By Sam Beavin
In October 2009, the University of Kentucky garnered national attention for a decision made by the Board of Trustees. By a vote of 17-3, the board allowed for the construction of the Wildcat Coal Lodge, a basketball dormitory named and funded by Joe Craft and other donors who have made their money mining Kentucky coal. From the very beginning of this process, the ultimate objective was quite clear: creating a building that would tie their industry to one of our state’s proudest traditions, UK basketball, while ignoring the history of exploitation of the coalfields of Appalachia and the harmful environmental and health effects that come with burning coal. This summer, construction was completed on the Wildcat Coal Lodge. It now sits proudly near the corner of Avenue of Champions and Rose Street, and its lobby serves as a monument, personally approved by Joe Craft, celebrating the history of coal in Kentucky.
Considering the many negative impacts associated with mining and burning coal, it’s hardly surprising that industry officials work so diligently to paint a positive image of coal in Kentucky. The Natural Resources Defense Council, for example, recently released a study placing Kentucky at No. 1 in the country in pollution associated with coal-fired power plants, pollutants that are, needless to say, quite toxic and harmful to the health of citizens all across the state. The university even has two coal-fired power plants located on campus, both of which are so old that they were grandfathered in under the Clean Air Act and therefore don’t have to meet EPA standards deemed safe for other parts of the country. So while UK students breathe in pollutants such as mercury and arsenic on a daily basis, coal executives continue to lean on their close ties with the university as a means of lending legitimacy to these destructive practices and distracting from the many important issues surrounding the use of coal as our primary energy source.
On the whole, coal is, quite simply, bad for Kentucky. The environmental and health impacts are obvious, but even the traditional claim that coal is a vital industry for the state’s economy is dubious at best. Campaigns by industry groups such as the Friends of Coal have long framed the issue as a choice between environmental protection and the economic gain. Not only does this logic force communities in Eastern Kentucky to choose between financial security and the safety and well being of their families, it clouds over coal’s real impact on our state. A recent study by the Mountain Association for Community and Economic Development found that the coal industry’s prominent presence in the state actually has a net negative impact of more than $114 million per year on the Kentucky state budget. These practices not only destroy mountains and harm the health of our state’s most vulnerable citizens, but they also end up draining away resources from areas that are among the poorest in the country.
Many groups in the region, though, are working to reduce our state’s need to burn coal in order to meet energy needs. Programs that promote increased energy efficiency, combined with investments in wind, solar and geothermal projects, could help move our state away from the overwhelming reliance on this dirty fuel. If the $114 million being bled away from Kentucky’s economy every year were instead spent on renewable energy investments, we could be well on our way toward realizing the goal of a more balanced and sustainable energy future. Kentucky has more solar potential than the country of Germany, which renewable energy subsidies have helped make one of the top solar-producing countries in the world, and there are areas of Eastern Kentucky that have been shown to have tremendous wind potential. UK has already invested in geothermal technology for new dormitories being built, a decision that will reduce campus energy needs in the coming years and serve as a model for forward-thinking technologies that could be applied across the state. All of these will be important elements in any realistic plan to address Kentucky’s energy needs in a rapidly changing world.
The coal industry has had a profoundly negative impact on the lives of countless Kentucky citizens, and it is embarrassing that the flagship university of this great state continues to stand so closely aligned with such companies. Tobacco and alcohol brands are strictly prohibited from sponsoring athletic events associated with the university, and yet the coal industry continues to exploit its ties with UK to promote its own interests and divert attention from the many negative impacts it has on our state.
To show our frustration with the university, we invite everyone to the university’s free speech zone at noon on Sept. 5 to participate in a rally bringing attention to this important issue and pushing for an end to the coal industry’s influence at the University of Kentucky. Now is the time to show that we will not accept the continued exploitation of the people and mountains of Appalachia. Please join us in our efforts.
Sam Beavin is a chemistry junior and co-coordinator of UK Beyond Coal. For more information, email firstname.lastname@example.org.