Ky. voices: Rep. Leslie Combs says enough fighting over coal, let's fight for a better future

Rep. Leslie Combs, D-Pikeville, represents the 94th District (Pike, Harlan, Letcher counties) in the Kentucky House.
Rep. Leslie Combs, D-Pikeville, represents the 94th District (Pike, Harlan, Letcher counties) in the Kentucky House.

During the last five years, we have seen the verbal fighting over coal reach ever-greater heights, and the louder both sides have become, the less each seems to hear the other.

Although I have been part of more than a few heated debates — that's the nature of politics — I have found that, ultimately, diplomacy usually gets me closer to my goal than simply trying to run over the opposition.

That's not to say this route is automatic; sometimes, it takes a lot of persistence.

Consider last summer, when I served as a delegate at the Democratic National Convention. While I was proud to take part, I made clear that I could not cast a supporting vote if I did not get to speak with someone from the president's administration about coal. When that did not happen, I stepped aside, not as a party protest but to uphold a promise I had made to my constituents.

I could have stopped there, arguing that I would never get the opportunity I wanted, but I tried again. And that second effort, thankfully, proved to be worth it.

Earlier this year, I traveled to Atlanta to have a productive two-and-a-half hour meeting with Gwen Keys Fleming, who at the time was a regional administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency but who is now in a more high-profile role as the federal agency's chief of staff.

My hope is that we can continue this dialog in the months ahead, either in Eastern Kentucky or West Virginia. Such a meeting, where the protest signs are left at the door, could and should provide greater clarity for both sides.

As someone who grew up in Clark County but is now proud to represent three of Kentucky's largest coal-producing counties, I have a good understanding of where both sides are coming from.

Those who speak out against mountaintop mining act as if the coalfields are the only place where the environment is affected. But it was Central Kentucky that, in 2005, was listed as one of the 100 most endangered sites in the world by the World Monuments Fund.

I also remember when the commercial development known as Hamburg Place in Lexington was farmland. Streams had to be covered along the way, just as Lexington paved over its own Town Branch years earlier, a move that officials are now trying to reverse. In both cases, the very acts that are somehow wrong when used to acquire the source of 90 percent of Kentucky's electricity are all right when it comes to commercial development.

There is such a thing as a good "hollow fill," and cleaner water can result from proper mining techniques, something many opponents do not want to believe. It might mean less profit, but this is an area where coal operators have to take a serious look in the mirror and question why they have not done more.

On the flip side, those who support coal need to realize that our problems did not begin with the current administration. President Richard Nixon, a Republican, started the EPA and championed the Clean Air Act in the early 1970s; he also was a supporter of many of the principles behind the Clean Water Act adopted during his tenure.

Another Republican, President George H.W. Bush, pushed through major revisions of the Clean Air Act in the early 1990s, and over the last decade, the courts have played a leading role in blocking coal mining permits.

The debate did not begin on election night in November 2008.

Earlier this summer, I joined with a colleague, Rep. Fitz Steele, D-Harlan, in sponsoring legislation that would bring 100 percent of coal severance tax dollars back to the counties that produce the coal. Currently, they don't even get close to half.

I realize that such a bold change is unlikely in the near-term. But the dialogue needs to start somewhere, because more Kentuckians need to understand what this industry means to the commonwealth and especially those communities whose economies rely so heavily on coal severance.

At the same time, additional severance money should be used for long-term solutions centered on education and economic development. One obvious area is providing scholarships to students getting their four-year college degrees in the coal regions, an idea that has proven successful as a pilot program that should become permanent. Another idea could be targeted tax incentives to help individual counties lure high-paying jobs.

In case there is any doubt, I support coal. I believe it should continue to play a major role in meeting our ever-growing energy needs, and I believe it can be mined responsibly and, with continued advances in clean-coal technology, burned cleanly. The General Assembly has been at the forefront in funding research to make this possible. It is not an impossible dream, as some say.

You will not find a stronger advocate than I for our coal miners and their communities. It is crucial that we do all we can to help our people not just survive but thrive. The time has come to focus less on placing blame and more on how coal-mining regions can move forward.

We need to be talking about the new reality of less mining because we've known this day was coming. The legislature acknowledged as much in 1992 when it set aside two-thirds of local severance for economic development to prepare for when the coal industry would be gone.

I got into politics to fix problems and to take care of the needs of the people I represent. In this world, all things change. As they do, I want to lead us as we adapt. Because of these guiding principles, I am ready and willing to be at the forefront of a new approach that, ideally, would satisfy all sides of the coal debate.

As I have told my children, you should "always do the right thing, because it is the right thing to do. It might not be popular, but in the end, you will persevere."

I hope others will join me.