“Earth Days in The Cumberlands” is an important time here at EKU, and for the larger Madison County community as well. During these difficult days –
- days of deepening mistrust and disaffection of individuals for government
-days of growing rifts in the body politic between the haves and have nots
- days where the political center in which responsible environmental governance has occurred has given way to scorched-earth politics
- where partisan attacks by the legislative branch on the independence of the judiciary rock the very foundations of our Constitution and democracy,
this month-long series of events provide a time for personal renewal and fellowship – a time for reflection, a time to remember what animates us – what we value – what we are passionate about – why many of you have dedicated your energies to environmental issues, and on what lies ahead of us. And I appreciate being a part of this important time and place.
I was asked 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-two 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-two years, and for the past twenty-five 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 21 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 friend and 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 the most basic sense as the adjustment of the rights and responsibilities as among those upwind and downwind, the uphill and downhill, and those upstream and downstream, I work for an organization that represents those who live downhill, downstream and downwind – those people who have borne disproportionately the adverse health and quality of life impacts of our economic and political decisionmaking. 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 largely by disadvantaged people, by people without means and lacking political power.
Those are impacts that should be internalized, that should be part of the cost of the products we use and the energy we consume, but they are not, and are instead shifted off-budget and are paid, at dear cost, by those least able to bear them.
KRC is a legal aid firm, providing free legal assistance to people and communities in need. 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.
So with that disclosure 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 35 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 family 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 the more 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 into our air, land and water, 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 reversing and erasing the legacy of environmental damage that we have inflicted in the last 60 years, in preventing further 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, nation and world. 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. As the costs of all forms of fossil fuel energy – coal, heating oil, electricity, gasoline, continue to trend upwards, 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 sustain and better 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 as 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 coal 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.
The viability of the eastern coal industry in the short-term will rest on the industry’s 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.
Another 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 the conscious decision to do less than completely cleaning up the messes we’ve caused, will shift the cost to the next generation in the form of lessened availability of lands for use, or deferred costs to make the land useful.
In two of our major cities, air quality remains a pressing challenge. While Lexington may celebrate their recent redesignation by EPA as meeting the new air quality standard for fine particulates, that celebration is akin, if not to whistling past the graveyard, then certainly to whistling past the ER, since they barely meet the current regulatory standard and the health science indicates that harm, particularly to children born and unborn, occurs at much lower concentrations than the current “legal” standard.
The bottom line, folks, is that you can’t build a healthy community with sick air. Louisville’s local air pollution board, with the support of its mayor, has proposed a forward-thinking program for reducing the concentrations of air toxics, and is facing a full-court press from industry which seeks to preserve the ability to dilute their wastes with the public’s air.
How did we get to this point – where the issue is framed as whether government can justify imposing additional controls on toxic discharges to air, land and water rather than the real issue, which is where and by what right any party – any corporation – any person – can claim the right to impose the costs of their doing business on the public’s air, land and water?
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 of arrogance and ignorance in our manipulation of our physical environment.
We are the “new Rome.” In our unrelenting pursuit of creature comfort, we upend heaven and earth to get at coal and other 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. We punctuate our destruction of natural habitat and our conversion of farmland and natural areas with a flourish of contempt, naming the development for the prominent natural features that we have 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.
But our great challenge lies not in any particular industry practice. It lies in ourselves – in our persistent 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 electric power, between the efforts by those who value short-term income over the public interest, is unrelenting.
No, 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 too many years by a powerful and damaging myth – that environmental quality is at odds with economic progress. We have enshrined in each of our major environmental laws and in our mindset a “no more stringent than” 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.
Isn’t it ironic that as a culture we profess to value our children, yet we short-change them at every turn with our fiscal and ecological irresponsibility. We claim to love them, yet we saddle them with the costs we refuse to pay as the bills for our lifestyles come due. We rob from the future to help pay the tabs that we have run up as we live high off the land with our “mountains of things.”
What happened to our goal was to end pollution of air and water? How has it transpired that we have reduced our agencies to the role of licensing degradation rather than setting the bar higher to keep pace with the need and our capability. The public aspires 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. You have to answer the first question for yourself, though I sense, I trust, I have seen enough to believe that you are up to the task. I can help a little on the “how.”
We can make a cleaner Kentucky, by being more accountable for the waste we generate and demanding that same accountability of others - 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 the use and bulks storage of 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. And those agencies must be held accountable to fully enforce the laws – not merely to streamline permits, but to make those permits enforceable and protective. Permits should be written by agency staff who are trained, paid and protected well from the political winds of the day, not outsourced to private sector contractors.
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. Each time you invest your food dollar in direct agricultural purchase from a producer, you are committing an act of revolution – repudiating a “cheap food policy” in lieu of a “fair food policy” that has led to disastrous results for years in the agricultural sector. You are affirming the value of healthy, low-impact food production.
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.
Governor Fletcher’s Energy Plan notes, appropriately, that energy efficiency is an area where great gains can be made, but the question for this administration, which will be answered in the next year’s legislative package and beyond, is whether the policies will match the rhetoric
So far, it’s more of the same – more tax breaks for supposed “clean coal technology” that actually favor burning Kentucky coal rather than cleaner technologies.
Our cheap energy costs have made us profligate in our energy use, and there are tremendous savings to be achieved, and corresponding improvements in environmental quality and in moderating the increasing costs of energy, if we invest in efficiency in conversion and use of power, in diversifying our energy portfolio, in decoupling use from rates, and in revamping the way we approve rates so that the full cost of the energy choices is captured and incorporated – costs such as waste management and air pollution.
We create direct and indirect subsidies for combusting Kentucky coal – but 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 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 campaign to end the broad form deed, and the coalition of legal talent, of which I was privileged to play a small role, working for 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 mostly 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.
Folks, we've got to get busy! But how do we get there?
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.
- 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.
- Get wet. Take 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.
- 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 from now forward.
- 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.
- Reconnect your values and your choices. 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 could create change against the tide of such 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.
Edelman, founder of the Children’s Defense Fund, penned this silent prayer for strength:
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. The meek may indeed inherit the earth, but unless we get busy, it won’t be worth much to them! 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.
As Frederick Douglass reflected in his 1957 essay on “West India Emancipation,” “[I]f there is not struggle there is no progress. . . power concedes nothing without demand. It never did and it never will.”
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 fathom the depth of humankind’s capacity for cruelty, and difficult to find evidence that we have made meaningful 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 reconnect our values and our acts - aspire to be less acquisitive, less aggressive in our relationships with each other and towards our environment. Let us face our tomorrows with hope and with humility and continue together in struggle and in fellowship to improve the environmental legacy we will leave.
I can tell you with a certainty, after 32 years of advocacy work, and 27 years as an environmental advocate before our state legislature, that the day does belong to those who show up. Your voice, your actions, your choices can and do make a difference.