Sit-in urges environmental and worker justice in Kentucky

A group of pro-environment, pro-working class activists staged a sit-in at the Kentucky governor’s office to urge the governor to reconsider his support for mountain top removal coal mining, a process that contaminates ground and drinking water in eastern Kentucky and threatens the health and safety of working-class communities near where the mining takes place.

Stanley Sturgill, a retired miner who worked in the coal industry for 41 years, said that the group came to Frankfort, the state’s capital, to talk to Governor Steve Beshear about the problems that mountaintop removal was causing. “He gave us some of his time,” said Sturgill, but we didn’t have a chance to tell him all we wanted to say before he said he had to leave. “So we just told the governor that we would wait (in his office) and maybe talk to him when he got time.”

After the governor left,  the group of 14 calling themselves  Kentucky Rising, began the sit-in that lasted through the weekend. They emerged from the Capitol Monday afternoon to the cheers of about 1,000 people at a rally opposing mountaintop removal.

When the group talked with the governor, they urged him to come to eastern Kentucky where mining companies are blowing the tops off mountains to uncover coal below. They want him to see the polluted streams and dangerous conditions created by the explosions.

They also urged him to pull out of a suit filed by the  state and the coal operators association  against the US Environmental Protection Agency. The suit alleges that EPA has been too aggressive in enforcing strip mining regulations. 

Kentucky Rising asked the governor to begin a public dialogue about how to transition away from coal mining in a way that creates new economic opportunities for workers whose only choice now is to work in the dangerous and environmentally destroying coal industry.

The group also wants the underground mines operating in eastern Kentucky to be safe and unionized. “I have two concerns,” said Sturgill. “One is trying to stop mountain top removal. Second, I’m a strong miner’s advocate, (and) there’s a strong pattern of violations (in the underground mines), and they’re going to lead to more tragedies like Upper Big Branch.”

Upper Big Branch is a mine in West Virginia owned by Massey Energy where an explosion in 2010 killed 29 miners. In a related matter, the US  Mine Safety and Health Administration issued a fatality alert today profiling the causes of the 71 miner deaths last year.

On Sunday, about 150 people rallied on the grounds of the Kentucky Capitol to support the sit-in. Among those at the rally were members of the Kentucky Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights who brought a home-cooked Mexican meal for the protestors inside.

Today, another rally against mountaintop removal took place at the Capitol.  The “I Love the Mountains” rally was called by Kentuckians for the Commonwealth to protest the dumping of mining waste into streams, a direct result of mountaintop mining, and to demand a clean energy future for Kentucky.  The rally had been planned for over a year and was not directly related to the sit-in, but Kentuckians for the Commonwealth has been supporting the sit-in since it began.

Kentucky Rising issued the following statement explaining why it chose to sit in at the governor’s office. “We call on Gov Beshear to lead by ending mountaintop removal, by beginning a sincere dialogue about creating sustainable jobs for hard-working miners, by putting the vital interests of ordinary Kentuckians above the special interests of an abusive industry.”

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