A group of demonstrators ended a sit-in at Gov. Steve Beshear’s Capitol office on Monday after camping there over the weekend in protest of his support for mountaintop mining in Kentucky.
More than a dozen members of the environmental group Kentucky Rising began the sit-in on Feb. 11 and left at midday Monday to join about 1,000 others in a mass outdoor rally.
Author and former college professor Wendell Berry said he and other demonstrators took up temporary residence at the Capitol because they oppose the destruction of Kentucky’s mountains.
“If the adventure of the last few days by this small company of friends is to be more than a symbolic gesture, that can be only because all of you who are here, and many of our friends who are not here, will take it up, make it your adventure and your cause,” Berry said.
Environmental rallies have become annual Valentine’s Day rites in Frankfort to show support for perennial legislation that would effectively end the practice of mountaintop removal coal mining in Kentucky. That legislation dies each year without receiving a floor vote in either the House or Senate.
Beshear met Feb. 11 with the protesters in his office, telling them that he believes surface mining can be done responsibly, a position they staunchly disagree with. He had angered them earlier in the month in a speech to a joint session of the legislature by criticizing the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for what he considers over-regulation of the state’s mining industry.
In his speech, Beshear declared he would fight for Kentucky’s coal industry against Washington bureaucrats who he accused of trying to impose arbitrary and unreasonable regulations.
“ To them I say: ‘Get off our backs,’” Beshear shouted, receiving a standing ovation from lawmakers.
Teri Blanton, another of the demonstrators, borrowed from the governor’s speech in delivering a message of her own in comments to the crowd gathered outside the Capitol. “We’re here to tell the coal industry get off our damn backs,” she said.
Blanton, one-time president of the environmental group, said Appalachian residents have been forced to live amid mountaintop removal coal mining, breathing dust generated by the operations and drinking fouled water.
“Our homeland is being blasted apart, mountain by mountain,” she said.
In mountaintop removal mining, forests are cleared and rock is blasted apart to get to coal buried underneath. The leftover dirt, rock and rubble usually is dumped into nearby valleys. The practice has been a source of contention for years between coal operators, who say it is the most effective way to get to the coal, and environmentalists, who say it does irreversible damage.
Coalfield lawmakers shrug off claims by environmentalists about the evils of mountaintop removal, effectively killing all bills that would stop it, including two pending in the Kentucky General Assembly this year.
“The people from the mountains, legislators and residents, understand the value of flat land,” said state Rep. Jim Gooch Jr., D-Providence, chairman of the House Natural Resources and Environment Committee. “They understand that these environmentalists play on emotions, not facts.”
Gooch said some Appalachian communities wouldn’t have enough level land to build industrial parks, airports or athletics fields without the reclaimed mining areas.