Whitesburg KY

Call for outlawing mountaintop mines creates controversy

College trying to distance itself from comments by UK professor

Public debate over the mountaintop removal method of strip-mining exploded into southeastern Kentucky late last week, leaving dust clouds from the aftermath hanging high in the sky.

The blast was ignited last Thursday when University of Kentucky Professor Ron Eller called for an end to mountaintop mining, saying such a move would actually benefit the region’s economy. Eller, recognized as a leading authority on Appalachian history, was at Hazard Community and Technical College to accept the East Kentucky Leadership Foundation’s award for service to the region by a private individual. He was also the keynote speaker for the opening of 22nd annual East Kentucky Leadership Conference.

Fallout from Eller’s remarks began immediately and showed no signs of letting up this week. On Tuesday, HCTC President Allen Goben distanced the college from

Eller’s remarks in a letter to The

Mountain Eagle and other coalfield newspapers.

“Mr. Eller called for the immediate elimination of surface mining and mountaintop removal practices,” Goben wrote. “A spirited rebuttal was offered the following day by Kentucky House Speaker Greg Stumbo, who noted the many benefits of these practices during his luncheon keynote while offering good thoughts about responsible planning for reclaimed land use. … As a host site, we were merely a location where some debate took place.”

Goben says HCTC belongs to “everyone” in the region and supports the “mining industry” as well as “efforts to maintain and develop our environment.”

Eller told an audience of about 250 that the practice of mountaintop removal must be abolished if eastern Kentucky is to reach its economic potential and that Kentucky as a whole must abandon its reliance on extractive industry. Eller said strip mining is not necessary to mine coal but just costs less.

“It’s just cheaper,” said Eller. “And not compatible with clean water, clean air, and the region’s growing adventure tourism industry.”

Kentucky Governor Steve Beshear addressed the conference after Eller. While Beshear did not endorse Eller’s position, he did say that global warming is a scientific fact and must be addressed. Beshear said there is no reason to deny the science and stressed the state’s determination to find the so-far undiscovered methods of making coal energy clean.

Beshear also said Kentucky should position itself to take advantage of other forms of clean energy because the demand will grow. He stressed energy conservation in Kentucky as well.

Beshear said that although Kentucky does not have the industrial footprint of many larger and better developed states, it is still the seventh-highest user of energy because of the cheap rates made possible by the state’s dependence on coal-fired energy plants. He said Kentuckians must become more energy conscious and energy efficient, and that all areas of energy production will be job creators for the future.

“We’re known as a coal state and 50 percent of the nation’s energy comes from coal,” said Beshear. “There will be changes. We will have to find a way to control C02 but we can create green jobs as we move into clean energy production.”

Beshear said he is currently looking to hire someone in state government who can market eastern Kentucky for business and other opportunities the region has to offer. He said he is also trying to figure out how to pay for the position in today’s strained economy.

“We need to market what we have to offer,” said Beshear. “We’ve made a lot of progress in eastern Kentucky.”

Beshear said he is kept well informed on issues facing the region by Lt. Governor Daniel Mongiardo, who is from Hazard and still practices medicine there, as well as by House Speaker Stumbo, who is from Floyd County. Beshear listed adventure tourism, an issue close to Mongiardo’s heart, as well as hiking, bicycling, and horse trails as areas with tourism potential for the region.

Eller also stressed tourism as a viable part of economic development for eastern Kentucky, but emphasized that the region must develop a regional homegrown economy based on local entrepreneurs instead of being dependent on the extractive economies such as coal and natural gas.

“Central Appalachia will never develop a viable tourism economy until the destruction of the mountains ceases,” said Eller.

Beshear also listed health care, dental care, infrastructure, early childhood education, and K-12 education as areas of concern for the region. He said there will be no budget cuts to K-12 education this year and that his administration has directed $500,000 to the Save the Children Federation in eastern Kentucky.

Beshear cited cuts to higher educational funding as troublesome, but said that no student should be denied the right to attend college because of costs. However, lack of budget funding from the General Assembly has caused yearly increases in tuition at all Kentucky’s universities and has made the cost of attending college in Kentucky out of reach for many poor students. Beshear said he is glad the tuition increases have been slightly lower this year.

“This is the first time in ten years we have held tuition increases to less than ten percent,” said Beshear.

Beshear said he agrees with Eller that eastern Kentucky is a very complex region and said the state needs to make strategic investments in order to build on existing opportunities and develop new ones.

“We need to make those kinds of investments to where we do not go systematically backward.”

Beshear also said that Appalachia should be held up with pride although it has also been held up for national ridicule as well. He said there area has strengths and weaknesses just as any other region and has nothing to apologize for.

“Eastern Kentucky is as American as any place in the country,” Beshear said.

Beshear said that news shows such as ABC’s “20/20” are provocative and get a lot of attention but they also play to stereotypes. He said he is proud of ABC News and “20/20” correspondent Diane Sawyer as a Louisville native, but said a lot of good things about the region were left out of her recent look at Appalachia. Beshear said that for every trash-littered trailer there are also dozens of attractive subdivisions and lots of affordable housing. He said he is proud of eastern Kentucky, but also recognizes the region’s problems.

“We have to put ourselves to work and come together to address our problems,” said Beshear. “We can come a long way.”

Eller is a native of Appalachia and the former director of the Appalachian Center at the University of Kentucky and a Rockefeller Scholar. His office at UK was formerly inhabited by late Whitesburg attorney Harry

Caudill, author of Night Comes to

the Cumberlands. Eller is the author

of Miners, Millhands and

Mountaineers: Industrialization of

the Appalachian South, 1880 –

1930 as well as a new book, Uneven

Ground: Appalachia Since

1945, which has been getting high praise.

“Focusing primarily on the relationship between relief and development efforts and the deteriorating postwar mountain communities and economy, Eller’s study stands as an indictment of failed governmental policies, faulty theories and models, and corporate greed and irresponsibility,” wrote Marshall University historian Kevin Barksdale in a review on H-Net, an international on-line consortium of scholars and teachers. “From the acceleration of Appalachia’s postwar economy to the contemporary grassroots efforts to halt mountaintop removal

mining practices, Uneven Ground

covers a staggering amount of historical terrain and fills a long-overdue gap in the region’s historiography.”

Mountain Eagle writer William

Farley contributed to this report.

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