I Love Mountains

Silas, Thank you for that kind and generous introduction. We all owe you an ongoing debt of gratitude for your fearless determination to honor Appalachia and all it stands for, especially by bringing mountaintop removal coal mining to an end. You are a true voice of the mountains. Our people appreciate you and our mountains need you.

And, thank you KFTC! It is fantastic to be with you here today as a member and ardent supporter of your empowering grassroots efforts, right here on the steps of OUR capital!

As you well know, I am very proud to be a Kentuckian. Of all the many things my Creator has seen fit for me to have accomplished, there is one simple fact that brings me the most honor and the greatest sense of self, and that is that I am an Eastern Kentuckian – a proud hillbilly who traces my family back at least 8 generations in our beloved mountains – Martin County, Lawrence County and eventually Boyd County. There is no better home than Kentucky. We have a deeply ingrained, almost mystical, sense of place – a sense of belonging that defines us. And it is our love of our special place, and the catastrophe it faces, that brings us to this place of power, the capital, where are doing what we must: Speaking truth to power.

Standing here, we are not far from the mountains as the crow flies, but in many ways, we are a million miles away. In the mountains, we still live with enduring poverty, frustrating lack of opportunity, poor health, education far below national averages, and more

Diane Sawyer, native daughter of whom we are proud, many of us saw your 20/20 program on Eastern Kentucky last week. America, you may think the program was shocking, but those children are not hidden to us; we know who they are, we know where they are, and they are why we are here. America, you maybe have thought the
show was new, but itʼs the same show thatʼs been told about Appalachia for decades, the same program that was on when RFK and LBJ came through, the story that’s been playing out since before TV was invented.

Thereʼs not a doubt that there is a crisis in Eastern Kentucky, but crises are systemic and the system at the root of our 100 year long crisis is the unchecked power of the coal companies. Weʼve known it for a long time, and weʼve fought it for a long time. Every step for justice in the coalfields has been a long, drawn out, hard-won battle, too often bloody, too often lethal. No one has struggled against or suffered more from the coal companiesʼ power than have the coal miners and their families.

First, there was the desperate struggle to unionize, to improve working conditions in the coal mines and the unconscionable living conditions in the coal camps. Then miners and their families courageously led the fight to improve mine safety and to prevent that slow death known as black lung. Next, the coal companies fought against the surface mining laws in the 60ʼs and 70ʼs and the protections they promised for the residents of the mountains. The companies fought the severance tax and the unmined mineral tax. And finally, the companies fought KFTC over those diabolical Broad Form Deeds.

And, in each of these epic struggles, the coal companies sounded panicked alarms. They assured us that each reform, each step toward dignity, empowerment, and safety for miners and their families, or each new law to protect the mountains, would signal the death of the coal industry.

And yet, by golly, whaddya know. Here the coal companies are, bigger and badder than ever, with hundreds of millions in profits hightailing it out of the Kentucky every year. And, the same is true in WVA; let’s not forget our brothers and sisters in WVA. The coal industry is thriving. Whatʼs dying is our mountains. And they are dying so fast, my friends, so shockingly fast.

In September, I made my favorite journey, my journey home to Eastern Kentucky. The trip is always meaningful and special, but this one was life changing. It was deeply marred by my to visit to mountaintop removal coal mining sites. Oh, I had read the books: Lost Mountain, Moving Mountains, We Went to the Mountain, But the Mountain Wasnʼt There. I had read the lawsuits and judgeʼs decisions (the good ones so often over turned by the now Chief Justice of the Supreme Court; a coincidence? I think not.), articles and history books, and historical fiction, too. But nothing, absolutely nothing could have prepared me for the trauma of seeing mountaintop removal coal mining for myself. I flew over barren moonscapes where the only thing growing is invasive, non- native grasses. Where once were our ancient, verdant hills and the most biodiverse forests in North America, I saw nothingness.

On the ground, visiting with families in Grapevine, I heard the harrowing stories I had read about: busted unions and miners; lack of ability to collectively bargain for better wages, benefits, and conditions; intimidation and bullying at all levels; chronic health problems not only in miners but in the whole community; arsenic levels in drinking water 100x higher than is safe; mothers putting Mountain Dew in sippy cups while they bathe their babies to prevent their children from drinking anything that comes from the tap, so poisonous is the water; children who draw water as black or red because they don’t know creek water is supposed to run clear; collapsed and dry wells;, choking dust, cracked foundations and windows; non stop noise from blasting; overloaded coal trucks terrorizing already nominally safe roads; companies small promises of mitigation and damage off set that either come not at all, or come too late.

And perhaps most maddening, I saw the coal companies smoke and mirrors, bells and whistles, the double speak and sleight of hand that tries to convince Appalachia and America that this is actually good for us, that we need it, and that weʼre better off for it.

Let me be clear. Mountain top removal coal mining is a tragedy. Mountain top removal coal mining is a scourge on our people and on our land. Mountain top removal coal mining is devouring vast acreages of irreplaceable hardwood forests, filling our sacred hollows, burying precious headwater streams, and eliminating wildlife habitat. And, with its monstrous equipment and mechanization, it is also eliminating coal minerʼs jobs.

The fact is this and nothing less: Mountain top removal coal mining is killing our mountains, the very thing that has produced us, the source and repository of our utterly unique culture and heritage.

I have been taught it is abusive to point out a problem without highlighting a solution. And, although the companies would have us believe there is no alternative for Kentuckyʼs people and economy, and our nationʼs urgent need for energy independence but to blow up eastern Kentucky, do not believe them!

