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February 19, 2008

High on the mountaintop

Advocates descend on Frankfort to persuade lawmakers to help stop mountaintop removal mining in Eastern Kentucky. Is anyone listening?We’re standing outside the home of Todd and Barbara Bailey, a sprawling one-story perched on a slight hill just off Kentucky Route 7 in Hueysville, on a bitter-cold February afternoon. Todd is showing me a crack in the red brick; it snakes from the house’s concrete foundation up to a bay window about six feet off the ground. He says it’s from blasting on a nearby job, permit no. 836-0335, an expansive mountaintop removal mining operation that has taken a handful of peaks across the road, behind the modest homes of his neighbors, too high to really notice from ground level. A tan, late model Toyota Tacoma 4x4 pulls into his driveway, and out come two young men, one probably in his early 20s, the other a little more worldly. They smile politely. The worldly one announces they’re from Miller Bros. Coal, that they’ve come to deliver notices to landowners within a half-mile of this and another job, no. 836-0338, just over the hill behind the Bailey residence. Before the jobs can expand, the company is required by law to notify residents that they may request pre-blasting home surveys at no charge. I ask for copies of the notices as well; it’s clear they smell my city stink, so we posture at each other for a couple seconds before the younger one goes back to the truck for the copies. We’ve been through this before; well, Todd and Rick Handshoe, his lifelong friend who lives down the road a piece, have. Todd got a survey a few years ago, before the foundation cracked, before a window broke, before the wood paneling in his family room split, and before the crack in his ceiling grew meaningful length. Has he gotten anything from a coal company for it? From the state?Right. So Todd kinda chuckles as Rick tells the young men they’d be better off not saying they’re from Miller Bros., at least around here. This neighborhood is populated by more than a few friendlies, people with families who’ve lived here for generations and to whom, until about five years ago, this type of mining was a little more abstract.The young men laugh it off, but Rick persists.“We’re contractors, so we don’t actually work for Miller Bros.,” the worldly one explains, still smiling. Despite the grievous nature of this visit, the mood is light. As Rick will tell me, you’d go crazy not having a sense of humor about life near the mines.Of course, the distinction they’re making between contracting for Miller Bros. and being an employee doesn’t matter. To some here, Miller Bros. is a euphemism for the apocalypse. To others, like these boys and many who choose to stay in the coalfields, it’s a job, one of a select few. “You say that name to some people around here and they’re liable to run ya off,” Rick tells them, getting a little more serious. When it comes to mountaintop removal, at least for the folks who live underneath it, distinctions are for the coal companies and the birds. They see foundations cracked, streams buried, wells polluted with methane, hollows filled with all manner of organic and non-organic matter, and, you know, they get angry, frustrated, fed up. Coal companies will say that reclamation is positive because peaks can’t hold a Wal-Mart like plateaus can, and that technically, the crack in your foundation could’ve been caused by your fat ass running around in the house, but certainly not their happy-hour blasting. Looking around this hollow and neighboring ones, where the mountains are littered with half-finished or totally ignored reclamation jobs, any avowed city slicker can begin to understand the two essential truths of Eastern Kentucky: Property with no water is worthless, same as those technical distinctions. And a job is a job.There are some 1,200 people gathered on the Capitol steps in Frankfort for “I Love Mountains Day,” a protest of mountaintop removal mining — which is, quite simply, blowing up the tops of mountains to more easily and economically gather the coal in seams below. People have converged from across the state, many in rented 15-passenger Fords, just as Rick Handshoe, Barbara Bailey and a group of 10 others came from Hueysville on this cold Valentine’s Day morning.This rally, arranged by the social justice group Kentuckians for the Commonwealth in conjunction with a number of other like causes, is easily the biggest against mountaintop removal that the state has ever seen, and it will garner pathetically minimal coverage from most of the state’s media in the ensuing days. Appropriately, The Courier-Journal gives front-page Business section billing to a story crafted by its fine environmental reporter; conversely, The Lexington Herald-Leader, the major paper of record serving Eastern Kentucky, runs