Head a couple hours southeast of Louisville, and you will find yourself in the heart of Kentucky’s Appalachian region. And in the midst of controversy.
Last Monday, a coalition of environmental groups filed a lawsuit against the Department of the Interior in an ongoing dispute over coal mining regulations. Environmentalists demand that the Obama administration reinstate the “Stream Buffer Zone Rule” that was repealed under George W. Bush. This rule prohibited coal miners from dumping waste from mountaintop removal within 100 feet of streams.
Kentucky’s university students and faculty may become key voices in Kentucky’s coal debate, especially those in such fields as law, social justice, environmental science or politics.
At U of L, two particular groups have been active in coal controversy in the past. The Geography Club is open to all students and emphasizes conservation and appreciating the outdoors. Group Recycling and Sustainable Solutions, or GRASS, deals with sustainability issues on campus and connects with other groups. On Feb. 14, GRASS will sponsor a trip to Frankfort, where students will protest mountaintop removal on the steps of the capitol. The trip itself is part of I Love Mountains Day, an annual rally organized by Kentuckians for the Commonwealth.
At 106,285 tons of coal annually, Kentucky ranks third in the nation in coal production, according to a 2011 report by the Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet. At the state and federal levels, concerns over coal mining’s environmental impact are growing louder.
These environmental groups call for more stringent restrictions on mountaintop removal, a type of mining in which draglines dig off the peaks of mountains for simple access to coal. Unless properly managed, waste from such mining contaminates streams, destroying animal habitats. Judy Petersen, executive director of Kentucky Waterways Alliance, said in a public statement, “We can wait no longer while streams and the water that flows through our communities are destroyed and degraded.” Environmental groups also blame coal operations for Appalachia’s high incidence of asthma.
To be sure, there are many Kentuckians who see the coal industry as vital to the state’s economy. As of 2011, Kentucky’s mines employed 19,102 people onsite. Coal mining advocates say mountaintop removal actually benefits Appalachia by providing ponds and level land and in a region where steep slopes limit fish and wildlife populations. Creating flat land, they say, boosts economic development by making places for agriculture and industry.
For students who want to participate in the coal debate, the Kentucky Student Environmental Coalition involves students in pressuring university and cities to be more environmentally responsible. “Kentuckians are realizing that they need real answers in this time of energy-transition,” wrote Kentucky Campus Organizer Cara Cooper, “real answers that will not only curb our carbon foot-prints but also bring thriving economies and good, green jobs to the Appalachian Region.”
The Office of Sustainability is responsible for initiating administrative projects and partnering with other organizations to further environmental goals at the Belknap campus and in the community at large. Last year, the office reported the completion of 23 major projects with over 600 student participants.
Coordinating with the Cultural Center and its regular Let’s Talk Lunch series, the Office of Sustainability presented a discussion in April of last year about Appalachian justice, coal and mountaintop removal, the subjects of U of L’s 2012 Campus Conservation Nationals platform.
Photo: Rae Hodge/The Louisville Cardinal