Kentucky Resources Council, Inc.
Post Office Box 1070
Frankfort, Kentucky 40602
(502) 875-2428 phone (502) 875-2845 fax
A CONVERSATION WITH SCENIC KENTUCKY
NOVEMBER 12, 2003
It is a distinct pleasure to be here with you this evening. Scenic Kentucky has been a trusted and valued ally of KRC over the years on matters of environmental quality, and I have appreciated the opportunity to work, plan and strategize with members of the Scenic Kentucky Board, a group who bring thoughtful and diverse perspectives, and with the able staff that you have employed.
This evening is an important time and place. During these difficult days, days of deepening mistrust and disaffection of individuals for government, of growing rifts in the body politic between the haves and have nots, where the political center in which responsible environmental governance has occurred has given way to scorched-earth politics, this event provides a time for personal renewal and fellowship a time for reflection, a time to remember what animates us why each of you have dedicated your energies to an environmental issue, and on what lies ahead of us. And I appreciate being a part of this important time and place.
I was asked by Keith to reflect on the state of Kentucky's environment: where we've been, where we are and where we are going. I must confess that I am probably the last person you would want to give you "the big picture" on the state of the environment. For thirty-one years, I have been engaged in trench warfare on environmental issues, and it has affected my vision somewhat I don't see the "big picture" clearly, but have a keen sense of what is right in front of my face. In the interests of full disclosure, I have been involved in environmental advocacy for thirty years, and for the past twenty-three years I have represented low-income citizens, community groups and some communities in environmental matters in this Commonwealth - four as a legal aid attorney with the eastern Kentucky legal services corporation grantee Appalachian Research and Defense Fund of Kentucky, and the last 19 as director of the Kentucky Resources Council, Inc., a non-profit provider of free legal and strategic assistance on environmental matters.
My perspective has been forged, (some might say jaundiced) by my experiences with the underside of our economy, and particularly, our coal economy. I have buried one client who was crushed to death in a slurry impoundment collapse, and have watched the quality of life of many thousands of others suffer at the hands of coal mining operations, improper hazardous waste management, water and air pollution.
If the field of environmental protection can be characterized in gross terms as the adjustment of the rights and responsibilities as among those upwind and downwind, the uphill and downhill, and those upstream and downstream, I represent those who live downhill, downstream and downwind, and who have borne disproportionately the adverse health and quality of life impacts of our economic and political decisionmaking. They are impacts that should be internalized but which are instead shifted off-budget and are paid, at dear cost, by those least able to bear them. No one ever calls me because they are having a good day they call because they are in crisis because those things most precious to them have been placed in jeopardy, and they are frightened and angry. And they have lost their faith. The costs come from our thoughtless, careless, indifferent expenditure of our natural capital the building blocks of life, as if they were interest. They are costs borne disproportionately by disadvantaged people, by people without means and lacking political power.
So with my disclosure statement of my significantly limited perspective, let me turn to our topic for tonight.
In assessing the state of Kentucky's environment, let me preface the discussion by noting that, unquestionably, during the intervening 33 years since the first Earth Day, we have improved in stewardship of our natural resources. The level of responsibility for management of wastes, for air pollution, for water discharges has been raised from the era when strip miners indiscriminately bulldozed cemeteries over the outslopes of east Kentucky's mountains, and hazardous wastes were dumped into ravines at the Valley of the Drums. We no longer dig trenches and shoot drums of waste to dispose of them, as did the M&T Chemical Plant in Carrolton. Our major rivers do not catch fire as did Ohio's Cuyahoga. Many of the major releases of pollutants into our air, land and water resources occur under controls contained in permits issued by state or federal agencies. Our tolerance for obvious abuses of the environment is less than in the past, and even the largest polluting industries seek to spin a "green" image.
