Moment of truth for Hal Rogers, SOAR: No ignoring health effects of strip mining


No mention of surface coal mining's effect on human health appeared in U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers' electronic update on the recent SOAR Health Impact Series.

Last week's "Update From Hal" included links to four media accounts, but conspicuously absent was Bill Estep's front-page Herald-Leader article about an important gathering in Hazard.

That's when Dr. Nikki Stone, chair of Shaping Our Appalachian Region's health committee, reported that during 15 recent "listening sessions," one of the top two concerns voiced by participants was the possible links between surface coal mining and disease and birth defects.

When Rogers was asked by Estep at the time of the meeting if he would support studying the link between mining and disease, the congressman said, "We need to know if there's anything to it, certainly."

Yet there was no reference to such a study or the concerns in Rogers' update or news release.

Admittedly, Rogers, who has long been close to the coal industry, is in a tight spot.

Fellow Republican and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, fighting for re- election, frequently repeats a "coal makes us sick" quote by his Democratic counterpart, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, as evidence of Democrats' unsuitability to govern.

Coal, of course, does make us sick, as the 76,000 miners who have died of black lung during the past 46 years would attest.

The Obama administration's proposed new limits on power plant emissions would prevent an estimated 140,000 to 150,000 asthma attacks in children and 2,700 to 6,600 premature deaths.

Blocking public discussion of coal and public health would be Rogers' election-year reflex. But something much bigger is at stake — the SOAR initiative and Rogers' legacy.

Guarded optimism greeted the launch of the bipartisan SOAR last year. But only cynicism soared when Rogers and Gov. Steve Beshear packed the steering committee and subcommittee chairs with creators and beneficiaries of the region's economic status quo.

Neither a democratic process nor real change seemed likely to many — until that moment in Hazard when SOAR became a forum for the honest airing of discomfiting concerns about the all-powerful coal industry's effects on the region.

SOAR and Rogers will suffer a huge loss of credibility — and Eastern Kentucky will lose again — if they now stonewall the very people they called on to speak up and help shape the region's future.