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Moving Beyond Coal, from Kentucky to MichiganPrint

Clean Energy | June 9, 2010 | By Janice Benson

Kentuckian Beverly May and her neighbors stopped a mountaintop blasting project that would have buried a local stream and holler under coal mining rubble. Photo Courtsey Appalshop Inc/Whitesburg, KY

Several years ago, I lived and worked in the mountains of Eastern Kentucky.

I spent my time there volunteering with a non-profit and providing outreach to local residents in the heart of coal country. I taught adult education, worked with pre-school children in a child development center and community health advocates program, but most of all, I spent my time visiting the homebound elderly.

Some were spry, some were fragile, and many were the widows of coal miners, who lost their husbands to black lung disease. In my time there, I listened and learned about a culture rich in history. And I felt a connection: My own grandfather was an iron ore miner in the small town of Wakefield, in the far western corner of the Upper Peninsula. I sensed that the people I visited felt a connection, too; they often told me about family members up in Michigan who moved north to work at the Willow Run plant. They often quoted Dwight Yoakam’s song, Readin’, Rightin’, Route 23.

During that time, I was immersed in the glories, the sorrows, and the constant that is coal.  I witnessed the daily rumble of the coal trucks and the sweet smell of coal burning up the hollers. I listened to the stories of camaraderie and proud memories, as well as the realities of the painful accidents and illnesses. I heard frustration and gratitude, all wrapped into one.

I watched the black-faced workers coming home from the deep mines, and I walked across old strip mines, in awe at how barren and strange such land could look, in striking contrast to the deep green of the hills and valleys around it. I learned of stunningly beautiful streams whose water was unsafe to drink.

Though I didn’t really understand everything I was seeing at the time, I too, felt both sorrow and pride. Proud of the men, like my grandfather, who worked long, grueling hours for their pay, and earned the respect of anyone they met. Sorrow for the early deaths of so many, and for the destruction of the environment.

When you’ve climbed the top of the old fire tower in Maytown and seen the hillsides in bloom with redbuds and dogwoods, these images stay with you. When you’ve held the hands of people in hospitals beds and heard their voices, you know how important it is to protect these beautiful lands and these beautiful people.

Since I moved away from Kentucky, friends had told me that mountaintop removal was devastating many mountains in the area that I once lived. After reading the book, Something’s Rising, and following the Web site of Kentuckians for the Commonthweath, I learned that one of the mountains on Wilson Creek, in Floyd County, not far from where I used to climb that old fire tower, was at risk of mountaintop removal.

And I read about a woman named Beverly May, who had organized folks to fight the coal company that was threatening to destroy her beloved family land. I was inspired by Beverly’s story, captured in an inspiring documentary called Down Deep, and her passion to fight for the land that she loves.

A few weeks ago, I had the chance to return to Kentucky for a visit, and I headed straight for Floyd County. As I motored along the Mountain Parkway, I drove past billboards and bumper stickers proclaiming, “I support Coal!”  I briefly felt like an outsider again, remembering once again the intense fights and politics, and the incredible power that coal companies control in this region.

But I drove onward, and visited my friends, and walked and biked the roads to see for myself what was happening. I also was determined meet Beverly May, to get her first-hand perspective, and I was lucky enough to find her.

Beverly was warm and kind, in true Kentucky style, and she seemed excited that I wanted to meet her. When she learned of my work in the local foods movement with the Michigan Land Use Institute, she quickly invited my husband and I in for a local foods brunch-the best I can remember having in a long time!

We chatted about her fight to save Wilson Creek, and she beamed with some good news to share. She told me about a recent executive order by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that would lead to much greater protection for streams in Appalachia’s coal-producing region. E.P.A. proposed new water quality standards that could prohibit most “valley fills” associated with mountaintop removal.

And because the standard process for mountaintop removal involves valley fills-dumping the blown-up debris from the blasted-off mountaintop into the adjacent valleys-any plans to mine Wilson Creek or any other mountaintop in Appalachia in this way would be pretty much impossible without breaking the new laws.

So, not only are the streams protected, but this helps to protect the mountaintops, too. This is a huge, huge step.

As she told us about her fight, and the challenges along the way, we were thrilled at the realization that not only will Wilson Creek be protected, but all of the mountains in Appalachia will have more protection against this terrible practice.

And as we talked, I could see that Beverly was already thinking about the next steps of what she calls the “Coal Transition.” She told me about a recent conference that the Kentuckians for the Commonwealth hosted, calledGrowing Appalachia: Moving Forward in the Mountains. It was held right in Floyd County, and focused on small-scale farming, renewable energy, and energy efficiency in the region. The response was great and drew a large, interested crowd. While these kinds of transitions will take time, it is exciting to think about all of the possibilities and great potential.

I shared information about our own Taste the Local Difference project and our farm-to-school efforts, as well as our recent Farm Route to Prosperity Summit. We discussed ideas and, once again, I felt a connection between our two states. Both are rich in natural resources, but need to fiercely protect what they have. Both are experiencing staggering unemployment, while struggling to transition towards new, greener economies.

I know that coal mining won’t disappear tomorrow, but while efforts move forward to transition towards renewable energy, it is essential that the methods used to extract coal are as safe as possible for the miners, for the water, for the land.

We know the effects that coal-burning plants have on our environment here in Michigan, but it is also important to remember some of the other costs. Do we think about the people and the land where coal comes from? Do we picture the coal dust filling the air and covering gardens, and the labored breaths of the mouths tied to oxygen tanks?  Do we picture the creek running in colors beyond blue and the cracks in the foundations of the houses down the road from the mine? Since my visit, I do.

It makes me remember to turn the light switch off when I leave the room; it makes me forgo the air conditioning on hot summer days, and the big screen TV or other things that I don’t really need. It makes me think about conservation, and how we cannot take things for granted.

We all live downstream.

Though I sometimes feel despair when I think about these things, after my recent visit back to Kentucky and the recent permit denial of the proposed Rogers City coal plant here in Michigan, I feel a renewed sense of hope. It is comforting to know, first-hand, that folks like Beverly May are working hard down there in Kentucky, just like we are, up here at home, fighting to protect the things we love.

Janice Benson, the project director for the Michigan Land Use Institute’s Taste the Local Difference program,produces MLUI’s annual farm and food guide. Reach her at janice@mlui.org.