Yet despite the progress that has been made in reducing the pollution loading, we have not kept pace with the needs in improving and safeguarding our air, water and land quality. It is only the most undiscerning person who could state with any confidence that our efforts have been successful in restoring the legacy of environmental damage, in preventing current damage, and in achieving a level of performance and accountability that assures that our children will have the choices that we have, and will have the quality of environment and life that we enjoy and take for granted.
While most people believe that the time in which they live is one of "great choices," ours is indeed a critical time in which we will, by design or by default, make choices in our economic and natural resource policy that will define the future of our state. We face growing natural resource development pressure and witness the adverse impacts of that pressure on our private and public forest lands, and on land and water resources damaged by oil, gas and coal operations. Our farms face an uncertain future where loss of the traditional twin sources of financial support - tobacco and livestock, our cheap food policies, and increasing development pressures threaten the continued viability of agricultural communities as independent, small and moderate-scale operations. The biological integrity of our streams, the quality and supply of our water, the productive capability of our forest and agricultural lands, the air quality of, and the quality of life in our commonwealth hang in the balance, depending on the wisdom of our decisions concerning regulatory and budgetary policy.
Our economic fortunes as a state have been largely linked to inexpensive energy powered by coal combustion. Kentucky's challenge is how to prepare for the inevitable transition from an economy that has been powered by extractive industries and low-cost electricity, to an economy that can better sustain and meet the needs of all of our state's residents, and remain competitive in a regional and global economy while more fully accounting for the costs of resource extraction, energy generation, and industrial production.
For many counties in eastern and western Kentucky, the state of the environment is inextricably intertwined with extraction of coal, oil and gas, and how the costs associated with that extraction, beneficiation and transportation are accounted for. The coal industry has been living on the edge environmentally for many years, and the bill is coming due. The industry has been rocked by judicial decisions that have challenged its waste disposal and mining practices. Formerly accepted practices, such as construction of end and side-dumped fills in watersheds; mining under homes; hauling overweight on small rural roads; mining near and in streams without adequate protection of stream health; dumping coal mine wastes in slurry impoundments; have all come under new scrutiny and opposition. Coal combustion in aging utility plants is increasingly identified as a significant cause of failure to maintain healthy air quality in areas of the state and as a threat to recreation on public lands. These issues, and the response of the state and the industry, will affect which reserves are economically and technologically accessible, whether and how they can be mined, and how the waste products are managed for disposal. While the industry loves to blame others for its woes, the truth is that the industry, through its bottom-line, skating-on-the-edge approach to mining, to worker safety, and to social responsibility, has brought its woes on itself, and that the viability of the eastern coal industry in the short-term will rest on the industrys ability to understand and resolve, not avoid and ignore, need for reform in areas such as hauling overweight, excessive and improper blasting practices, end-dumped fills, and damage to water supplies. Anyone with passing familiarity of the lay of the land in the coalfields would have to note the resurgence of vocal communities and coalfield citizens groups, fueled by anger at the scale of abusive practices as perhaps the most significant trend in recent years in the area of coal mining. It is not going to end until the practices are reformed.
In the agricultural sector, the challenges are no less pressing. With the dramatic changes in the markets for both tobacco and livestock, the two reliable cash producers have declined. It is not happenstance that Kentucky has had among the highest number of small and moderate independent farming operations, and the challenge facing rural Kentucky, and indeed the state, is how to grow markets, to invest in farm communities, to create a stable, environmentally responsible, sustainable agricultural sector in the state.
The rise of the corporate, industrial agricultural model in chicken, hog and other livestock operations in the state has had a corrosive effect on the fabric of rural communities, pitting neighbor against neighbor, and rural towns against adjacent farms. The concentration of poultry and livestock on feedlots brings attendant air, waste and water pollution problems, and replaces independent farming operations with a contractual production model in which the control and financial gain is concentrated up the chain and drained from communities while the risks and responsibility for adverse environmental impacts are shifted to the backs of the individual contract operators. Providing for a more sustainable, locally-owned and locally-operated agricultural model, will depend on the wisdom of both the legislature and the new Administration.
