Weekly Mine Protests at Capitol

Jun 14, 2011

Author Wendell Berry has long protested mountaintop removal, the controversial coal mining method. When Berry spoke at a rally in February in Frankfort, he urged others to continue protesting beyond just one day a year. Little did he know, a local group would take his message to heart – and two months later do just that. For the past eight weeks, environmental activists have set aside one day a week to stage day-long protests outside the governor’s office in the Capitol.

Four take part on these days, sitting in two-hour shifts on a bench or on the marble floor in the hallway outside the governor’s office lobby.

On Thursday, five members of Frankfort High School’s Earth Club brought homemade signs to make their point.

Some signs displayed an artistic depiction of the environment before and after mountaintop removal. Others stated “For a higher power” and “For the mountains, for the people.”

“It can’t be on the back burner forever,” said FHS senior Michael Fleck.

Fleck says through his work in Eastern Kentucky he has seen the devastation that mountaintop removal causes.

“The people that live in the shadow of that are often marginalized,” Fleck said. “We are their voice.”

With permission from their parents, the students skipped a junior/senior picnic at FHS Thursday afternoon to add their voices to the protest.

They say they hope their presence in the Capitol will show lawmakers that a variety of people care about the issue and that it will produce results.

Mountaintop removal involves blasting the tops of mountains to reach the underlying layers of coal. The mountaintops are pushed into valleys, which critics say pollutes and destroys the streams.

The coal industry defends mountaintop removal because of its cost-efficiency in extracting a large amount of coal to produce electricity. Some claim that mountaintop removal makes more land available for agriculture and other uses.

Legislation to stop mountaintop removal has faltered. And last year, the Kentucky Coal Association, joined by Gov. Steve Beshear, sued the Environmental Protection Agency over its regulations to control coal-mining permits.

Local protests of mountaintop removal began in February when a group spent the night in the governor’s office prior to the “I Love Mountains Day” rally.

The protesters, joined by Berry, accepted an invitation from Beshear to continue their protest, spending two nights in the lobby of the governor’s office. Supporters and Beshear’s staff delivered items such as blankets, pillows and food, and it attracted widespread media coverage.

Beshear spoke with protesters about their concerns, but steadfastly maintained that coal could be mined on the surface without harm to the environment.

Berry told The State Journal by phone Tuesday he is “delighted” the protest is continuing.

“I think mountaintop removal is wrong from every standpoint except that of the coal industry,” Berry said. “Any pressure that can be put on state government to do away with it is just and right.”

He says that protesters may never know if their actions make a difference in the coal industry.

“All we can know is it’s right to oppose it,” Berry said.