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Our Insights 28 Feb 2011

Kentucky on My Mind

By Mark Lee

Photo: Kent Kessenger via farukahmet, Flickr

With apologies to Hoagy Carmichael and his paean to Georgia, it’s Kentucky I’ve had on my mind lately. Circumstance had it I was making a trip to Louisville to help my colleague Michael Sadowski orchestrate a stakeholder dialogue on alcohol responsibility for Brown-Forman, maker of Jack Daniel’s and other spirits. The dialogue was exceptional – potentially path-breaking in industry, I believe – but that’s a story for another day. Also unique, and the main subject here, was the way a protest against mountaintop removal mining was playing out at the state capitol while I was in Louisville.

The Governor Will See You Now

A few days before I arrived in Kentucky, a group of citizens had gone to Frankfort, the capital, to attempt to occupy the offices of the Governor as a means to call attention to coal mining practices in the state. To their surprise, Governor Steve Beshear invited them in. Further, with the demonstration launching on a Friday, he told them they were welcome to take over one of his reception rooms and stay the weekend. The way this unfolded is documented in delightful fashion in the transcript of this Living on Earth radio interview with Wendell Berry, a poet, essayist and full time farmer from Henry County, Kentucky, who was one of the small group finding themselves on the receiving end of Beshear’s unexpected hospitality.

Beshear and the protestors were cordial – in addition to providing room and board for the weekend, Berry says Beshear agreed “…that he would visit the home places of a number of our members and see for himself the problems that they endure everyday…[and] to deplore the use of violent language against the people on our side.”

The very fact that one of the demands was that the Governor stand against the use of violent language (and implicit threat) directed against those opposed to mountaintop removal hints at why the protestors were so surprised at their welcome; folks for and against the practice feel strongly about whether the associated economic benefits outweigh the environmental and social costs it imposes.

Appalachian Lives

In a poignant February 19, 2011 New York Times op-ed, Silas House, one of Berry’s companions at the sit-in, shares his view that while “…news media and the rest of the country typically think of mountaintop removal as an environmental problem…it’s a human crisis as well, scraping away not just coal but also the freedoms of Appalachian residents, people who have always been told they are of less value than the resources they live above.” Pulling no punches, House claims mountaintop removal is allowed to continue because coal companies, the media and government “…have all been complicit in valuing Appalachian lives less than those of other Americans.”

The True Cost of Coal

House’s opinions are strident, and I am sure some of his targets have a different perspective. But if what House represents based on his life experience does not convince, the research of Dr. Paul Epstein, Associate Director of the Center for Health and Global Environment at Harvard Medical School, may do more to stress the negative impacts of coal mining and use.

In an interview on Living on Earth, running as a continuation of the program on which Wendell Berry was featured, Epstein shared calculations on the total cost of coal to society. The numbers, drawn from Epstein’s recent study Mining Coal, Mounting Costs: The Life Cycle Consequences of Coal, stagger. Epstein says that “What we pay for coal makes it seem like it’s cheap, but the cost to taxpayers – to the general public in terms of health and environmental impacts – are enormous.” Examining factors including the public health burden in Appalachian communities, fatalities associated with rail transport of coal, broader public health impacts associated with burning coal (e.g. lung and cardiovascular disease) and climate change, Mining Coal, Mounting Costs concludes that the societal bill for the externalities associated with the coal industry equal one third to one half a trillion dollars annually. On a smaller scale (like your utility bill), if these costs were factored in, the cost per kilowatt hour for electricity generated with coal would at least double, and possibly quadruple – suddenly making coal a very expensive way to generate power, while making wind and solar much more attractive as alternatives.

What’s Next?

Externalities are rife in nearly every aspect of our economy, so in very many ways this is not only a story about coal. But with lives literally at stake in Appalachia, and global warming trends accelerating almost wholly unchecked by most policymakers and too much of industry, we could do worse than to start seriously accounting for externalities here. Let’s keep an eye on Berry, House and their compatriots in Kentucky and elsewhere – and hope the decision-makers like Beshear who greet them, are not only courteous, but also moved to act.

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