By Ronnie Ellis/CNHI News Service
There’s a slumber party right outside the governor’s office this weekend. No, it’s not for grandchildren of Gov. Steve Beshear. It is 16 environmentalists critical of Beshear’s defense of the coal industry and mountaintop removal which they say are destroying Kentucky streams and people’s health.
Among them are noted author, essayist and environmentalist Wendell Berry and fellow author Silas House. About 25 of them came to the capitol Friday to stage a “sit-in,” vowing to stay until Beshear met with them or they were forcibly removed and arrested.
At first Beshear said his schedule wouldn’t allow him to meet with them, but he changed his mind and underwent about 45 minutes of intense questions from about 25 protestors. Then he invited them to stay for the weekend, ordering capitol security to stay nearby but not to arrest them, and 16 of them accepted. They plan to stay until Monday when the annual “I Love Mountains Day” is scheduled to take place.
“I’ve slept in a lot worse accommodations than this,” said Inez resident Mickey McCoy, adding that “there’s a slumber party going on in the governor’s office.”
Martin Mudd of Lexington asked Beshear to call for the restraint of inflammatory comments by supporters of coal which intimidate those protesting the strip-mining practice known as mountaintop removal. He said one supporter said at a public hearing: “Shoot a tree-hugger, save a coal miner’s job.”
“We are not against coal mining,” Mudd continued. “We are against the destruction of the coal industry and strip mining that is bringing it to the lives of people who live in the mountains and everybody who is living downstream.”
Beshear said people on both sides of the issue have a right to speak out but “it ought to be done in a civil way.”
Teri Blanton criticized Beshear for saying in his State of the Commonwealth speech that the federal Environmental Protection Agency should “get off our backs.” She said she and others are “fighting for clean drinking water or a clean breath of air and the coal industry is threatening you for speaking out. The coal industry needs to get off the people’s back.”
Beshear said Blanton misinterpreted the comment, saying the EPA has been difficult in negotiations with Kentucky “so we could work through reasonable regulations so we can both protect our environment and mine coal safely and cleanly.” He said the EPA has been “arbitrary and unreasonable.”
Berry recalled that he and others met with Beshear last spring and have asked for help from legislators “and nothing happens. There at least needs to be a debate.” Beverly May from Floyd County carried a Mason jar of drinking water from her tap which is served by the Allen, Ky. treatment plant. The water had an orange-ish hue and as she held it up, Stanley Sturgill from Lynch asked Beshear, “Would you drink that water?” Beshear responded by asking May if the water had been tested and she replied she sometimes receives notice impurities were detected in the water – weeks after the date it was tested.
May asked Beshear to refuse campaign contributions from the coal industry in his re-election campaign, but Beshear said he gets contributions from all sectors, including members of the Kentuckians for the Commonwealth which sponsors the I Love Mountains Day. He said no contribution affects his decisions. Ricky Handshoe, also of Floyd County, reminded Beshear of his invitation to visit Handshoe’s home and see first hand the impact of mountaintop removal on his neighbors and local streams. Sturgill, a former coal miner, invited Beshear to Black Mountain where strip mining is occurring.
“I’d like to take you to the top of Black Mountain and let you look and see how beautiful it is all around,” said Sturgill. “And then just look right over the other side — it’s like looking over at the moon. It’s pitiful where they’ve mountaintop removed it.”
John Hennen who teaches history at Morehead State University objected to the description by the Cabinet for Energy and Environment of those seeking to intervene in a settlement the cabinet reached with coal companies which submitted inaccurate water pollution reports as “unwarranted burdens. I don’t think that reflects very well on the governor.”
McCoy said data from the Centers for Disease Control indicate the coal region of central Appalachia has some of the highest per capita rates of cancer in the nation. “Sir, I believe with all my heart that it’s got to do with the blasting and the dumping of the rocks and the heavy metals coming out that eventually make it down to our watershed.”
Berry said he was grateful for Friday’s meeting. “But I don’t think we’re anywhere near the kind of conversations we’re going to have to have before we’re satisfied.” He said he was prepared to remain in the office even if arrested.
Beshear left for a meeting, but shortly afterward one of his security officers told the protesters they were welcome to remain in the outer office all weekend.
Ronnie Ellis writes for CNHI News Service and is based in Frankfort. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow CNHI News Service stories on Twitter at www.twitter.com/cnhifrankfort.