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Coal Sponsorship at Football Game Upsets Environmental Groups

by Josh James, Kentucky Public Radio

A decision to allow Friends of Coal to sponsor the University of Kentucky-University of Louisville football game this Saturday isn’t sitting well with some environmental groups.

Friends of Coal and the Kentucky Coal Association have paid $85,000 to put their name on three athletic events this year—the Cats-Cards this Saturday is the first.

“A lot of people support this industry,” says Kentucky Coal Association President Bill Bissett. “This kind of allows us to hit those people who may not know much about coal but can learn about its positive impact while attending a great football game.”

But environmental groups are crying foul. They cite the environmental problems caused by the coal industry around the state and say a political advocacy group shouldn’t be given billboard and scoreboard space at Commonwealth Stadium.

Greg Capillo, an activist with Kentuckians for the Commonwealth and Kentucky Mountain Justice, says the sponsorship could backfire on the coal industry.

“What this does it allows us to publicly call them out and then gather more support for future actions,” Capillo said.

Similar sentiments were voiced back in 2009 when UK named a yet-to-be-completed dorm the Wildcat Coal Lodge.

Friends of Coal will also present scholarship money to the mining department at UK during halftime.

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Environment Local News

EPA Wraps Up Tour of Eastern Kentucky Amid Coal Industry Criticism

EPA Region 4 Administrator Gwen Keyes Fleming looks on as Lynch City Council member Stanley Sturgill shows her mountaintop removal on the Virginia side of Black Mountain. Officials from the Environmental Protection Agency were in eastern Kentucky last week to meet with residents of four communities affected by coal mining. But as those residents shared their stories and concerns, the coal industry criticized the trip as one-sided and anti-coal.

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There were nine EPA officials on the tour, including Region 4 Administrator Gwen Keyes Fleming and Senior Advisor on Environmental Justice Lisa Garcia. Over two days, members of the non-profit group Kentuckians for the Commonwealth escorted them from Clay County to Knott County to Letcher County, and ended the trip in Harlan County.

“It’s the first entrance to your left when you go up this road.”

Sandy Minton gave the visitors directions to the coal processing plant next to her house. She held a bag full of medication—her daughter’s prescriptions for a variety of breathing problems.

Minton says she’s concerned about the high levels of dust her kids, as well as those in the nearby school are exposed to.

“A lot of these schools, they’re not near anything like this,” she said. “They’re breathing good clean air. And unfortunately there are a few communities around here that’s having to deal with it.

“I could take you upstairs and show you my little girl’s windows, when I open the windows. I mean, in what, a month? [The dust is] an inch thick.”

In Knott County, many were concerned with a proposed permit by Leeco Coal for the Stacy Branch Surface Mine. That permit is one that was subjected to increased scrutiny by the EPA in 2009 and is still under review.

Besides asking the EPA to not issue the permit, the residents talked about broader economic concerns and the few opportunities that exist for young people in the area.

Ivy Brashear is twenty-four, and trying to find a way to stay in her hometown. She’s worried that once the region’s coal is gone, coal companies will pull out and the community will be left with devastated land, health problems and no jobs.

“They’re not going to be this big father-figure benevolent benefactor after those thirty years are up,” she said. They’re going to leave and we’re going to be here with dirty water and dirty air and cancer clusters and birth defects because of what they did. We need your help. We need your help to save what we have.”

Later that night, people packed into a theater in Whitesburg and testified about water pollution, the perils of an economy that’s too dependent on coal and the industry’s political influence.

“I want to talk for a moment about another insidious form of coal pollution, said former Kentuckians for the Commonwealth chair Doug Doerrfeld

“It is hard to overstate the degree to which the influence of coal has also polluted our democracy,” he said. “While coal mining provides just 1 percent of all jobs in the state and the industry contributes 2.5 percent of Kentucky’s economic output, the power of the industry’s money in our political system is overwhelming.”

During the meeting, Fleming and Garcia addressed community members directly. Fleming believes low-income or minority residents are disproportionately affected by pollution. She said her job is to follow the law.

“Y’all know that I’ve spent 17 years as a prosecutor, so adhering to the rule of law in a fair way is something that’s very true to my heart and true to the administrator’s heart as well,” Fleming said.

Fleming said her staff is open to future visits in the region and an ongoing discussion of the issues.

Some coal industry supporters, including Congressman Hal Rogers and chairman of the Pikeville-based Coal Operators and Associates Charles Baird slammed the EPA for not meeting with miners and state regulators during the trip. Baird also criticized the lack of advance notice to members of the media other than WFPL. But there were local media outlets at each event.

And two employees from the state Division of Water were present. Also, Bill Bissett of the Kentucky Coal Association confirmed that he was notified of the tour, and the EPA offered to meet with coal supporters for an hour on Friday.

But many members of the mining industry were at a conference in Lexington. Bissett said he thought the EPA could have made more of an effort to get a balanced perspective during the visit.

