Coal's Influence Grows in General Assembly

Feb 18, 2013

With a pair of eastern Kentuckians leading the general assembly, the mountain region has a powerful influence over the state’s legislative agenda.  Besides House Speaker Greg Stumbo, who comes from Prestonsburg, there’s Senate President Robert Stivers, who makes his home in Clay County.   The political power of eastern Kentucky was on display this winter when hundreds of residents gathered at the state capitol for “I Love the Mountain Day.”   Organizing the event was Sue Tallichet, who chairs “Kentuckians For The Commonwealth”.

“There’s so much sustainable agriculture and forestry that can go on in Appalachia.   But, these resources have to be put in the hands of local people, regular ordinary people.  So, they can start their own businesses.  So, they can live,” said Tallichet.

Over the years, activists like Sue Tallichet and Kentuckians For The Commonwealth often locked horns with lawmakers over the coal industry.  But, recently Tallichet has found them a bit more open to such discussions.  In one small victory, she convinced several legislators that an issue concerning water quality deserved more discussion.

“The legislators, I was really very surprised, but pleasantly so, said you’re right, we need a comment period on that, at least 30 days and we’ll look further into the harmful effects of selenium.  Now, a couple of years ago, I don’t think that would have happened,” added Tallichet.

While more open to environmental concerns, the eastern Kentuckians who run the general assembly remain influential defenders of the coal industry.  Democratic State Senator Walter Blevins says that’s especially true for President Stivers.

“Well, I hope it makes a difference on some issues, but on the coal issue, He’s as strong for coal as anybody I know,” explained Blevins.

Stivers, who was officially named Senate President in January, makes it clear he has no major objection to mountaintop removal mining.

“That has been something that has been quite productive for our area in the way of one creating jobs from the prospective of mining and the peripheral issues, but two, creating properties that are then usable for respectable types of development,” said Stivers.

As Stivers sees it, the state is cleaning up Appalachia’s drinking water, by helping with the creation of water utilities that increasingly supply communities throughout eastern Kentucky.

“We’re putting public water virtually everywhere.   So those types of things should be becoming less and less of a problem when I can sit there and say that my district, which is a very poor district, if not the poorest, that over 90 percent of the district is covered in public water,” said Stivers.

Over in the house, led by eastern Kentuckians like Greg Stumbo and House Majority Floor Leader Rocky Adkins, coal also has its defenders.  Echoing their sentiments is long time lawmaker Hubie Collins of Paintsville, who argues mountaintop removal mining doesn’t do much environmental damage.

“Sure, they’re fly by night people that does some destruction, but you know, you don’t look at people during an operation and judge what they look like, that’s just like in mining, you can’t judge them while they’re doing the job.  You judge them after they do the reclamation,” said Collins.

Mountain author Silas House, who’s sees himself as a defender of Appalachia and its culture, says most of eastern Kentucky residents understand the economic benefits of coal mining.  However, House says they also worry about environmental damage.  But, among the eastern Kentuckians who run the General Assembly, House doesn’t see that same internal conflict.

“Those politicians must have the love, hate relationship with it too.  Somehow, once they get in political office all that changes.  They become totally pro coal with no complexity.  I don’t know what happens,” said House.

It’s for that reason, that House believes the future of mountaintop removal mining remains secure.  He believes relief, if it comes, will have to be found in Washington D-C.

“I wish that we could make changes on the state level.  I’m not real hopeful about that.  I think that this is a case where we will have to depend more on the federal government to step in.  In Kentucky, it seems like it’s sewn up to me unfortunately,” added House.

So, despite eastern Kentuckians new-found influence in Frankfort, House is pessimistic.  The author says the only real hope at the state level lies with getting new lawmakers, and leaders, into office who have a different perspective on eastern Kentucky’s environmental and economic problems.