I live on the banks of Looney Creek in Benham, deep in the hills of Harlan County. I'm proud to say I'm a former Marine; I spent my 19th birthday in Vietnam. I came home from the war and went into the coal mines, and shortly after was crushed in a rock fall.
I was fortunate to survive. Eventually I became an organizer with the United Mine Workers of America.
I come from a long line of hard-working Appalachian people. My great-grandfather worked in timber. My grandfather and father were coal miners. And I'm proud to tell you that my son is one of the best underground miners I know.
I believe that we can create new jobs, find safe energy and live in healthy communities. But to have that future, a bright future, we must stop the destruction that's going on in communities where coal is mined. It's not going to be easy, it's going to take all of us. And it will take real leadership with courage and conviction.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to the Lexington Herald-Leader
Since I've been around coal all my life, I guess I should be pleased when our "leaders" say they are Friends of Coal. But lately, I've been wondering, which part of coal they're friends with.
Peabody Energy and its new company, Patriot Coal, are trying to weasel out of paying health and pension benefits promised to thousands of retired UMWA miners. Have you heard any objection from these Friends of Coal in our marble palaces in Frankfort? Those miners earned their benefits with their sweat and their blood, but now Peabody wants to dump them like they're just more overburden.
These politicians may be friends of coal, but they're not friends of coal miners and their families. These miners and their families are being robbed of their retirement and benefits.
My friend Truman recently spent a week hooked up to a hospital ventilator. Like thousands of others, he suffers with black lung, caused by working in underground mines filled with coal dust. Today, the number of severe black lung cases is on the rise again, affecting workers on strip mines and below ground. And yet Congressman Hal Rogers has led efforts in Congress to block rules designed to protect miners from that awful disease.
The congressman may be a friend of coal corporations, but he's no friend of coal miners who have to breathe hazardous air every day they work.
Another friend of mine had to move with his daughter away from the homeplace where his family has lived for over 200 years. Toxic runoff from mountaintop removal was poisoning him and his family.
But his state representative, House Speaker Greg Stumbo, stood up at an Environmental Protection Agency hearing about water pollution and insisted that anyone who wants to save the mountains should just "go buy one."
The speaker may be a friend of the coal companies, but he's no friend of coalfield families threatened by mountaintop mining and poisoned water.
In early February, Gov. Steve Beshear tried to rush through a plan to make it easier for coal companies to poison our water with selenium. Coalfield residents already suffer higher rates of cancer and birth defects, and the governor wants to make it easier for coal companies to pollute? I wonder which of his coal friends asked him to do that?
He may be a friend of wealthy coal barons, but he's not a friend of my grandchildren and all children who deserve clean water.
And when some of us asked a state representative in Harlan County to help stop a proposed mine that threatened the city of Lynch's water supply, he looked at us and said he didn't care what happened to the community, since there were so few votes in that end of the county.
Some of our Eastern Kentucky legislators may be friends of giant coal corporations, but they sure aren't friends of coalfield communities working to protect what we have left.
Kentucky needs more leaders who are less worried about being friends of coal and more determined to be friends of miners and the mountains that are our home. We need leaders who are worried about our children's future instead of their next election. We need leaders who will commit to helping us build the bright future we deserve — and can have if we work for it.
I believe in Appalachia's and Kentucky's bright future. I'm ready to do my part.