Obama's administration from enforcing environmental laws. But he understands that for political reasons, Beshear is playing to regional resentment over federal oversight, he said.
"The president and the governor are answerable to two different constituencies," Yarmuth said. "Obviously, the president's is a much broader constituency. I think the governor is wrong on this one. I will say, I'm glad the EPA is taking the actions it has started taking."
On the Capitol lawn, Joseph Spencer and his family, from Berea, said they attend the "I Love Mountains" rally every year in hopes that the stream saver bills finally will become law.
"It's frustrating, but it just goes to show the power of money in politics. The people out here today don't have any money, they just have ... their voices," Spencer said.
Spencer said his grandfather, a Leslie County miner, suffered from black lung disease toward the end of his life, a result of inhaling coal dust in the mines. The coal industry employs fewer people all the time, he said, and it leaves behind environmental and human destruction that severely limits Eastern Kentucky's future.
"The saddest story I've ever seen is the mountain they destroyed and then built a prison on top of, because that's the best we could do," Spencer said, referring to the federal prison built on a Martin County strip mine in 2002. "To me, that's terrible. That's some sort of devil's bargain."