Many of the residents who addressed the agency wanted to make one thing clear: they’re not anti-coal. Stanley Sturgill is a former federal mine inspector and a city council member.

“If you’re concerned, you’re branded that you’re against coal, any way, shape, form or fashion,” Sturgill said. “We have tried to get that point across—we’re not. We’re strictly against surface mining; we’re for underground mining.”

Regional administrator Gwen Keyes Fleming has only held her position for a year, and this was her second visit to eastern Kentucky. She says any decisions the agency makes about mining permits will be governed by science and the rule of law and not based solely on testimonials from either side of the debate.

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Environment Local News

Lawsuit Initiated Against Two Eastern Kentucky Coal Companies

Several environmental groups are threatening to sue two eastern Kentucky coal companies for thousands of water violations. They say the state won’t take action. This comes as the Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet is lobbying to have even more control over the state’s waterways.

The notice of intent to sue was sent from Appalachian Voices, Kentuckians for the Commonwealth and several other organizations to International Coal Group–recently acquired by Arch Coal–and Frasure Creek Mining. They say the coal companies self-reported thousands of violations at eastern Kentucky mines.

Donna Lisenby with Appalachian Voices says her group is taking action because the state Energy and Environment Cabinet hasn’t.

“And the cabinet continues to shield them, it fails to investigate and make these findings, it fails to prosecute, so we, the citizens’ groups, are left to enforce the Clean Water Act in Kentucky,” she said.

The group intervened in a similar case last year, when the state of Kentucky took action against the same companies for failing to accurately report the amount of pollution their operations were releasing into waterways. Franklin County Circuit Court Judge Phillip Shepherd ruled that environmental groups could intervene in the case, suggesting that the state wouldn’t “diligently prosecute” the coal companies. That case is scheduled for mediation next month.

These suits come at a time when congress is moving to give states more control over the Clean Water Act. Kentucky’s Energy and Environment cabinet head Len Peters even testified before a committee in favor of the measure in May.

“Governor Beshear and I recognize and respect that EPA has a responsibility and obligation to revise and update regulations and program requirements as necessary to protect human health and environment,” he said in his testimony. “However, EPA should not create new regulatory requirements that have not undergone the appropriate Congressional or rulemaking processes.”

The environmental groups point to the number of violations found for ICG and Frasure Creek Mining’s eastern Kentucky mines as proof the Commonwealth isn’t properly administering the program. Kentucky cited just over a tenth of those violations, and asked for about $600,000 in fines.

In this most recent notice of intent to sue, the companies have 60 days to respond to the charges laid out in the letter. If the violations aren’t corrected, the environmental groups can pursue citizen enforcement.

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Environment Local News

Louisvillians Join March to Preserve West Virginia Mountain

Activists in West Virginia will wrap up a weeklong march tomorrow to save a mountain that played a role in the fight to unionize the coalfields.

For five days, a group has been marching fifty miles through southern West Virginia to Blair Mountain. In the 1920s, it was there that miners wanting to unionize came up against both coal company forces and the federal government. A battle ensued. Two mining companies want to mine Blair Mountain, and marchers are hoping to get the site added to the National Register of Historic Places.

For some, the fight is about strip mining. But Mary Love, an Oldham County resident and member of Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, says she has another motivation for making the trip

“We’re going to try to preserve the historic site, not to try to say anything about mountaintop removal this time,” she said.

Ben Wiley is traveling with Love. He just graduated from DuPont Manual High School in Louisville and arrived in West Virginia for the march today.

I’m going to this largely because of my concern for the environment but also because I’m concerned about workers’ rights,” he said.

The march culminates in a rally on the mountain.

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Environment Local News

Kentuckians Among Those Marching to Save West Virginia Mountain

Today marks the beginning of a weeklong march in West Virginia to commemorate the role a mountain played in the fight for unionization in the coalfields.

When 10,000 coal miners marched 50 miles across the rugged landscape of southern West Virginia in 1921, they didn’t know they would make history. They tied red bandannas around their necks—hence, the term ‘rednecks’—and protested for their right to join a union. When they reached Blair Mountain, they faced off against coal company forces and the state police.

The Battle of Blair Mountain ensued, and became one of the most significant events in the country’s labor history. Today, Blair Mountain is still standing, but mining companies have expressed interest in mining the ridge.

Carl Shoupe is a former miner and union organizer in Harlan County. He’ll be marching in West Virginia next week as part of Kentuckians for the Commonwealth.

“I’m a United States former Marine,” he said. “I would compare Blair Mountain to the raising of the flag on Iwo Jima. That’s how much I respect that.”

Shoupe says he’s not against mining or miners, but he is fighting the practice of mountaintop removal. Mountaintop removal is a type of strip mining where the top of a mountain is removed to access a coal seam.

“What they’re doing to our precious mountains and our water here in central and southern Appalachia, it’s a crime against humanity,” Shoupe said.

