WASHINGTON — Out of the thousands who swept the nation's capitol to push for environmental policy changes on Monday, a group from Kentucky's Appalachian region — an area known for crushing poverty in the shadows of the state's coal mines — stood front and center.
More than 100 members of the Kentucky contingent — a mix of eager college students, environmentalists and activists in their 60s and 70s such as native son and author Wendell Berry — gave key speeches during the multi-day Power Shift conference, a gathering of more than 11,000 global warming activists.
Transylvania College senior Marcie Smith testified before a congressional panel on what she and other environmental activists see as the harmful impact of Kentucky’s heavy reliance on coal.
All pressed members of their congressional delegation on the dangers of coal ash contamination of rivers such as the spill of 1 billion gallons of toxic sludge in East Tennessee in December.
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As thousands took to the snow-clogged streets and ringed a coal-fired power plant near the U.S. Capitol, Kentuckians stood near the front of the line carrying signs that read "Save our Mountains" and "Clean coal is like dry water."
"I see a lot of people who are rightly motivated," Berry said. "The time is now."
The Kentucky delegation helped galvanize the crowd by leading chants against mountaintop removal, which involves blasting mountain peaks with explosives to expose coal seams.
"The issue of mountaintop removal coal mining is particularly devastating from an ecological and sociological point of view," said Smith, a senior at Transylvania University in Lexington and a founder of the Kentucky Students Environmental Coalition. "For people who make their homes in these mountains, the psychological devastation of chopping off the tops of them has an effect."
The irony that some of the most vocal opposition to the use of coal as a power source has come from citizens from a poor region that largely relies on that industry was not lost on those gathered.
However, as the nation's energy policies trend toward finding alternative sources, environmentalists say Kentucky’s future lies in developing a green economy focused on manufacturing components for solar and wind plants and eco-tourism — steps that require an eye toward conservation.
"Who wants to come look at a mountaintop that is gone?" said Patty Wallace, 78, an activist from Eastern Kentucky. "In order to supply the country with cheap energy, we're supposed to sacrifice our mountains, rivers and resources. It's all been about greed. Look at Eastern Kentucky. It’s the richest area of our state in resources. But it has the worst schools and the worst poverty."
It is a sensitive topic, and even the state's lawmakers have been careful to tread lightly.
Kentucky college students had no problems lining up meetings with staffers from the office of Rep. Ben Chandler, D-Versailles, and dropped by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s office.
Just days before a planned civil disobedience action at the coal-fired power plant near the U.S. Capitol, the leaders of the House of Representatives and the Senate asked Thursday for the plant to replace all its coal with natural gas. Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., the Senate majority leader, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., sent a letter to Stephen Ayers, the acting architect of the Capitol, who's in charge of maintaining the Capitol complex, telling him to reduce the amount of coal burned at the plant and to prepare for converting it to burn only natural gas by the end of the year.
More than 90 percent of Kentucky’s electricity and half the nation’s electricity comes from coal. According to the Kentucky Coal Education project, through 2006 the coal mining industry pumped $3.5 billion into the state’s economy.
Lexington has the country’s largest "carbon footprint" — leading the nation in emitting the greenhouse gases that most scientists think contribute to global climate change. Other Kentucky cities follow closely, including the Cincinnati-Northern Kentucky area and Louisville, according to a recent study of the nation's 100 largest metropolitan areas by the Brookings Institution.
The coal industry has also contributed heavily to the campaigns of both senators and many of the state's congressmen.
Kentucky students and environmental activists who supported President Barack Obama's candidacy said they are determined to hold him accountable as the administration drafts energy policies.
Coal is by far the biggest source of carbon emissions causing climate change, NASA scientist and climate expert James Hansen said just before the march. Hansen said the world must reduce accumulated carbon dioxide in the atmosphere from about 385 parts per million now to 350 parts per million or less to avoid rising seas and other serious consequences of climate disruption.
"We can do that if we freeze out coal," he said.