A third issue of significance is the legacy of waste mismanagement. We have thousands of sites across the state in which hazardous substances were released, uncontrolled, into the environment and have contaminated land and water resources. Among these are the category of former industrial or commercial sites known as "Brownfields," ranging from mildly contaminated to superfund-eligible sites, and hundreds that are under the current control and ownership of the companies whose previous activities caused the contamination. In the area of hazardous waste management, the past decade has seen a steady drumbeat from industry to lower clean-up responsibility, to make less conservative risk assumptions, and to erode accountability for improperly disposed and poorly managed wastes. There are profound scientific and moral issues associated with remediation of contaminated properties, and we are currently concluding a process of hammering out consensus in the regulatory framework for assuring that these sites are returned to productive use while protecting human health.
Locally, it would be difficult to overstate the significance of air quality as a defining issue for the new Metro Government. After many years of effort, Louisville's air quality was redesignated into the attainment category for the 1-hour ozone standard. It is a virtual certainty that Louisville will be redesignated into the nonattainment category for the more robust and protective 8-hour standard, and will again be faced with the mandatory obligation to secure reductions on precursors of ozone pollutants (volatile organic compounds and nitrogen oxides) in order to demonstrate attainment within a reasonable time.
The loss of the VET program, with attendant increases in summer-day ozone precursors and air toxics, will complicate achievement of healthy air quality.
As the community begins in earnest to address air toxics emissions in the wake of the troubling results of ambient air toxic monitoring in the community, the inability to look to the mobile sector for reductions in hazardous air pollutants will require additional reductions from major stationary sources.
The release tomorrow of the Final Report: West Louisville Air Toxics Risk Assessment, prepared by Sciences International, Inc., will highlight some 20 toxic chemicals in our air for which health risks exceed de minimis cancer and other health risks. The District has the authority, under state law, to depart from state and federal minimum standards and timetables in order to craft a toxics reduction strategy that could accelerate reductions in these toxics from major stationary sources. Additionally, a range of options exist for reductions in these chemicals from non-major sources. The question is whether the will to do so exists, or whether the question will be forced through litigation. Enlightened leadership, both within the new metro government, and within the business community, is needed to embark on a continuous program of risk and emissions reduction, in order to erase the newly-minted image of a would-be first class city with third-world air quality.
In land management, our future is no less challenging. While I don't know if we are, as Robert Kennedy eloquently noted, "hard-wired" to be destructive, we certainly are an interesting and dangerous mixture at times of arrogance and ignorance in our manipulation of our physical environment.
In our unrelenting pursuit of creature comfort, we upend heaven and earth to get at natural resources, pave and widen more roads to move more quickly from one place to another, fill floodplains, wetlands and river headwaters to reshape the face of the earth to our whim, simply because we can. In this community, and probably elsewhere, we punctuate our destruction of habitat and conversion of farmland and natural areas with a flourish of contempt, naming the development for the prominent natural features we drained, ditched or obliterated to make way for the development.
We are, as Paul Ehrlich once noted, in a spaceship hurtling through the universe, pulling out the bolts of species diversity and ecological health from the ship's hull and discarding them one by one.
Finally adopted in June, 2000, Cornerstone 2020 significantly revised the previous comprehensive plan to better emphasize environmental compatibility. The new Land Development Code, containing the zoning districts and zoning regulations governing development in this community, became effective on March 1, 2003. But left unfinished when the Land Development Code was adopted were several critical enhancements to the existing code intended to implement Cornerstone 2020 in the area of environmental protection. Remaining areas in need of further work include karst features protection, measures to minimize hydrologic impacts on stream flow characteristics, wellhead protection, and special district standards for Floyds Fork, the Ohio River Corridor and Jefferson Forest.
Implementing the code and making decisions that further the goals and objectives, avoiding balkanization in decisionmaking, and enhancing compatibility of land uses of varying intensity in an increasingly built-out community, are among the challenges facing the new metro government. As projects like the proposed Okolona mall, previously rejected by both the county and Corps of Engineers, are "recycled", the principles of the new comprehensive plan and development code will be put to the test.
