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

Governor Steve Beshear, center (hands clasped) listened to a statement by Kentucky author Wendell Berry, right, on Friday, Feb. 11, 2011 in the Governor's office outer reception area at the Capitol building in Frankfort, Ky. Protestors from mostly eastern Kentucky sat (and stood) in Governor Steve Beshear's outer office until he agreed to meet with them concerning their concerns over stream pollution they say arises from surface coal mining. Gov. Beshear met with them around 1pm Friday. Several were not satisfied with his responses to their concerns and vowed to remain in the outer office until forced out by arrest.(David Perry/Lexington Herald-Leader)

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

More than 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 rein 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 Friday morning.

UPDATE: 1:30 EST: The Kentucky Rising blog is now online, and includes a statement from Wendell Berry. An excerpt is here:

We are relieved this morning by an accumulation of evidence that the first goal of our protest has been achieved. State government's official silence on the grave issues of surface mining has been broken. Those issues have now entered the public conversation as they never have before. Obviously, we are determined to stop the abuses of the coal industry, and to that end we are determined also to keep this conversation going. We look forward to continuing our discussion with the Governor, and with anybody else who may want to talk with us.

We wish to say further--and this is extremely important to us--that our protest is against methods of mining that are abusive. We do not oppose mining per se. Our purpose is to protect our land and water. And we most certainly bear no ill will against those who work in mines.

Why Kentucky Can't Wait. Will this historic sit-in serve as a catalyst to end the 40-year ravages of mountaintop removal mining?

For twitter updates, follow Twitter feed #KentuckyRising.

UPDATE: 12noon EST: Will Kentucky's First Lady join them? In a joint statement, the 14 remaining sit-in protesters called on Gov. 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."

The group extended an invitation to the Governor and the First Lady to join them and continue the conversation. From the statement:

All of the protesters are from Kentucky. Those remaining in the governor's office include Wendell Berry, 76, the acclaimed writer who has been a leader in environmental issues for the past fifty years; Beverly May, 52, a nurse practitioner who was the subject of Deep Down, a documentary about MTR that was shown on PBS; Mickey McCoy, 55, former educator and mayor from Martin County, where more than 300 million gallons of toxic sludge were released into the water supply in 2001; and Stanley Sturgill, 65, a former underground coal miner and former MSHA inspector.

Also in the office are Lisa Abbott, 40, a community organizer and mother of two; Chad Berry, 47, a writer and historian; Teri Blanton, 54, a grandmother of three; Doug Doerrfeld, 60, Kevin Pentz, 38, a community organizer; Herb E. Smith, 58, a documentary filmmaker; Rick Handshoe, 50, a retired Kentucky State Police employee; John Hennen, 59, a history professor at Morehead State University; and Martin Mudd, 28, a grad student at the University of Kentucky, and Tanya Turner, 24, a community organizer.

For up-to-date information, see the KFTC blog.

UPDATE: 8am EST: The Tempest in the Capitol: "Misery acquaints a man with strange bedfellows."--The Tempest. As 76-year-old farmer/author/philosopher Wendell Berry spent the night on the floor with other sit-in activists at Gov. Beshear's office, he took the opportunity to read Shakespeare's classic, "The Tempest."

UPDATE: 7:30pm EST: Live from Frankfort, Kentucky: It's Friday Night in the Governor's Office! On the heels of receiving 5 pizzas sent from supporters in Tampa, Florida, Appalachian historian and sit-in activist Chad Berry notes: "We are all here holed up in the Governor's office. The Capital Building is eerily quiet, save for the housekeeping staff, which is polishing the marble floors. Abe Lincoln's statue in the Rotunda looks over us. The Governor's staff has been very courteous to us, offering us drinks and napkins and some snacks. Even though we differ with the Beshear administration's stand on surface mining, we are all Kentuckians. Our morale is high; we believe this was a very significant day in our efforts to demand that the governor protect the people and the land of Appalachian Kentucky. We want justice. There is lots of laughter. And we love hearing from people on Facebook and on Twitter and on email."

Here are some photos of the sit-in activists, including KFTC leader Teri Blanton and Appalachian native and labor scholar John Hennen:


Celebrated Kentucky author Silas House, eastern Kentucky activist Tanya Turner, and renowned author Wendell Berry:


Eastern Kentucky activists Martin Mudd and Bev May:


UPDATE 6pm EST: What's happening with the Sweet Kentucky 16? A live stream from the sit-in can be viewed here.