Coal companies have expressed interest in mining the mountain’s ridge, but environmental activists and labor historians are working to save it. There’s a lawsuit pending to put Blair Mountain back on the National Register of Historic Places—where it was briefly. Environmental groups have also filed a petition with the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection to declare the mountain “unsuitable for mining.”

The group will march for five days, tracing the path the miners took ninety years ago.

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Environment Local News Politics

Members of Congress Continue Supporting Measures to Limit EPA

Members of Congress have proposed a number of measures in recent weeks aimed at scrutinizing or limiting the Environmental Protection Agency.

The proposals include: a limit on how long the EPA has to approve or reject mining permits; a block on new carbon emissions regulation; and a call for hearings on the President’s plans to protect waterways from mining.

The lawmakers say the EPA can hamper the coal industry, eliminate jobs and cause energy prices to skyrocket. But environmental filmmaker and Kentuckians for the Commonwealth member Ben Evans says that’s not true.

“If our economy is such that we can only grow our economy and have a vibrant economy by polluting and by an industry that really harms the long-term welfare of people and the environment, then I think we need to re-examine what our economy is all about,” he says.

Evans says mountaintop removal and other heavily-automated mining practices have led to job cuts in the coal industry. Further, he says jobs can be created in new energy markets.

Kentucky’s two Senators—Mitch McConnell and Rand Paul—support various legislation changing the EPA’s operations, as does Congressman Hal Rogers.

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Environment Local News Politics

Environmental Groups Plan to Sue Coal Company

A coalition of environmental groups plans to sue a Kentucky coal operator for allegedly falsifying state water quality reports.

The groups say Bardstown-based Nally and Hamilton Enterprises committed 12,000 violations of federal law by filling out water permitting reports with inaccurate or repetitive information. The groups say they discovered the violations while reviewing state documents earlier this year.

The groups are: Kentuckians fro the Commonwealth; Appalachian Voices; and the Kentucky Riverkeeper and Waterkeeper Alliance. They filed a similar action last year against two other surface mining operators.

Additional information from the Associated Press

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Local News Politics

Constitutional Convention Request Clears State Senate, Unlikely to Pass House

A resolution urging the U.S. Congress to call a constitutional convention to consider a balanced budget amendment has passed the Kentucky Senate.

Senator Rand Paul was in Frankfort Tuesday promoting the bill.

“If we continue upon this path of spending, within a decade, the entire budget will be consumed by entitlements and interest. That means no money for roads,” he says. “No money for education. No money for national defense. Entitlements and interest will consume the entire budget if we do nothing. We are on a path to fiscal ruin.”

The measure cleared the Senate 22-16, with Republican Senator Julie Denton of Louisville joining the chamber’s 15 Democrats in opposition.

The measure has also drawn opposition outside of the legislature. Kentuckians for the Commonwealth member Shekina Lavalle says Paul and others are demanding budget cuts while ignoring any calls for changes in how the government collects revenue.

“We do have huge deficits that we need to deal with and we do have budgetary and fiscal responsibility issues, but I think that we need to focus on what we want our communities to look like and really figuring out ways to support that, rather than hacking away at things,” she says.

The resolution now moves to the Democratic-controlled House, where it has little chance of passage. More than 30 other states would have to pass similar resolutions for the proposed constitutional amendment to go further.

Tony McVeigh contributed to this report

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Local News Politics

Detractors Say Balanced Budget Amendment Is Misguided

Kentucky Senator Rand Paul is in Frankfort to gather support for a constitutional amendment to balance the federal budget. Paul found support from some conservative state lawmakers, but others were on hand in opposition to the Senator remarks.

Among them was Kentuckians for the Commonwealth member Shekina Lavalle. She agrees that the deficit is a problem, but says Paul’s rhetoric on the topic is too strident.

“I heard ‘runaway freight train’ and these words that expressed that we’re out of control and we can’t reign things in—these really scary metaphors of where America’s headed,” she says. “I think America’s really resilient and I would like to hear my elected officials talk about the resiliency of the United States.”

Lavalle says her organization supports changing revenues through tax reform before drastic budget cuts. A state Senate committee has approved a resolution asking the U.S. Congress to call a constitutional convention to consider the balanced budget amendment. The full Senate will vote on the issue later today. More than 30 other states would need to approve similar action for the amendment to go forward.

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Local News

KFTC Creates Political Action Committee

The non-profit citizens group Kentuckians for the Commonwealth says it wants the freedom to take stands on political issues and has created a political action committee.

It’s called the New Power PAC.  KFTC Chairman K.A. Owens says the PAC was formed because “somebody needs to tell the story about the need for new power in Kentucky – economic power, political power and new energy power.” 

“Somebody has to tell the story about the opportunity we have to create clean energy jobs and affordable, renewable energy.  And somebody needs to speak the truth about the harm done by our dependence on old power.”

Owens says in coming weeks, the New Power PAC will take its message to Kentuckians through radio, print and television ads, but won’t be directly endorsing candidates.  To kick-start fundraising efforts, KFTC has given the PAC $100,000.