Standing up to King Coal; Protesters deserve to be heard

One of the demands by protesters who camped out in the Capitol this past weekend was for a genuine conversation between this state's elected leaders and the Kentuckians who want to protect land, water and air from the coal industry's most destructive practices.

It doesn't sound like a lot to ask, but the protesters raised a valid point.

A succession of governors and legislatures has been willfully oblivious to the effects of strip mining on their constituents. They've been willfully oblivious to citizens' pleas for state government's protection and for a better economic plan for Eastern Kentucky.

For years, bills that would lighten coal's environmental footprint or create jobs by diversifying Kentucky's energy sources have died without a word of debate in the legislature, not even a committee hearing.

In the executive branch, the agency that's supposed to enforce environmental standards has instead granted hundreds of illegitimate variances that permitted mining companies to blast off mountaintops and bury headwater streams with no plans for developing 97 percent of the flattened land.

A recent investigation by environmentalists revealed the state failed to catch years of inaccurate water-pollution monitoring by the coal industry. A Franklin Circuit judge withheld approval of the state's proposed settlement of the violations and ordered the parties into mediation.

The Beshear administration had urged the judge to exclude the groups that initiated the suit from having a say, calling citizen involvement an "unwarranted burden."

When, at long last, the federal government, under a new president, stepped up and gave Kentuckians some hope that clean water laws might finally be enforced in the coalfields, Gov. Steve Beshear joined the coal industry last year in a lawsuit against the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

How, asked the 14 protesters who were willing to risk arrest to bring these concerns to Beshear, could he justify spending taxpayer dollars to sue a federal agency on behalf of a multi-billion dollar industry?

Beshear, who handled the sit-in at his office with grace, should keep his promise to visit those who live with the effects of strip mining. Even in an election year, Beshear should consider leading on environmental and economic issues rather than kowtowing to King Coal's big money.

But, honestly, can we hope for integrity from our state's politicians when our flagship university prostitutes itself for a little coal money?

Coal company executive Joe Craft raised $7 million to build a dormitory for the University of Kentucky's men's basketball team on condition that it be named Wildcat Coal Lodge.

What became known last week, when a Herald-Leader reporter obtained the gift agreement through the Open Records Act, is that the lobby must contain a multi-media "tribute" to the coal industry which "shall be reasonably acceptable to Craft."

We can reasonably assume that Craft will expect a one-sided account that excludes the concerns citizens have been raising at the Capitol the past few days.

If UK allows a donor to dictate the content of an ostensibly educational exhibit about a deeply controversial subject, what's next? Letting donors dictate the content of academic courses to suit their self-interested agendas?

UK, which educates Kentucky's leaders, would have set a much better example by walking away from that particular gift.