Fifty Years of Night

In Eastern Kentucky, pro-coal sentiment intensifies as mines close

A “Stop the War on Coal” sign in the Knott Co. Courthouse in Hindman, Ky., Friday, May 17, 2013. Photo by Charles Bertram | Staff
A “Stop the War on Coal” sign in the Knott Co. Courthouse in Hindman, Ky., Friday, May 17, 2013. Photo by Charles Bertram | Staff Herald-Leader

In 2008, Perry County Clerk Haven King got fed up with how the Lexington Herald-Leader depicted mountaintop-removal mining in southeastern Kentucky.

“They showed pictures in there that just weren’t true. They showed it as destruction,” said King, who was a longtime coal operator before going into politics.

So King did what a lot of friends of coal have done in recent years: He organized a marketing campaign to put a better face on the industry.

“I called a meeting and I said, ‘It’s time for us to stand up and tell folks what we’ve really done out here,’” he said. “The amount of housing alone on mountaintop-removal mine sites, you would not believe. That’s before you even get into the schools and the hospitals and the other employers that would not be possible without it.”

(According to federal data, residential, commercial and industrial development was planned for only 3 percent of the 19,728 acres released from surface-mining permits in Kentucky over the past two years. Most of the land would be left as open fields.)

King and several coal executives formed Coal Mining Our Future “to ensure that citizens are informed about coal industry activities,” according to its mission statement. The group sponsors pro-coal rallies, encourages letters and phone calls to politicians, conducts surface mine tours to show the usefulness of flat land, makes charitable donations and distributes pro-coal T-shirts and bumper stickers, such as the now-ubiquitous decal declaring “If you don’t like coal, don’t use electricity.”

Backed by coal companies with interests in the area, including Arch Coal of St. Louis and James River Coal of Richmond, Va., Coal Mining Our Future spent more than $1.1 million over the past three years.

“Our goal was to educate people about coal,” King said. “We’ve been able to take a lot of people out here and change their minds. I’ll be the first to tell you that in those early years (of surface mining), we didn’t do it right. But now the companies — they take extraordinary steps toward reclamation so something can be done with the land afterward.”

The group’s annual coal rallies outside the Knott County Sportsplex near Hindman draw as many as 15,000 supporters. Food and music are provided while a parade of speakers rip into President Barack Obama and the Environmental Protection Agency, tree-hugging protesters, the news media and big-city liberals who weep for lost mountains without appreciating how their electricity is made.

At the August 2009 coal rally — dedicated to opposing curbs on greenhouse gas emissions — then-Knott County Judge-Executive Randy Thompson climbed onto the stage to praise mountaintop removal. Leveling mountains employs people and creates flat land where businesses someday can be built to hire even more people, Thompson said.

“When they do that in Lexington, it’s called development!” Thompson roared at thousands of faces in the audience. “But they tell us when we do it, it’s devastation! I’m tired of it! Are you?!”

“Yes!” the crowd shouted.

“I’m ready to tell them, ‘I’m tired of it! You live the way you want to, we’re going to do it the way we want to!’ Are you with me?!” Thompson roared.

“Yes!” the crowd shouted.

Nearby, one of many banners waving that afternoon showed train cars loaded with coal under the words of Psalm 85:12: “Yea, the LORD shall give that which is good; and our land shall yield her increase.”

‘Siege mentality’

Attitudes have hardened against environmentalism in southeastern Kentucky as coal mines have closed. In a 2007 telephone poll by the University of New Hampshire’s Carsey Institute, 37 percent of people in Harlan and Letcher counties said natural resources should be used to create jobs today rather than be conserved for future generations. By 2011, that number had jumped to 52 percent.

“Flatten the mountains. That’s the only way we’re going to develop the place,” Missi Ashley Moore, a nurse practitioner student in Knott County whose father died in a mine explosion, said recently.

These sentiments are partly a natural response to the region’s job losses, but coal companies are spending heavily on public relations to establish a fierce “us versus them” mentality, uniting miners behind their bosses, said Al Cross, director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues at the University of Kentucky.

In March, Cross gave a speech at UK titled “From Villain to Victim: The Coal Industry’s New Image in Appalachian Kentucky.”

