By RONNIE ELLIS
CNHI News Service
FRANKFORT Silas House, the author and environmentalist who grew up in Laurel County, proudly proclaimed his heritage from the front steps of the state Capitol Thursday.
“I am proud to say that I am a hillbilly,” House told a group of just under 1,000 environmentalist activists gathered in Frankfort for “I Love Mountains Day,” the annual protest against mountaintop removal coal mining.
But House reminded the crowd that to be a hillbilly, you have to have hills.
“We can’t have hillbillies without hills, and that is the main reason I’m here,” House said as the crowd cheered.
Standing before the state’s seat of power, House called on the crowd to “clean this house,” and urged those present to get involved in political campaigns to support candidates friendly to environmental concerns.
He said those concerned with the degradation of the Appalachian environment and streams have waited long enough on politicians “who are listening to corporations instead of their constituents” to do something.
Carl Shoupe, a former Marine and disabled miner from Looney Creek near Benham, a coal camp town, made his ties to coal clear.
“My grandfather and father were coal miners,” Shoupe told the crowd. “I was a coal miner. And I’m proud to tell you that my son is one of the best underground miners I know.”
But Shoupe said those who love the mountains and streams of Eastern Kentucky “must stop mountaintop removal – NOW!”
He noted that back home, lots of folks display “Friends of Coal” stickers and license plates. He observed many in the capitol Thursday wearing large buttons with an “I Love Coal” logo, an obvious response to “I Love Mountains,” or Friends of Coal stickers.
Shoupe, who was buried under a mining roof cave-in years ago, said many wearing those buttons “may be friends of coal, but they’re no friends of coal miners,” whose retirement benefits are at risk, and no friends to those whose health is threatened by mountaintop removal.
As he spoke, members of the Kentuckians for the Commonwealth handed out packets indicating that cancer and birth defects rates are highest in regions where mountaintop mining occurs.
Off to the side stood Bill Bissett, president of the Kentucky Coal Association, wearing one of those “I Love Coal” buttons.
Bissett said more than 60,000 drivers in Kentucky have Friends of Coal license plates and said thousands of Kentuckians rely on coal for livelihood or for affordable electricity.
“Whether they admit it or not, the actions of today’s protesters will lead to even more miners losing their jobs, an increase in electricity costs for all Kentuckians and more poverty in Appalachia,” Bissett said.
Kentucky has shed more than 2,000 coal jobs in the past 18 months and many in the coalfields blame environmental policies.
Bissett conceded that competition from cheaper natural gas and other market conditions are part of the reason. But, so too, he said, are those seeking tougher environmental regulation. He said half of Eastern Kentucky coal is mined through surface mining.
That doesn’t make it acceptable to Ricky Handshoe of Hueysville in Floyd County who has seen two creeks on his land irretrievably polluted. He’s undergoing blood tests and awaiting toxicology examinations to determine why his fingers have no feeling and are discolored.
Two years ago, Handshoe persuaded Gov. Steve Beshear to visit his home to show him the devastation caused by mountaintop removal sites. But little has changed for Handshoe since then – although last fall the state fined the company responsible for polluting one of his creeks. (The state subsequently gave the same company an award for its reclamation in another county.)
Handshoe stopped by Beshear’s office Thursday just as the governor ushered several men in suits and wearing “I Love Coal” buttons into the his inner office.
Beshear “looked up at me. I thought he might come out and shake my hand, but he didn’t. He looked at me and turned his back,” Handshoe said.
The governor’s press office did not respond to an invitation to respond to Handshoe’s account.
Ronnie Ellis writes for CNHI News Service and is based in Frankfort. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.