But our great challenge lies not in any particular industry practice. It lies in ourselves in our inability to envision that we are and can be better than we've become. We are so used to being a cheap date a state whose attractiveness to industry has been a combination of rock-bottom environmental standards and cheap power -- that we have a hard time envisioning ourselves otherwise. The tension between the new economy and the old, between community health and our unquenching desire for cheap power and the efforts by those who stands to profit in the short-term to advance the interests of the Kentucky extractive industries over the public interest, is unrelenting.
Our greatest challenge in protecting Kentucky's natural resources is to change a mindset that doing the bare minimum required of us is a fit legacy for our children to become firmly and creatively intolerant of environmental injustice and of mediocrity in our management of our environment. Our public policy has been driven for many years by a powerful myth that environmental quality is at odds with economic progress. We have enshrined in each of our major environmental laws the NO MORE STRINGENT policy converting national minimum standards, adopted in order to prevent states from racing to the bottom, our maximum standards, shackling us to the bottom rung of environmental progress. We starve the budget of the agency sworn to protect the very building blocks of our states health, and wonder why it is that many of our rivers are unsafe to wade or swim, and why the air quality in our state's largest city continues to injure public health each summer.
You cannot build a healthy economy with an ailing environment.
You cannot expect to create a healthy economy while failing to invest in public health and environmental protection. We have eked by, doing the bare minimum required of us, and as the federal framework of environmental protection has been dismantled since the advent of the Reagan Revolution, we have seen an erosion in polluter accountability at the state level.
Where formerly the rule of law was that if you contaminate land, you clean up your mess, we have eroded that accountability and shifted the cost of cleaning up the mess to the public and in particular, to future generations. We profess to value children, yet saddle them with the costs we refuse to pay as the bills for our lifestyles come due.
Where our goal was to end pollution of air and water, we now have stalled, reducing our agencies to licensing degradation rather than setting the bar higher to keep pace with the need and our capability.
We aspire to a healthy environment, even to the point that the polls consistently show that environmental protection is favored even over economic growth (as if that were a real choice), yet we accept so much less as public policy and in our elected officials.
The questions are both whether we are up to the task of reforming our energy and environmental policies in order to infuse them with the concepts of accountability, justice and survivability, and how we get the job done.
We can make a cleaner Kentucky, by being more accountable in the waste we generate and demanding that those who contaminate land and water resources bear the full cost of cleaning up, not hiding, paving or masking, their mess.
We can make a safer Kentucky, by requiring that those who store, manufacture, transport and use hazardous materials reduce their reliance on those materials and in so, reduce the risks to host communities. Homeland security comes from risk reduction through decreased reliance on hazardous chemicals, not from duct tape, plastic and depriving communities of the right to know of the chemical risks posed by their industrial neighbors.
We must demand that environmental agencies be fully funded, not as an afterthought, and not on a starvation budget but at a level sufficient to assure that environmental laws and permits are fully enforced.
We can make a healthier Kentucky, by investing our consumer food dollars in locally owned, healthy agricultural products providing Kentucky farmers with fair prices for their product.
We can make a more robust Kentucky by investing in clean energy - - in renewable hydro, biomass, wind and solar energy; in net metering, in requiring that fossil fuel combustion occur under the most stringent controls and that the choice of fuels fully account for the life-cycle costs from extraction to disposal. We create direct and indirect subsidies for combusting Kentucky coal where is our public investment in harnessing Kentucky's sun and wind?
