Calling for Just Transition in the Coalfields

The group that became the “Frankfort Fourteen” entered Kentucky Governor Steve Beshear’s office on Friday with three requests they wished to ask of Gov. Beshear in person.  The first was reiterating a long-standing invitation to witness the impacts of destructive mining practices on communities and lands in eastern Kentucky; the second was to withdraw from the coal industry’s lawsuit against the Environmental Protection Agency.  It is the third request, that Gov. Beshear “foster a sincere, public discussion about the urgent need for a sustainable economic transition for coal workers and mountain communities” that struck a chord with the goals of ATI.

When Friday’s conversation with Governor Beshear did not yield acceptable outcomes on the second or third points (though the Governor did agree to support a more civil, less-inflammatory debate from all sides), fourteen Kentuckians (and two courageous student journalists from the Kentucky Kernel) settled in for the weekend in the Governor’s office.  The group represented many walks of life in Kentucky; in their own words, they were:

All of the protesters are from Kentucky.  Those remaining in the governor’s office include Wendell Berry, 76, the acclaimed writer who has been a leader in environmental issues for the past fifty years; Beverly May, 52, a nurse practitioner who was the subject of Deep Down, a documentary about MTR that was shown on PBS; Mickey McCoy, 55, former educator and mayor from Martin County, where more than 300 million gallons of toxic sludge were released into the water supply in 2001; and Stanley Sturgill, 65, a former underground coal miner and former MSHA inspector.  

Also in the office are Lisa Abbott, 40, a community organizer and mother of two; Chad Berry, 47, a writer and historian; Teri Blanton, 54, a grandmother of three; Doug Doerrfeld, 60, Kevin Pentz, 38, a community organizer; Herb E. Smith, 58, a documentary filmmaker; Rick Handshoe, 50, a retired Kentucky State Police employee; John Hennen, 59, a history professor at Morehead State University; and Martin Mudd, 28, a grad student at the University of Kentucky, and Tanya Turner, 24, a community organizer.

Two of the protesters, writers Silas House and Jason Howard, who had been acting as media liaisons, left the capitol late last night when it became too difficult to communicate with media from within the office.

Word of “Kentucky Rising,” as the group’s effort came to be known, quickly spread with help from media coverage by author and journalist Jeff Biggers, and social media coverage—including a live video stream from inside the Capitol—provided by the group directly.  Statements and updates were provided on the group’s own blog.

The sit-in culminated yesterday, on Valentine’s Day, when the Frankfort Fourteen left the Governor’s office to join the 1,300 supporters that gathered on the steps of the Capitol for the 2011 I Love Mountains Day.  And while the sit-in itself came to an end, community leader Teri Blanton acknowledged that it was neither the beginning nor the end of a transition conversation.  And indeed many of the longer-term next steps for the Frankfort Fourteen and their supporters is to think about how to advance this conversation—drawing on the perspectives of elected officials and community members alike—across the region.  How do we dial down the rhetoric and keep emotions in check long enough to have these hard conversations?  What does it take to develop a shared vision for the future of our Appalachian communities?

As Appalachian scholar Chad Berry told Jeff Biggers, "Instead of looking at the past, we are now looking toward the future. A future without mountaintop removal, and a future for clean energy and sustainable economic development."

The vision of a vibrant, diverse coalfield economy hinges on making these conversations possible across the region, and in a way that everyone can participate.  It is a primary goal of our ongoing work here at ATI to make sure that happens. 

The group's third demand–that a sincere public dialogue take place about the future of our region–may in the end be the request the Governor is least able to make happen on his own.  It will take each of us, working in our own communities to listen carefully, to speak honestly, and to think creatively, to make a just transition vision reality.

Your thoughts and opinions on how to get this dialogue going are always welcome! 

Media coverage from this weekend includes:

And of course, where it all started on Kentuckians for the Commonwealth’s blog.

 

Kristin Tracz

About Kristin Tracz

Kristin Tracz served MACED’s Research and Policy team from 2009-2012 working on clean energy policy, energy efficiency programs and the Appalachian Transition Initiative. She joined MACED after finishing her Master of Environmental Management degree at the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies. She now lives and works in Washington, DC.