Coal operators “are in a defensive mode, and they’re gathering their friends around them. This has created, I think, kind of a siege mentality and a regional solidarity,” Cross said in his speech. “There used to just be sympathy for miners. Now there is sympathy for an industry.”

Coal Mining Our Future is one strand in a web that is promoting the coal industry’s interests and burnishing the rough image of surface mining, particularly mountaintop removal. The groups support industry-friendly politicians, tout the value of coal through advertising, and bus miners and their families to EPA regulatory hearings and other events where turnout might sway public opinion.

Most of the groups’ money comes from coal companies, although the state of Kentucky subsidizes the efforts with $400,000 set aside annually for coal education programs in public schools. Also, the state’s “Friends of Coal” license plates — 69,362 of which are on the roads — pay $10 each to the Kentucky Coal Association unless the motorist opts out.

Friends of coal

At the web’s center is the National Mining Association, financed by scores of coal, mining equipment and utility companies and headquartered a block from the U.S. Capitol. The NMA spent more than $50 million over the past three years. It endorses politicians through its “Mine the Vote” project and lobbies against laws or regulations that could impede mining or burning of coal.

The NMA’s two political action committees, COALPAC and MINEPAC, gave $930,583 during the 2012 federal elections to pro-coal candidates, including U.S. Rep. Andy Barr, R-Lexington, who defeated the incumbent, Ben Chandler, and pledged to strip the EPA of some regulatory power. Although Barr’s Central Kentucky congressional district has no coal mines, the debate over coal — and in particular Chandler’s vote for a cap-and-trade bill to limit carbon emissions — played a significant role in Chandler’s loss.

The NMA also backed FACES of Coal, based near Richmond, Va. FACES, an acronym for Federation for American Coal, Energy and Security, spent $5.5 million over the past two years on what it called a “grass-roots marketing campaign” to promote the industry through advertising and community events in Kentucky, West Virginia and Virginia. It paid more than $1 million during that time to Preston-Osborne, a Lexington public relations firm led by Phil Osborne, a close friend of Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear.

In an interview, Osborne said his firm’s contract to represent FACES in Kentucky ended last November. About that time, the NMA launched another initiative, Count on Coal, that spreads its message through online social media. The NMA also runs the American Coal Foundation, which distributes teaching materials to public schools about “the advantages and potential of coal.”

(Environmental groups that oppose coal are likewise dropping a lot of money. The Sierra Club has pledged to spend $150 million by 2015 on its “Beyond Coal” campaign to cut coal production and replace a majority of coal-fired power with “renewable clean energy,” such as wind and solar. New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg gave $50 million from his personal fortune to “Beyond Coal” in 2011. “Coal is a self-inflicted public health risk, polluting the air we breathe, adding mercury to our water, and it’s the leading cause of climate disruption,” Bloomberg said at the time.)

Working parallel to the NMA — and sharing some donors and board members — are a variety of state organizations. The Lexington-based Kentucky Coal Association spent nearly $2 million over the past three years to promote the industry in Frankfort and statewide. And the KCA backs the Kentucky chapter of Friends of Coal, established in 2007 to follow on the success of the original Friends of Coal in West Virginia.

Last year, Kentucky’s Friends of Coal collected $174,790 and spent $140,657. It sells pro-coal merchandise and sponsors popular events, including UK basketball and football games, and the Thunder Over Louisville fireworks display. Kentucky politicians from both parties line up at its rallies to criticize Obama and the EPA.

“I’m proud to stand with you today to make sure that we are standing on the side of Kentucky jobs,” State Auditor Adam Edelen, a Democrat and a potential 2015 gubernatorial candidate, told a crowd at a Kentucky’s Friends of Coal rally a year ago in Frankfort. That event was organized to protest the EPA’s objections under the Clean Water Act to Kentucky mine permits that would allow the discharge of pollutants into streams.

“Let’s make sure that this country that needs to be energy independent is made that way with Kentucky coal,” Edelen said, wearing a “Friends of Coal” sticker over his right breast. “What that means is that we’ve got to get government on the side of creating jobs.”

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