I look around this audience, and I see the collective hundreds of years of potential energy, and I have no doubt that you; that we are up to the task. Our recent environmental history is replete with examples of how people of good will can become so much more when working together as co-conspirators for positive change:
* the 1991 Solid Waste Law Reforms, which melded farm, rural economic justice, and conservation groups into a potent coalition;
* the amazing KFTC campaign, employing effective use of the media and personal witness, to end the broad form deed, and the coalition of legal talent, of which I was privileged to play a role along with my mentor John Rosenberg and other colleagues;
* extending permanent protection to Black Mountain's peak, which coupled the legal support of KRC with the courage and the vision of Harlan County activists;
* protecting the Pine Mountain Settlement School; which required the efforts of thousands of supporters, legal support from KRC, and the courage of Robin Lambert, Robert Gipe and the Harlan County KFTC Chapter.
But the campaigns have been "retail," focusing on one or two issues and moving them forward, without affecting or altering the policies, the institutions, the politics that spawn the crises. We must become more focused on the institutions, on the economic policies, on the politics that create such a disconnect between what we profess to value and believe, and the policies of our elected officials and business leaders.
We've got to get busy! But how do we get there?
* Build coalitions. Retail (issue or crisis-centered) organizing campaigns are exhausting and unsustaining. Durable (wholesale) change comes through the creation and recreation of institutions to meet community needs and to sustain and uplift communities.
* We get wet. You've already taken the plunge into active volunteerism.
* Work for reform in governance. When offices go to the highest bidder and the wealthiest candidate, decisions reflecting the broader public interest over the insular interests of those investing in the candidates are rare. When we aspire to mediocrity in governance, when democracy isn't working, the poor, children, the environment, the public's interest suffer. As we go forward together, we must remind ourselves always that accommodating injustice never made the unjust more just.
* We've got to get dirty. Roll up your sleeves and run for office. Quiz candidates on their environmental platforms support those who stand for improved environmental quality, and oppose those whose records justify that opposition. Go door to door for those who share your values. Educate those candidates who don't.
* Hold your elected officials accountable. The current Administration has embarked on a concerted campaign to roll back environmental and worker safety protections, and substantially cutting research for renewable and efficient energy. Environmental policies should be the defining criteria for your votes in 2004 and beyond.
* Bear witness, risk being thought a fool, lest your silence in the face of injustice be regarded as complicity. We must reconnect our policies with our moral values. Our failure in stewardship of natural resources, and the careless and at times horrific damage inflicted on nature in war and in peace, reflects a moral crisis. Our policies must be driven by values more enduring and more robust, than the quarterly bottom line. Reflecting on a life of advocacy for children, Marian Wright Edelman penned this prayer:
"God did not call us to succeed, but to serve. Not to win, but to work. Not to be happy, but to be hopeful. Not to fame, but to faith. Not to seek power, but to seek peace. God did not call us to loot the earth and each other, God called us to love our earth and each other."
* Mentor. Sit at the feet of those who came before you, and mentor those who follow. Learn from the past in order to make sense of the present and to inform the future.
How do we build a more sustaining, a more just political and economic environment? As Mother Teresa told the interviewer who wondered how she persevered in the face of overwhelming need "one soul at a time" beginning with our own. Never despair that your efforts are too small; too little to make a difference.
Recall the words that Marian Wright Edelman penned in prayer
Lord, help me not to be a taker but a tender,
Help me not to be a whiner but a worker,
Help me not to be a getter but a giver,
Help me not to be a hindrance but a help,
Help me not to be a critic but a catalyst for good.
* Be intolerant. Just as accommodating injustice never made an unjust person more just, tolerating mediocrity in environmental pollution never made a polluting industry or an indifferent politician more responsible.
Let me close with a reflection from Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, wrote these words in the early 1950's at a time like now when, it is at times difficult to find evidence that we have made progress in those things that matter:
"Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime, therefore we must be saved by hope. Nothing that is true and beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore we must be saved by faith. Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore we are saved by love. No virtuous act is quite as virtuous from the standpoint of our friend or foe as it is from our standpoint; therefore we must be saved by the final form of love which is forgiveness."
Let us aspire to be less acquisitive, less aggressive in our relationships with each other and our environment. Let us face our tomorrows with hope and humility and continue together in struggle and in fellowship to improve the environmental legacy we will leave.