There is a solution, one our president, Barack Obama, believes in and urges and for which he and Congress have designated hundreds of millions of dollars. The solution is New Power! The solution is The Green Collar Economy!! It is the future, and I say the future must come to Kentucky and especially to Eastern Kentucky, and it must come now!! We are honest about our past. We are realistic about our present. And we are optimistic about our future!
Our miners and our coal have powered this country for 100 years. Half of U.S. electricity still comes from coal, 16% of that coal from right here in Kentucky. The price has been oh so much more than what folks see on their utility bills; the cost has been our environment, our pristine streams, our wildlife, our health, and even our lives. It is only right that the Commonwealth of Kentucky be first in line for money from the Stimulus Package to create Green Collar jobs.

Call your Representatives in Washington! Call your Representatives in Frankfort! Tell them you want new power, and you want it now!!!! Educate and empower yourselves with the facts, share the good news with your friends and families, and letʼs bring the 21st century, new energy economy, to Kentucky. And, do not forget, when your lawmakers do the right thing, thank them! Send them a jar of shucky beans, a home made apple cake. Write them thank you notes, long petitions with grateful signatures. Phone their offices and leave kind messages. That is how we were raised, is it not? Let them know you see and you acknowledge and you appreciate their progressive and position actions. And then, vote for them again, and others who run on a progressive and positives platform!
One of the many things I love about the Green Collar Economy is that puts to rest, once and for all, the archaic argument that we must choose between our environment and our economy. The truth is, that has always been a false choice sponsored by big industry. We can fight poverty and pollution at the same time! We must fight poverty and pollution at the same time! To do anything else is to slide backwards, and we are so over being backwards.
Coal is a finite resource and a 19th century fuel, and this, my friends, is the 21rst century. It is time and we are ready for new power, modern power like solar and wind, to meet our energy needs. The Green Collar, New Energy Economy makes use of the fact that enough sunlight hits the surface of the earth in one hour, to power our entire planet for a full year.

We want to see our Kentucky political leaders make use of that fancy fact as well. Stop spending our tax dollars to subsidize coal companies that are making millions and instead invest our stateʼs precious resources in new solutions like a solar panel factory located in the mountains. Invest in our workers by providing training in new energy job skills. Can’t you just see it: A solar panel factory in Hazard? In Inez? In Pikeville? We want to see our Kentucky political leaders rovide funds to weatherize our peopleʼs homes and our public buildings. Isn’t it a bitter irony that poor people have such ineffiecent lifestylse in which they are trapped by their low paying jobs in dirty, polluting jobs?

Let me clear, in case I haven’t been. The definition of a green collar job is a 1) family supporting, 2) career track job that directly contributes to preserving or enhancing environmental quality. Those New Power jobs are perfect for us because here in Kentucky, we love mountains, and here in Kentucky and we are due.

Let me tell you about another type of New Power we are ready for here in Kentucky – It just marched up to these steps from our gorgeous Kentucky River and itʼs standing right here in front of me. People like you – all over Kentucky – are standing up and stepping out for a more just economy and a safe, healthy environment. You are our most precious resource, our most powerful source of energy, and our best hope for a better future. I am grateful and humbled to stand here with you today.

This morning in my prayer and meditation I was not all surprised that one of my readings was about Mahatma Gandhi. It was a God wink for me, or as a friend says, “Hmmmm. That’s odd……or………is it God?” Gandhi’s peaceful, non violent resistance to the British and brilliant civil disobedience by ordinary people is the perfect for model of us as we ask the coal companies to leave. I’d like to share that reading with you.

I claim to be an average man of less than average ability. I have not the shadow of a doubt that any man or woman can achieve what I have, if he or she would make the same effort and cultivate the same hope and faith.
-Mahatma Gandhi

While most people think of ordinariness as a fault or limitation, Gandhi had discovered in it the very meaning of life – and of history. For him, it was not the famous or the rich or the powerful who would change the course of history. If the future is to differ from the past, he taught, if we are to leave a peaceful and healthy earth for our children, it will be the ordinary man and woman who do it: not by becoming extraordinary, but by discovering that our greatest strength lies not in how much we differ from each other but in how much – how very much – we are the same.

This faith in the power of the individual formed the foundation for Gandhi’s extremely compassionate view of the industrial era’s large-scale problems, as well as of the smaller but no less urgent troubles we find in our own lives. One person *can* make a difference.

My fellow Kentuckians: will you be that one person who makes a difference?

We are, all of us, here because we believe in that better future. We love Kentucky; we love our families and communities, our streams and rivers, our forests and fields, our clean water and our precious air. And, of course, today and every day, WE LOVE MOUNTAINS.

I love you! Thank you for loving me back.

*******

So how does that fancy fact impact coal miners and their families in Kentucky, including the children Diane Sawyer featured on her program Friday night? Let me tell you how.

One solar panel has 4,000 parts. 4,000! Think of the jobs that would be created by a solar panel factory in Inez, in Hazrard, in Paintsville? There is money for that type of job creation in the stimulus bill, and coal miners, current and retired, should immediately be given the job skill training to build solar panels. There is also money in the stimulus package for poor Americans to weatherize their homes; isn’t it a foul irony that poor people who work in dirty fossil fuel jobs actually have the most energy ineffecient lifestyles? Lifestyles in which they are trapped, in part, by their low paying dirty fossil fuel job?

We live in America, a land of pioneers and innovators. The one thing that actually slows forward thinking green entrepreneurs and green employers is that at present they cannot find enough trained, green collar workers to do all the renewable energy/new power work they are creating. Boy, isnʼt that good news for our rural communities which suffer from chronic lack of job opportunities! Communities where coal companies have litearlly run off other industries to keep workers dependent on dirty coal jobs? Green entreprenuers, come on down! We need you in Eastern Kentucky! Land of the fabled self reliant, hard working, creative folk who only want to be self sufficient and provide for their families with honest dayʼs work!

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