one photo of 17 people holding signs, along with a nondescript caption — a journalistic disgrace mitigated by the pages upon pages of coverage offered to the other hot topic that day in Frankfort: The governor’s casino proposal. Of course, protest only goes so far, which is why there is a broader motive among those gathered: the advancement of House Bill 164, commonly known as the Stream Saver Bill. The bill — which has failed in two previous sessions — is currently stalled in the House Natural Resources Committee, behind its chair, serial buffoon Rep. Jim Gooch, D-Providence, a man who took so much heat from the media after holding a hearing with the sole purpose of denying global climate change that he’s filed a censorship bill that would charge journalists to cover Frankfort. Advocates for the Stream Saver Bill, which would make illegal the practice of dumping “waste” and “overburden” — company-line euphemisms for recently blasted mountaintops and whatever inhabited them — into Kentucky waterways. The latest EPA estimates show that some 500 miles of Kentucky streams are buried underneath these valley fills (or hollow fills, as they’re called in Eastern Kentucky), and the Bush administration recently relaxed the rules even further, codifying a most dangerous and sinister practice. What’s not really quantified are how many water wells have been contaminated and eliminated from homes and properties near mountaintop sites. The bill’s sponsor, Don Pasley, D-Winchester, is a veritable hero to the assembled. Unsurprisingly, such a bill needs love from just about everywhere but home — you can count on the Eastern Kentucky delegation to keep ignoring this and other bills that may cut into coal profits. Most of the bill’s 20 co-sponsors come from parts of the state that are not coal country — no surprise to people like Wendell Berry, who in a speech outside called state government “a wholly-owned subsidiary” of the coal companies (such a case is easy to make). The tragedy of HB 164 is that it’s unlikely to ascend the Gooch committee at the moment, and the blame for that should fall not only on Gooch, a coal supporter who’s about as easy to loathe as a school shooter, but on House Democratic leadership as well. “With this kind of public support, this lends a lot of credibility to the bill, and also puts pressure on the legislators, especially the legislative leaders, to get the bill moving in that committee,” Rep. Jim Wayne, D-Louisville, tells me during the rally outside. Wayne, a longtime opponent of mountaintop removal, is a co-sponsor of HB 164. “Either that or move it out of the committee, out of the Gooch committee, and get it into a committee where it can be heard.” It’s unclear how likely that is: Once again this session, supposedly more important bills are trumping the Stream Saver Bill for the attention of both the legislature and media. “It’s going to take these people and more, all across the commonwealth, making sure that the Senate and the leadership of the various committees in the House understand that it’s more than just coal, more than just one particular industry,” Rep. Reginald Meeks, D-Louisville and a co-sponsor, says. “It’s a much broader issue that we have a responsibility for.”Dumping the dirt, rock, trees, roots and whatever else into streams and waterways is alarming to environmentalists because it destroys not only places of profound natural beauty, but entire ecosystems of the unique mixed mesophytic forests that line the Appalachian mountains and depend on these seemingly small or inconsequential waterways for survival. But, as the breadth of the crowd here today suggests, the issue seems to be outgrowing its pigeonhole in Kentucky. “They’re just destroying every mountain in Eastern Kentucky, they’re flattening it out, leaving a pure desert, there’s no trees, nothing will grow,” says Truman Hurt, a 66-year-old preacher from Eastern Kentucky and one among many unlikely protesters at the Capitol. For more than two decades, Hurt was an underground miner. He lives near a mountaintop site. “Most of the people down in the valley don’t really see what’s going on on top of the mountains — when you look up, you still see trees,” he says. “But when you get on top of there and look down, the whole area is destroyed.” Abby Rudolph is a 16-year-old student at duPont Manual High School who made the trip to Frankfort with a group of her fellow students. “All of our energy we use every day comes from this mountaintop removal coal energy, so we’re directly related to this issue,” she tells me in the hall, amid chants, music and general righteous madness. “I know a lot of people feel like people from Louisville should leave Eastern Kentucky to Eastern Kentucky, but we’re all in this together, and we’re all affected by it.” To contact your state legislator, visit www.lrc.ky.gov. Contact the writer at sgeorge@leoweekly.com