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By Kayla Phelps
FRANKFORT — Individuals from all walks of life rallied outside the Capitol Tuesday afternoon. But despite differing backgrounds, hundreds of voices united because of one common goal.
“We will win this battle. We will fight mountaintop removal,” said Chuck Nelson, a former coal miner and West Virginia native.
Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, an organization devoted to change in “political, economic and social systems,” according to its website, hosted the annual “I Love Mountains” rally in Frankfort.
Speaking from firsthand experience as a former deep miner of 30 years and a union worker for 21 years, Nelson supports the work of KFTC. He traveled to Frankfort to join Kentuckians “shoulder-to-shoulder to fight for clean air and our mountains.”
He spoke particularly of Blair Mountain in West Virginia, historically known as “the largest civil uprising on American soil since the U.S. Civil War,” according to its website.
“We have to save Blair Mountain because it means so much to the people that fought and died there,” Nelson said. “If we lose our mountains, who are we?”
Larry Gibson, also from West Virginia, who referred to himself as a “mountain saver,” said Blair Mountain is “the national symbol of labor in West Virginia.”
He has been involved in the protest against mountaintop removal for 28 years.
“I’m trying to push these people to stop fighting their own battle, their own little battle, and fight the big battle,” he said. “I’m not trying to win a battle. I’m trying to win a war.”
Starting at noon, people gathered outside the Capitol for the rally beginning at 12:30. Cardboard signs danced in the rain, with sayings such as “More life, less blasting,” and “Stop making peaks into pancakes.”
As the rain came to a stop, the protesting was just getting started.
Five speakers took the stage, including KFTC fellow and spokeswoman Teri Blanton.
“We must say with one voice — things have got to change,” she said.
Blanton spoke about the theme of the rally — unity.
And nothing reflected unity more than Melina Laboucan-Massimo’s trip to Kentucky to join KFTC and community members in the fight against mountaintop removal.
Laboucan-Massimo, who is from Canada and a member of the Cree First Nation in Alberta, said the mines here are “eerily reminiscent” to the mines back at her home.
“Mountains are sacred,” she said. “People go to them for peace and understanding.”
She spoke about the tar sands extractions in Alberta that have destroyed the land and water. Like many Kentuckians, she is fearful of land becoming unlivable.
Ada Smith, an activist from Letcher County, said this year was the first time she has attended I Love Mountains Day.
She cited statistics from Dr. Michael Hendryx and others that show there is a 42 percent greater chance for children to be born with birth defects in mountaintop removal mining areas.
She also noted that cancer rates in these areas are 14.4 percent, compared to 9.4 percent in other places in Appalachia.
As she stood on the Capitol steps, she urged legislators to “stop catering to the industry and open eyes, ears and office to the people.”
While getting through to legislators is an important aspect of the rally, raising awareness is also a necessity, said Jared Flanery, a history junior and co-coordinator of UK KFTC.
“I don’t think we come here expecting state Senate and state legislators to change their mind all of a sudden,” Flanery said. “It is partially just showing our presence and showing that we have an alternative that includes treating our environment with respect.”
Alex Lehto, a computer science freshman, agreed that raising awareness is crucial to change.
“We’re really adamant about it and we’re not messing around,” he said. “It’s a serious issue.”
The protesters marched from the Capitol steps to the Governor’s Mansion, chanting “Healthy streams, healthy people.”
“The war has been declared by the coal industry,” said Stanley Sturgill, a retired coal miner and federal coal mine inspector, outside the mansion. “We are the ones that are under attack.”
According to the KFTC I Love Mountains Rally Program, a total of 1,200 pinwheels were created and placed outside of the mansion, and each one represents “50 people who have cancer linked to coal mining.”
“It’s a huge injustice and I wanted to start acting against it,” said Jessica Barnett, an integrated strategic communication senior and KFTC member. “I hope people can understand it’s an issue about people as much as it’s an issue about mountains.”
As the rally came to a close, the protesters’ message lingered in the air.
“We keep knockin’,” they sang, together in unison.
Reach Assistant News Editor Kayla Phelps at email@example.com.