Glasgow Daily Times, Glasgow, KY

Opinion

July 6, 2012

Ky.’s elected officials ignore issues of mining practice

FRANKFORT — Last week I wrote about the beauty of eastern Kentucky and the warmth and wisdom of its people.

Well, that’s part of the picture, but it’s not the complete picture.

I said I am mesmerized by the paradoxes of eastern Kentucky but mystified might be a better word. In the midst of awesome beauty is grotesque ugliness: horribly scarred landscapes; toxic water a color I’ve never seen except maybe in satellite photos of Mars; and plain evidence the people we elect to make our lives better or employ to protect our health and environment just don’t seem to care.

I’m talking about surface mining. Standing on one of those sites, it’s difficult to understand the scale of destruction. You can drive through lush forests below without ever confronting the horror 500 feet above. Only from the air, can you understand how much land is destroyed, how violent the process is, how nothing will ever be the same.

Defenders of mountaintop removal say that land can be reclaimed for a “greater use:” shopping malls, airports or hospitals. A few sites have been. But they are a tiny proportion of the destruction. Most are covered with hydro-seed grass. Scuff your shoe against it and very often it hits rock beneath maybe an inch of soil. Hard to imagine a tree growing there.

Some like Kentucky’s U.S. Sen. Rand Paul defend the practice as a property right. But what about the property rights of those who live below or downstream, like Ricky Handshoe in Floyd County? His family has lived on the same land for 200 years. They once had some of the purest water anywhere from wells and streams on that property. That was before the well water became so contaminated by methane that Handshoe could strike a match underneath a kitchen tap and produce a flame. A state inspector told him it was safe to drink but advised him it might not be wise to smoke in the house. Two creeks have been destroyed and the mountain behind his house is seeping toxic water – he lives in fear it’ll soon come down on him.

Surface mining can destroy community, too. Neighbors resent neighbors as one depends on a mining job to feed his family while the other must choose to stay and risk poisoning his family or move from the land that defines him and his people. (Two university studies indicate the highest rates of birth defects and cancer occur in central Appalachia where mountaintop removal is prevalent.)

Some claim critics are “outsiders” or “hippies.” But those I’ve met have names like Handshoe, Shoupe, Hurt, Blanton or Combs and have lived all their lives in eastern Kentucky. Some are retired underground miners. Truman Hurt of Vicco, a pastor and retired, disabled miner, says: “I’m not against coal. I’m against this kind of coal mining.”

Some blame mining companies. Mining companies are doing what most corporations do. Their purpose is to make money and most will push the law just as far as they’re allowed.  It’s hard to blame their employees for wanting better lives for their families, which mining wages can provide.

What I cannot understand is the callous indifference of those we elect or pay to protect us. I’d urge them to listen to Robert Byrd and Jay Rockefeller, West Virginia senators who long defended coal — until they neared the end of their lives and then urged the coal industry to reform.

I wonder if they weren’t thinking about a final accounting or the ultimate judgment of history. And I wonder why Kentucky’s political leaders don’t.

Ronnie Ellis writes for CNHI News Service and is based in Frankfort. Reach him at rellis@cnhi.com. Follow CNHI News Service stories on Twitter atwww.twitter.com/cnhifrankfort

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