Published on
the Lexington Herald-Leader (Kentucky)

Coal Is Deadly, Not Cheap

Stephanie Pistello, Ben Evans, Jeff Biggers and Ben Sollee

As world leaders gather for the Copenhagen Climate Summit, we disagree with Commerce Lexington that energy legislation is "the most immediate threat to Kentucky's business climate."

Nothing could be further from the truth. Dirty energy led to Lexington's embarrassing selection last year as the worst carbon footprint contributor in the nation. Commerce Lexington has taken a giant carbon step backwards.

In 1776, Thomas Paine challenged our country to embrace the cause of independence over compromise. In a moment of crisis, he declared: "We have it in our power to make the world over again."

Our modern-day Paine, James Hansen at the NASA Goddard Center, has issued a similar clarion call: "Coal is the single greatest threat to civilization and all life on our planet. Our global climate is nearing tipping points."

It's time to envision a coal-free future. It's time for clean energy independence.

Coal mining, which provides 45 percent of our electricity, will not end tomorrow. Every coal miner deserves a right to a sustainable livelihood. Coalfield residents, like all Americans, deserve a road map for a feasible transition to clean-energy jobs — including a Coal Miner's GI Bill for retraining and a massive reinvestment in sustainable economic development in coalfield communities — before we reach a point of no return.

As grandchildren of black-lung-afflicted coal miners from Kentucky, Illinois, and southwestern Virginia, we honor our families' sacrifices in recognizing, not denying, the true cost of coal. Our grandfathers benefited from a transition to mechanization to improve mine safety. The time has come for a transition to clean-energy jobs.

Coal is not cheap nor clean; coal has been killing us — for over 200 years. Over 104,000 Americans have died in coal-mining accidents; three coal miners die daily from black-lung disease. Millions of acres of forests and farmlands have been strip-mined into oblivion; pioneering communities have been plundered. Half of Americans live within an hour of a toxic coal ash dump.

The Physicians for Social Responsibility recently found that coal "contributes to four of the top five causes of mortality in the U.S. and is responsible for increasing the incidence of major diseases."


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The National Academy of Scientists totaled costs of coal at more than $62 billion in "external damages" to our health and lives. A West Virginia University report noted the coal industry "costs the Appalachian region five times more in early deaths than it provides in economic benefits."

In Kentucky, according to a Mountain Association of Community Economic Development study, coal may provide $528 million in state revenue, but costs $643 million in state expenditures.

Nothing has motivated our commitment for clean energy more than the tragedy of mountaintop-removal mining. We have seen the devastation of clear-cutting our nation's great forests and carbon sink of Appalachia and blowing up its oldest mountain range. We have met the casualties of absentee commerce; grieving parents who have lost loved ones to coal slurry-contaminated water; veterans and elderly who endure blasting, fly rock and silica dust; families who have seen their homes washed away in floods caused by erosion; streams poisoned with mining waste; boarded-up communities, strangled by a boom-and-bust single economy.

The plunder of Appalachia must end. With coal-fired plants contributing over 30 percent of our CO2 emissions, everyone's fate is connected to the coalfields now.

Our fiduciary responsibility to our children demands a new way of generating our electricity in Kentucky and the country. It also affords us a great opportunity for economic and social revitalization

Clean energy independence, not coal, will bring more sustainable jobs.

Wind, solar, hydropower and turbine manufacturing, along with weatherization, retrofitting appliances and homes, could create jobs. The Appalachian Regional Commission found that "energy-efficiency investments could result in an increase of 77,378 net jobs by 2030" in the region.

Commerce Lexington: It's time to imagine a coal-free future.

The writers are co-founders of the Coal Free Future Project. Stephanie Pistello, Ben Sollee and Ben Evans are artists and activists in Lexington and Louisville. Jeff Biggers is author of the forthcoming Reckoning at Eagle Creek: The Secret Legacy of Coal in the Heartland.

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