Mountaintop Removal Protestors Occupy Kentucky Governor’s Office

FRANKFORT, Kentucky, February 11, 2011 (ENS) – At least 14 Kentuckians say they will remain in Governor Steve Beshear’s office over the weekend “at the invitation of the governor himself.”

The group, members of Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, gathered this morning at the office of the pro-coal governor, a Democrat, in an attempt to persuade Beshear to change his position on mountaintop removal coal mining.

Kentucky Governor Steve Beshear (Photo courtesy Office of the Governor)

To get at coal seams, coal companies blast away the tops of mountains. Machines scoop out the coal, dumping millions of tons of waste rock into the adjacent valleys. More than 1,200 miles of Appalachian headwaters streams have been buried with valley fills, some leaching contaminants into the environment.

Some 20 demonstrators met with Governor Beshear today, but expressed disappointment in the outcome of that meeting.

“There are times when our elected officials must choose between being a leader and being a politician. This is one of those times,” the group said in a statement. “We call upon Governor Beshear to lead by ending mountaintop removal, by beginning a sincere public dialogue about creating sustainable jobs for our hard-working miners, by putting the vital interests of ordinary Kentuckians above the special interests of an abusive industry.”

Governor Beshear told the demonstrators that he believes surface mining can be done “in a responsible way” that reclaims the land and protects waterways.

Beshear is up for re-election this year and is under pressure from potential Republican opponents to support the coal industry. In his State of the Commonwealth speech on February 2, Beshear said he would fight the federal government for the survival of Kentucky’s coal industry, which provides 90 percent of Kentucky’s electricity and supports about 18,000 jobs in the state.

“Our coal industry is in jeopardy because Washington bureaucrats continue to try to impose arbitrary and unreasonable regulations on the mining of coal,” said Beshear in his speech. “To them I say ‘Get off our backs!’ I will fight you for the right to cleanly and safely mine coal.”

Author Wendell Berry, center, gives an interview to TV reporters in the office of Kentucky Governor Steve Beshear. (Photo courtesy Kentuckians for the Commonwealth)

Wendell Berry, 76, an award-winning author and life-long Kentucky resident, is among the protestors at the governor’s office. “There’s no justification for doing permanent damage to the world,” Berry told reporters. “Nobody in our group believes you can do that kind of mining and not harm the world.”

The protesters want the governor to accept a long-standing invitation to view the devastating effects of mountaintop removal mining in eastern Kentucky.

They want to, “Foster a sincere, public discussion about the urgent need for a sustainable economic transition for coal workers and mountain communities.”

And finally, they want the government of Kentucky to withdraw from the October 2010 lawsuit against the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, in which, they say, “the Beshear administration partnered with the coal industry to oppose the EPA’s efforts to protect the health and water of coalfield residents.”

The federal Office of Surface Mining is in the process of developing a new stream protection rule that would address the damage mountaintop removal mining does to waterways.

Office of Surface Mining Director Joe Pizarchik told reporters on a teleconference today that the new rule will replace the stream buffer rule put in under the Bush administration.

“The Bush administration rule was “clearly not adequate,” Pizarchik said. “It rolled back a Reagan-era rule and swung the pendulum too far in the other direction.”

Frasure Creek Mining’s Brushy Fork mountaintop removal mine in Kentucky (Photo courtesy Kentuckians for the Commonwealth)

Pizarchik said there are ways to conduct surface coal mining that are more protective of the environment than the “shoot and shove” method, “where the excess spoil is either dumped or shoved over the side of the mountain.”

“This has resulted in severe erosion that continues for years,” he said. “After these valley fills have been completed “they continue to discharge high levels of contaminants for years.”

Pizarchik pointed to better constructed valley fills where the waste rock, or spoil, is transported, rather than shoved, to the bottom, minimizing the impact and the substances discharged into the water.

Leaked versions of a Draft Environmental Impact Statement on the new stream protection rule that predicted the loss of thousands of jobs were not accurate and had not been approved, said Pizarchik. His office will release an official DEIS for public comment later this year.

“Developing a new rule is not easy,” he said, “We expect all people to have all different opinions and we want to hear from them.”

The protesters are staying in Governor Beshear’s office in anticipation of I Love Mountains Day on Monday, an annual rally held to draw attention to mountaintop removal and the state Stream Saver Bill, which the protesters say has “languished” for six years in the Kentucky Legislature’s House Natural Resources Committee.

“We invite our fellow Kentuckians to join us in solidarity on the steps of the Capitol on Monday,” said the group in its statement. A march to the rally from the Kentucky River Bridge will begin at 11:30 am.

Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2011. All rights reserved.