Some big names headlined the agenda at the 35th annual Governor’s Energy and Environment Conference in Kentucky this week, and all agreed that communities and industry would have to work together to find solutions to environmental problems facing the state.
Perhaps the biggest name on Monday’s program was Gwen Keyes Fleming, southeast regional administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, which has come under attack from officials and political candidates in the region for such actions as tighter controls on mountaintop-removal strip mining of coal.
Fleming said she was striving to find mutual respect and understanding between industries and the communities where they operate in order to find the best way to craft a solution for those communities, by combining environmental stewardship with economic good sense.
“With all of these challenges, it’s important for us to turn to each other and not on each other,” she said. “It’s important for us to listen and to include the community and their views in those discussions about energy and extraction.”
She said she’s spent much time in Kentucky dealing with issues related to surface coal mining, and said the messages she was getting from members of Kentuckians for the Commonwealth may not be what the energy industry would expect. She said the group doesn’t want mining to end, but wants companies to be mindful of protecting the water and air — things the community needs every day.
Fleming said one of her main goals as Region 4 administrator is environmental justice, reaching out to communities that are unserved and underserved. “People ask: Why is the EPA delving into this? First and foremost, it’s the morally right thing to do. If you look at the statutes, it is a constitutional right that they apply to everybody equally. It doesn’t say clean water for some or clean air for others.”
Fleming added that environmental justice is also important for economic development, saying that as long as certain communities were dealing with undue burdens of pollution, sustainable businesses that could strengthen the economy would not want to locate in those areas.
Her regional office is dealing with a wide variety of difficult issues, Fleming said, but more than anything, she said her staffers are committed to making sure they understand the issues, that they are asking tough questions, and that they are finding the best solution for everyone.
“We are dealing with issues of importance that we simply can not turn away from,” she said.
Len Peters, secretary of the state Energy and Environment Cabinet, said the goal of the conference was to bring people from a diverse range of interests and expertise together to focus on the issues. “This dialogue is very important and it can be very constructive,” he said.
Dr. Lee T. Todd Jr., recently retired president of the University of Kentucky, was the keynote speaker. He focused on accomplishments made by UK during his 10 years as president. He touted UK’s Center for Applied Energy Research, which he said has conducted $68 million worth of research to “address the environmental impact” of mining and burning coal. The center is also working on carbon-capture technology, including studies of algae as an energy source.
Todd said he was very proud of the university’s willingness to partner with the coal and natural-gas industries, and added that with the proper amount of research and regulations, Kentucky could change its economy with the energy industry.
“Too many times, universities want to do what they want to do,” Todd said, “and they don’t want to solve the problems that industry has.” He said UK’s “carbon research management group,” has partnerships with various energy companies, including American Electric Power, Duke Energy, East Kentucky Power Cooperative, LG&E and Kentucky Utilities.
Todd said legislators and donors had to be convinced that investing in universities — UK and the University of Louisville, specifi cally — would produce returns because they are researching concepts that can be implemented across the state. He said UK is involved in an energy project in every county in the state right now.
Todd said his main focus, though, was building partnerships between industry and non-industry people. He used an incident that happened after the announcement of the new UK men’s basketball dorm, to be named the “Wildcat Coal Lodge,” as an example. Todd said the announcement won him a meeting with “15 very bright students” who came to his office to talk about the issue.
“One thing that I told them was that, you can stand on one side and yell, ‘coal, coal, coal,’ or you can stand on the other side and yell, ‘green, green, green,’ but that’s not going to get this country a solution,” Todd said. “We’ve got to have somebody who can look at all the things that can move us toward a solution that can be tolerated.”
Ivy Brashear is a reporter at the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues at the University of Kentucky. She is a former reporter for the Hazard Herald.