UPDATE: 5pm EST: These are the times. At least fourteen Kentuckians have decided to remain in Gov. Steve Beshear's office over the weekend at the invitation of the governor himself. The group released a joint statement: "We have resolved to stay while Gov. Beshear reconsiders his position on mountaintop removal mining. As we are just steps away from the Governor's Mansion, we invite the governor to join us at the Capitol--the People's House--for more conversations over the weekend."

"We invite our fellow Kentuckians to join us in solidarity on the steps of the Capitol on Monday," said the group. A march to the Capitol from the Kentucky River Bridge will commence at 11:30 a.m. The rally at the Capitol will begin at 12:15 p.m.

They expressed disappointment in today's meeting with Gov. Beshear. "There are times when our elected officials must choose between being a leader and being a politician. This is one of those times. We call upon Gov. 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."

UPDATE: 3:30pm EST: Sleepover at the governor's! Heading into the weekend, the Governor has opened his office to the sit-in protesters for "as long as" they wish. Thirteen protesters, including Wendell Berry, Teri Blanton, John Hennen, and Stanley Sturgill will spend the night in the governor's office. More information to come on upcoming events.


(Authors Erik Reece and Wendell Berry do a reading from their books at the sit-in.)

UPDATE: 2:30 EST: No longer "unwarranted burdens" of the Kentucky state. In an astonishing judicial decision, the sit-in protesters have just been informed that a Franklin Circuit Court judge ruled that Kentuckians for the Commonwealth and other citizens groups can have full discovery and deposition rights, and the right to fully investigate and follow the evidence to determine whether fraud has occurred in a major Kentucky suit over illegal coal company clean water violations. The state had referred to citizen's involvement as "unwarranted burdens." Says KFTC activist Teri Blanton, who is from Harlan County: "The judge's decision was the best thing that could ever happen, especially today as we sit in the Kentucky governor's office. We cheered and hollered when we heard the news. The governor brushed us off in our meeting, saying that whether citizens could intervene was up to the lawyers. It was good to know that Judge Shepherd heard the people when we were in the courtroom a couple of weeks ago."


(toxic coal waste contaminated water from eastern KY shown to governor photo by Lora Smith)

UPDATE: 1:40 EST: With a toothbrush in his inner jacket pocket, in case of a night in jail, Wendell Berry commented on the meeting with Gov. Beshear:

"I feel good about our conversation with governor because he made our difference very plain and clean cut. He thinks that all we have on our side are our own personal opinions, and that he evidently has on his side established governmental policy. And he thinks that surface mining can be done without harm to the land or streams or the people. It's very plain to me that nobody on our side thinks that it is true because they've seen the results with their eyes or experienced the results in their own families and homes. I would say moreover that the idea here that two sides can legitimately disagree is simply wrong. I don't think there can be a legitimate disagreement about the destruction of ecosystems and watersheds."

UPDATE: 1:20 EST: After a half hour meeting with Gov. Beshear, who remained adamant that his state administration was adequately ensuring safe strip-mining operations despite widely documented clean water violations, the sit-in activists have vowed to continue their protest and risk arrest.

Wendell Berry told the governor: "We are not in a yielding frame of mind."

In one of the most illuminating moments in the meeting between the courageous and informed residents and a governor who appeared at times in complete denial of the long-time reality of strip-mining devastation and massive clean water violations, eastern Kentucky coalfield resident Rick Handshoe said to the governor: "I pay a higher electric bill than you: I pay my electric bill, and I pay with my family's health, my nephew's health." "We pay a bigger price." "We're paying with our lives there."

Kentuckians for the Commonwealth activist Teri Blanton added: "My people have been carrying the same damn signs for 50 years. There has to be changes. It has to end and it has to end now."


(photos by Chad Berry)

Eastern Kentucky nurse Beverly May shows Gov. Beshear a jar of her water contaminated by toxic coal waste:


UPDATE: 12:30 EST: Gov. Beshear has agreed to meet with the sit-in participants.

UPDATE: 80-year-old Patty Wallace, among other protesters at the Kentucky governor's office have been asked to leave by staff. Wallace announced they would not leave and would risk arrest. Gov. Beshear's whereabouts are unknown.

UPDATE: Live streaming of the sit-in can be viewed here.

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 more than 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 more than 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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