Reflections on KRC and the Virginia Environmental Endowment Posted: September 20, 2009
VEE and the Kentucky Resources Council: Nurturing A Vision To Create Change
It is not an understatement to say that without the Virginia Environmental Endowment, the Kentucky Resources Council (KRC) might never had become what it has been for a quarter-century – the only statewide legal and technical resource in the Commonwealth of Kentucky providing advice and representation without charge for low-income individuals, community organizations, local governments, and the public on environmental, resource extraction, and energy issues.
The Director of KRC, Tom FitzGerald (“Fitz”), was employed as a Reginald Heber Smith Community Lawyer Fellow with the Appalachian Research and Defense Fund of Kentucky (APPALRED) from 1978 – 80 as a law clerk and from 1980 - 84 as a staff attorney and environmental specialist with that program. Much of the work focused on mining regulation; an issue that Fitz had worked on as an advocate as early as 1973.
The advent of the Reagan presidency brought with it repeated attempts to defund the Legal Services Corporation, which had been created under the Nixon Administration, and to end federally support for civil legal services for the poor. Failing to succeed in that effort, the Reagan Administration began to constrain the ability of LSC attorneys to advocate for their clients. Rather than accept those constraints, Fitz left APPALRED and, with his pension fund of $2,000 and a $5,000 donation from Clark Woolum (in recognition of the assistance Fitz had provided in a successful wrongful death lawsuit against a coal company whose coal waste dam collapsed and killed his mother), rented an office in the capital city of Frankfort and began to rebuild the Kentucky Resources Council.
KRC had existed on paper since 1982, but most of the staff of the organization had left by that time. The remaining Board members and sole remaining volunteer staff, Pamla Wood, supported the transformation of KRC (formerly the Kentucky Rivers Coalition and best known for defeating the Red River Dam in the now-national wild and scenic Red River Gorge) into a legal and technical services program – an environmental legal aid program free of corporate and government funds.
Fitz wrote over thirty grant proposals to public foundations that funded environmental advocacy work. Repeatedly, Fitz was told “we don’t fund legal work,” or “we only fund community-based activism.” One person, a former state regulator who understood that without legal and technical assistance, grassroots activism lacks the ability to access the bureaucracy and the dense jungle of laws and regulations in order to make government more responsive and more just. That person was Gerald McCarthy, and he took a chance on a proposal to create of KRC a resource that would help focus and enable positive environmental change in the Commonwealth. For nine years thereafter, VEE would provide a matching grant that helped attract support from other individuals and foundations, and enabled KRC to begin what has now been a 25-year effort to advance justice in environmental and energy matters.
Mary Bingham, notably, provided the remainder of the support for KRC in those early years, believing it to be an essential voice for the disenfranchised. After her death, her son Barry and now his widow, Edie Bingham, have continued to be a mainstay of KRC’s support. Mary and Sally Brown would encourage each other to support their charities, and Sally Brown became a supporter of KRC as well during those early years.
This year is the 25th in KRC’s history as a legal and technical resource – and over that time, KRC has had a measurable impact in advancing environmental policy within the Commonwealth, and in helping coalfield citizens across the nation. KRC’s and Fitz’s work was recognized by the Heinz Endowment when it awarded Fitz the 14th Heinz Award in the Environment category, and KRC is recognized nationally as a source of solid research and aggressive and principled advocacy.
In 1993, recognizing that VEE had continued to fund KRC much longer than the typical grant cycle with any one organization, KRC indicated that it would not seek further grant funding. Several fledgling grassroots organizations in the Ohio River valley were in need of that same type of seed support and faith that VEE had given KRC, and KRC did not want to compete against those groups for the Ohio River grant monies. Here is what KRC wrote to Jerry on the occasion of its final report in February, 1993:
“At this time, since this is the last request for reimbursement and the final Report of Activities that the Council will be submitting, let me thank you in the most heartfelt manner for the support, the encouragement, and the friendship you have extended to me and to the Council for all these many years. When I received your letter and your phone call in May of l984, I was at wits end - I knew that the legal and strategic assistance that I wanted to provide through the Council was needed more than ever by local groups throughout the state, but could not convince any funders that our proposal was worth the gamble. You understood, you dared to take a risk on us, and without you, the Kentucky Resources Council would never have sustained these many years.
I cannot thank you enough for your efforts, and for the sustaining support that the Board of Directors of the Endowment has provided to our work."
THAT is what VEE has meant to KRC, and to the people and the natural resources of the Commonwealth.