By RONNIE ELLIS
FRANKFORT — They gathered by the river. They marched a half mile to the steps of the state capitol, chanting: “Not one more mile!”
They meant not another mile of Kentucky’s streams destroyed or polluted by refuse and runoff from mountaintop removal coal mining. As they do each year, people opposed to the controversial mining method marched on Frankfort for “I Love Mountains Day,” organized by Kentuckians for the Commonwealth.
They had a special speaker Tuesday – actress and Ashland native Ashley Judd, who called for a green economy and an end to “unchecked power of the coal companies.” With each line, the nearly 800 people roared: “Not one more mile!” She said coal companies for years, at each reform of the industry, have cried in panic the reforms would end the coal industry and the jobs so important to eastern Kentucky.
“Well, what do you know, the coal companies are still here, bigger, badder and richer than ever,” she said. “Even in this bleak economy they are thriving. What is dying is our mountains.” And she said the mechanization of surface mining has actually decreased the number of coal mining jobs.
KFTC members carried signs that said 1,400 miles of Kentucky streams had been destroyed by the practice. KFTC member Randy Wilson of Red Bird River in Clay County ran off a long list of names of streams destroyed, deriding coal industry spokesmen who refer to the streams, some of which run with water only at certain times of the year or weather, as “ephemeral.”
“You and I are a helluva lot more ephemeral than those streams,” said Wilson, who is an ordained minister and works at the Hindman Settlement School.
Sen. Kathy Stein, D-Lexington, who grew up in Wise County, Va., spoke about the “stream saver bill” she introduced in the Senate, a companion bill to one filed each year in the House by Rep. Don Pasley, D-Winchester. The bill would prohibit mining operations from dumping refuse into adjacent streams, but coal interests in the legislature have always prevented the bill from getting a vote on the floor.
Congressman John Yarmuth, D-Louisville, told the crowd they are “doing God’s work. Don’t give up. There is light at the end of the tunnel” with the election of Barack Obama as president and Democratic majorities in Congress.
In the crowd were young and old, school students from Berea, Frankfort, elderly people, and former coal miners. All wanted to stop the destruction of mountains in eastern Kentucky. They carried signs, one which read: “Clean coal is a dirty lie!” They chanted they want the stream saver bill passed – “Now!”
Jennifer Durham, of Berea and the youth director at Union Church, said the number of people marching should get lawmakers’ attention.
“I think the legislators have to take notice of people’s outcry,” she said. “And it’s not just the people living in eastern Kentucky but people from across the state.”
Ivy Brashear, 22, of Viper, Ky. and a student at Eastern Kentucky University, said she grew up living “in a place where you have to look at these open wounds every day.” She called coal a “necessary evil,” but said extracting coal by mountaintop removal must end.
“It’s tearing up our heritage. It’s tearing up our culture. It’s tearing up an entire region and people who have always been so important to America,” Brashear said. “People should have more pride in their roots.”
Judd told the crowd that Kentuckians have “an almost mystical sense of place. And it is our love of place and the catastrophe it faces that brings us to this place of power. And we shall speak truth to power.”
As it turned out this year, the legislature is in recess this week. The question for the 800 on the capitol steps Tuesday was whether they are listening.
RONNIE ELLIS writes for CNHI News Service and is based in Frankfort. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.