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Wendell Berry Joins Retired Coal Miners and Residents in Kentucky Rising Capitol Sit-in

by Jeff Biggers

Over six years after Kentucky became the first state in the nation to introduce a bill that would halt the dumping of toxic coal mining wastes into headwater streams and effectively reign in the devastating fall-out of mountaintop removal operations, a group of affected coalfield residents, retired coal miners and bestselling authors have launched a sit-in in the office of Kentucky Governor Steve Beshear this morning.

Wendell Berry, author, poet and activist, joined protesters in the Kentucky capitol building. “This is not something we’re doing for pleasure,” said Berry, who has been active in the movement to abolish mountaintop removal mining for years. “We’re doing it because it’s the next thing to do after all our attempts to attract serious attention to these problems have failed. Joined by legendary author, farmer and philosopher Wendell Berry, retired coal miner Stanley Sturgill, and Kentuckians for the Commonwealth activists Teri Blanton and Mickey McCoy, among others, the Kentucky activists declared their intent “to remain in his office until the governor agrees to stop the poisoning of Kentucky’s land, water, and people by mountaintop removal; or until he chooses to have the citizens physically removed.”

Only days since the anniversary of the historic Greensboro sit-ins in North Carolina, which triggered the Civil Rights Movement in 1960, organizers are hailing this breakthrough event as the advent of the “Kentucky Rising.” Twitter updates will be posted @jasonkylehoward and @kftc

“This is not something we’re doing for pleasure,” said Wendell Berry, who has been active in the movement to abolish mountaintop removal mining for years. “We’re doing it because it’s the next thing to do after all our attempts to attract serious attention to these problems have failed. We’re doing this as a last resort. Our intention is to appeal first to our elected representatives and the governor, and failing that, to appeal over their heads to our fellow citizens.”

As part of a spiraling state rebellion in coal states against basic clean water laws, Gov. Beshear joined a Kentucky Coal Association law suit against the Clean Water Act authority of the EPA last fall.

Beshear refused recently to meet with impacted coalfield youth from eastern Kentucky. In a letter to the governor, the citizens expressed their desire to communicate “respectfully and effectively” with the governor about the urgent need to stop the destruction of mountaintop removal mining. Among their requests were the following:

§ Accept a long-standing invitation to view the devastation in eastern Kentucky caused by mountaintop removal mining

§ Foster a sincere, public discussion about the urgent need for a sustainable economic transition for coal workers and mountain communities

§ Withdraw from the October 2010 lawsuit against the Environmental Protection Agency, in which the Beshear administration partnered with the coal industry to oppose the EPA’s efforts to protect the health and water of coalfield residents”

While national media attention on mountaintop removal mining has largely been focused on West Virginia, organizers are reminding the nation that over 290 mountains–58 percent of the devastation in Appalachia–have been blown to bits in eastern Kentucky. A study by the Natural Resources Defense Council last year found that while over 574,000 acres of hardwood forests in eastern Kentucky have been irreversibly destroyed by mountaintop removal strip mining, less than four percent yielded any verifiable post-mining economic reclamation excluding forestry and pasture.

Berry and Sturgill are also joined by Beverly May, 52, a nurse practitioner from Floyd County; acclaimed Lost Mountain author Erik Reece, 43, who has written extensively about the coal industry; Patty Wallace, 80, a grandmother and long-time activist from Louisa; Mickey McCoy, 55, former educator and mayor of Inez; Teri Blanton, 54, a grassroots activist from Harlan County; Stanley Sturgill, 65, a former underground coal miner of Harlan County; Rick Handshoe, 50, a retired Kentucky State Police radio technician of Floyd County; John Hennen, 59, a history professor at Morehead State University; and Martin Mudd, 28, an environmental activist.

Berry and Reece, among many Kentucky authors including novelist Silas House and poet/essayist Jason Howard, have been in the forefront of the movement to abolish mountaintop removal mining for years. In the groundbreaking collection, Missing Mountains: We Went to the Mountaintop But It Wasn’t There, Berry wrote:

“Eastern Kentucky, in its natural endowments of timber and minerals, is the wealthiest region of our state, and it has now experienced more than a century of intense corporate ‘free enterprise,’ with the result that it is more impoverished and has suffered more ecological damage than any other region. The worst inflicter of poverty and ecological damage has been the coal industry, which has taken from the region a wealth probably incalculable, and has imposed the highest and most burdening ‘costs of production’ upon the land and the people. Many of these costs are, in the nature of things, not repayable. Some were paid by people now dead and beyond the reach of compensation. Some are scars on the land that will not be healed in any length of time imaginable by humans.”

Last year, retired coal miner Stanley Sturgill in the Lynch, Kentucky area, appealed to the nation to halt mountaintop removal operations to preserve the water resources and any hopes of economic diversification in the impoverished area:

“The office of the governor must be held accountable,” they citizens explained in a joint statement. “We are once again asking Gov. Beshear for help.” Additionally, they are requesting that the state:

§ Direct the Kentucky Division of Water to stop using a rubber-stamp process (known as the 402 general coal mining permit) which allows companies to pollute our water with minimal restrictions and without public input about site-specific health and environmental impacts.

§ Publicly support efforts by city leaders and residents of Lynch, Kentucky to prevent proposed mining that threatens their water supply, cultural heritage, economic development investments, and ecological systems.

§ Vigorously support the Clean Energy Opportunity Act (HB 239) and Stream Saver Bill.

Updates will be posted later in the day.

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