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Why We Occupied the Governor's Office

John Hennen: Our mission was to put before the governor grievances we have about the obliteration of Eastern Kentucky mountains, ecosystems, and water sources through the practice of Mountaintop Removal Mining.

On Friday morning, February 11, I accompanied nineteen other citizens of the Commonwealth of Kentucky to the office of Democratic Governor Steve Beshear. Our mission was to put before the governor grievances we have about the obliteration of Eastern Kentucky mountains, ecosystems, and water sources through the practice of Mountaintop Removal Mining. MTR is a radically destructive form of mining that uses massive machinery and powerful explosives to expose coal seams that can then be pulled from the earth by even larger machines.

kentucky protest

MTR operations routinely violate the 1977 Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act, SMCRA, which mandates strip-mined land to be returned to its “approximate original contours” during reclamation. Of course, mountaintops cannot be restored so the law allows MTR permits so long as the mining company submits a detailed plan for how the newly-flattened former mountaintop will be put toward a “higher and better use.”

To date, in almost thirty-five years, about 97% of the flat land created by MTR has not been “developed” in any way. Anti-MTR activists have, for the past several years, been attacking this dangerous and tragic practice for its systematic violations of the Clean Water Act, since the “overburden” from the rubbelized mountaintops is pushed into creeks and streams. Sediment chokes the life out of the streams and the toxic chemicals used in the mining process poison the water sources of Eastern Kentucky communities.

The Obama Environmental Protection Agency has begun to actually enforce the Clean Water Act, moving to restrict issuing permits for MTR operations that poison water (that is, every damn one of them). The coal kings of Kentucky, working through their elected agents in the state legislature, are understandably outraged at the temerity of a federal regulatory agency actually, well, regulating.

As only the latest maneuvers in a hundred-year history of protecting the coal industry over the health and safety of the people of Eastern Kentucky, the current administration has used inflammatory rhetoric (“Get the EPA off our backs!” in Governor Beshear’s recent State of the Commonwealth address) and the legal process to obstruct the EPA from doing its job. For example, the administration recently joined a lawsuit on behalf of the coal industry to block the tightening of the MTR permitting process -- the taxpayers of the Commonwealth, in essence, paying the legal fees for a private industry.

When four environmental groups conducted independent long-term testing and uncovered at least 20,000 industry violations of the Clean Water Act and sued the offending companies, the Kentucky Energy Cabinet moved to block the suit, labeled the citizens’ groups “unwarranted burdens,” and imposed a meaningless settlement of its own. Thankfully, in Franklin Circuit Court on the very day of our occupation of the governor’s office, Judge Phillip Shepherd ruled that the citizens’ action could proceed. When word of that ruling came, we were well into our occupation of Beshear’s office. The administration has appealed the ruling, reaffirming its conviction that citizens have no legal standing to protect themselves.

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Wendell Berry

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For the past several years, many coalfield residents whose land , water, and futures are being destroyed by MTR have been frustrated by the state power brokers’ willful neglect of these threats to the common wealth. The current legislature showed no indication that it would entertain the multiple grievances of these citizens, so, after much planning, we notified the governor that we would arrive on February 11 for a direct dialogue with him to air our grievances. We went fully prepared to risk arrest at the end of the day if we were not satisfied with the governor’s response. And we were not -- although Governor Beshear did agree to a visit to Eastern Kentucky communities most devastated by MTR within thirty days, for a tour conducted by coalfield residents.

Our group included mostly Eastern Kentucky residents, with a smattering of border county activists. It also included the eminent poet and agrarian essayist Wendell Berry, and the governor did not want to see Wendell taken out of his office in handcuffs. So Beshear, in a prudent gesture, said we could stay as long as we wanted. We caucused, agreed that we could use this turn of events to great advantage (our primary purpose was to shift public attention and discussion toward our grievances ) and we set up camp. Some of our band left to coordinate our media messages and food transfers from outside the capitol, and fourteen of us stayed until Monday morning, February 14, when we ended this stage of our protest to join the annual I Love Mountains Day, organized by Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, on the Capitol steps.

The workers at the Capitol, without exception, could not have been more gracious. We each expected to be jailed, but the occupation evolved into a series of workshops and testimony in which we grew to know one another, learn from our stories, and plan for our future work. We went in as a group of like-mined individuals; we came out as a community of friends, part of a growing citizens’ movement called Kentucky Rising. We hope that our action contributed to teaching the tragic lessons of MTR to a wider audience, helped our critics understand that we embrace a healthy economic and environmental future for all Kentuckians, and encouraged others to heighten the level of resistance when necessary. We await the governor’s visit.

john hennen

John Hennen

Morehead, KY

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