2003 Appalachian Studies Association Conference

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2003 Appalachian Studies Association Conference  Posted: July 19, 2003

"Environmental Challenges Facing Kentucky"

Keynote Address by Tom FitzGerald, Director

Kentucky Resources Council, Inc.

Appalachian Studies Association Conference

March 28, 2003, Eastern Kentucky University

Richmond, Kentucky


What a treat for me to be here with you this evening.

I am probably the last person you would want at an academic conference. 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 often, but have a keen sense of what is right in front of my face. As is true of us all, my perspective has been forged by my experiences. No one, in my 31 years of advocacy, has ever called to tell me they were having a "good day-" that the air was pure, the land clean, the water the color it should be. They call because they are in crisis – that living downhill, downwind and downstream, they have been threatened in their homes and the health. Some might suggest that my perspective has been shaded, jaundiced, slanted. So be it.

This conference is an important time and place. During these difficult days, this conference provides a time for personal renewal – a time for reflection and for looking at how the pieces can fit together. It is a time to remember what animates us – why each of you have dedicated your energies to a region and what lies ahead of us.

I am a big believer in "full disclosure." For twenty-three years I have represented low-income citizens 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, 19 as director of the Kentucky Resources Council, a non-profit provider of free legal and strategic assistance on environmental matters. My perspective has been forged by my experiences with the underside of the coal economy. I have buried one client who was crushed to death in a slurry impoundment collapse because of poor design and poorer construction, and have watched the quality of life of many thousands of others suffer at the hands of coal mining operations. I have seen some responsible operations, as well, though because no one calls me when they are having a good day, so I see fewer of those than their less-responsible brethren. But it is the knowledge that the mining industry can do much better than what has become the accepted norm in minimizing disruption to air, land and water resources that makes me that much more intolerant of the bottom-line practices that have been the legacy of the industry.

It is impossible to discuss the environmental challenges facing the Appalachian region without talking about coal and the other extractive industries – oil and natural gas. The economy of the region and the environmental policy of this state have been driven by the extractive industries and they have left, and continue to leave, their mark on the health of the region's land and people.

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. The biological integrity of our streams, the quality and supply of our water, and the air quality of the region hang in the balance. Our economic fortunes as a state and a region have been linked to inexpensive energy powered by coal combustion. Kentucky's challenge is how to transition from an economy that has been powered by extractive industries and low-cost electricity, to an economy that can better sustain, meet the needs of all of the region's residents, and remain competitive while more fully accounting for the costs of producing and combusting fossil fuels. Those off-budget costs have been disproportionately paid by the people and environment of the Appalachian region – and they have paid dearly.

The coal industry has been living on the edge environmentally for many years, and the bill has come due. The industry has been rocked by judicial decisions that have challenged its waste disposal and mining practices, and it must reconfigure extraction and spoil management approaches to respond to regulatory and judicial decisions. Formerly accepted practices, such as construction of 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 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 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.

I am not sanguine about the near-term. 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 desire to advance the interests of the Kentucky extractive industries, is unrelenting.

The coal industry has never been long on introspection. Throughout the thirty years that I have worked on environmental issues related to the coal industry, the industry I have observed has been incapable of recognizing that extracting coal and upending the earth to do so; handling and disposing of wastes; moving the product from mine-site to market; combusting the coal in power plants not designed with best pollution control technologies; and disposal of combustion wastes; cause harm to the public's resources and the legitimate rights of others. The harm has not been fully accounted for, prevented and minimized. Instead, it is always someone else's fault – environmentalists, Washington, the jealous Northeastern states, the UN, God. The self-image the industry sees is a bunch of good apples with one rotten one, beleaguered and set upon by ignorant citizens fueled by misinformation and a vengeful press. The arrogance of the industry is remarkable – and at times knows no shame.

A coal company who had purchased bargain-basement mining bonds, faced with replacing the bonds after the insurer ran into financial trouble had the audacity to claim that 9-11, rather than its unwillingness to pay higher premiums, was responsible for it's inability to secure replacement bonds – even though the other companies in Kentucky found replacement bonds. A recent Coal Journal article had the gall to accuse citizens who sought to apply the "lands unsuitable" protections of the coal mine laws to preventing undermining of homes, churches and cemeteries, of being un-American.

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 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.

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 and justice, and how we get the job done.

I just emerged from the 2003 legislative session, and can tell you that if the editors are looking for new chapters for the revised Profiles in Courage, the pickings are slim in Frankfort. Yet even in the session, the plain-spoken courage of individuals like Letcher County Judge Carroll Smith; the quiet, competent tenacity of KFTC organizer Kevin Pence; and the eloquent witness borne by Nina Hatfield on the human costs of oil and gas industry abuse of landowners rights, shone through.

I look around this room, at the "old guard" and the "young turks," and I see the collective hundreds of years of unflagging and courageous advocacy and scholarship, and I have no doubt that we are up to the task. But how do we get there?

It will take each of you, bringing your skills, using your voice, chipping away, supporting, nurturing each other – the economists, engineers, lawyers, teachers, musicians, artists, writers, parents, children, clergy – becoming a "critical mass". No one can create durable change in a vacuum, alone.

What is our greatest environmental challenge? It 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.

It is to bear witness, to risk being thought a fool, lest your silence in the face of injustice be regarded as complicity.

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;

* 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.

So what can we do?

* 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. Durable political change doesn't occur through running "green" candidates for president once every four years. It comes at the grassroots – from the SBDM Councils to City Councils, to county and legislative offices.

* Get wet. Take the plunge into active volunteerism.

* Get dirty. Roll up your sleeves and run for office. Support candidates for office. Go door to door for those who share your values. Educate those candidates who don't. I once heard a presentation at a "young movers and shakers to be" conference at Shakertown, by former Governor Ned Breathitt – a man who will be remembered for taking steps to combat racism and strip mining abuse, and philanthropist W.T. Young. The one thing that Ms. Young regretted in a life that you would not think had many regrets? That he had never "stood" for office.

* Be creatively and firmly intolerant of environmental injustices great and small.

* Be provocative. Unlock your capacity to lead by example.

* 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.

* Above all, dream of a better future and make it happen. Remember the words of Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, penned at a time like ours when the horrors of war weighed heavily on his heart and hope of redemption seemed elusive.

Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime; therefore we must be

saved by hope. Nothing which 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.


Enjoy your time here. Let is face our tomorrows with hope and humility.

By Kentucky Resources Council on 07/19/2003 9:57 AM
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