It was 1975 when I first visited Kentucky. The Resurrectionist Priests who taught my Grade Eight class at St. Mary's Grade School in Kitchener were based at a seminary there, and they led us on a road trip through Appalachia?s stunning rivers, hills, green (blue)grass.
Thanks to the Waterkeeper Alliance, last weekend I had the opportunity to visit both the eastern region I last saw in grade school and the western region I have since seen many times on my way to Churchill Downs, home of the Kentucky Derby.
I met a number of people working hard to protect the region?s waterways from the effects of mountain top coal mining ? and learned, to my dismay, that a practice that is destroying one of the oldest mountain ranges in the world is linked closely to those of us living on Lake Ontario.
"We cannot afford to treat the planet as if it were a ?business in liquidation?, converting our natural resources to cash as quickly as possible for a few years of pollution-based prosperity," said Robert F. Kennedy Jr.
Kennedy, who is president of the Waterkeeper Alliance, delivered a clear message: Every citizen in the region has the right to hold polluters accountable and protect the future of their community. The passion and the effort Kennedy puts into understanding local issues, and his support for the grassroots groups who have worked on these issues for decades is remarkable.
I would be remiss, also, if I did not applaud Heather Crawley and her team at the Kentucky Riverkeeper, for organizing such a memorable event. Coal mining is big business there, and many people are reluctant to speak out against the devastation caused by industry practices and the government regulators who approve them.
Coal mining, it seems, now means blowing up mountain tops, leveling valleys, and rendering rivers toxic with sediment from tailing runoff and acid wash.
It?s a scene made worse by new regulations being rushed through by the Bush administration in its efforts to continue providing cheap coal.
But the coal is not cheap. The costs are being borne by the people of Appalachia who must now live with acidic rivers. The costs are being borne by people living on Lake Ontario who cannot eat its fish because of mercury contamination from coal burning emissions. The coal only seems cheap because the U.S. government is not enforcing laws such as the Clean Water Act that would force mining companies to pay the real costs of the effects of their practices. Moreover ? and this is the cause of my dismay ? the coal only seems cheap because customers such as Ontario Power Generation create an eager market for it.
As it turns out, Ontario is the number one purchaser of this coal, buying millions of tons each year to burn in plants such as the Lakeview Generating Station.
I didn?t know about the Ontario connection when I was in Kentucky, and I can remember drawing parallels between the mountaintop coal removal issue and many of our own cases here ? legislators caving to big business and government interests and imposing the consequences on everyone except the people responsible in the first place. I can see now that this is not an issue of analogy, but rather an extension of the same problem. As Kennedy says, ?you show me pollution and I?ll show you a subsidy.?
An eagle?s-eye look at the region dramatically demonstrates how mountaintop coal removal does exactly what the Clean Water Act is intended to prevent. We can see the same thing in Montreal where the municipal government dumps PCBs into the St. Lawrence River, and in Port Hope where radioactive waste contaminates the town: Our governments support polluters by simply not enforcing environmental laws.
I should note, too, that another well-known personality was on hand to lend his support for the cause: Kevin Richardson of the Back Street Boys.
Kevin?s environmental fund, the Just Within Reach Foundation ? managed in part by his wife, his mother, and Vicki and Jim Hanna ? helped make many of the launch events happen. Kevin was there for two days to support the Riverkeeper?s fight to save the Kentucky River from further destruction. Given the poverty of the region and its lack of resources, he is to be congratulated for his efforts.
Kevin?s commitment to the issue is genuine, something I witnessed first-hand. The center of attention at the Kentucky Derby in Louisville, I watched as he spoke with visible emotion to a crowd in Richmond the next day. He remarked how it felt to return from L.A. for the first time in years and see both the unique greenness of the Kentucky grass and the damage done to the hills where he had once worked as a counselor at his father?s camp.
The passion of the local grassroots group and the support of Kennedy and Kevin Richardson gave me a new awareness for the problems facing the communities on waterways around North America. More than ever, it is clear to me that environmental laws must be enforced.
We can spend millions of dollars and many years developing alternative standards such as the Kyoto Protocol, but we cannot ignore the true costs of coal from the beginning to the end of the cycle. We cannot abandon strong environmental laws already in place ? such as the Clean Water Act and the Fisheries Act. If governments are not willing to enforce the laws we have, why would we believe new regulations will somehow be different?
The Waterkeeper Alliance plays a valuable role in supporting local programs. In much the same way, I am optimistic that Lake Ontario Keeper can support our sister group, the Kentucky Riverkeeper. I look forward to working with Heather and other grassroots groups in the region.
Mountaintop removal photos courtesy Tending the Commons: Folklife and Landscape in Southern West Virginia. American Folklife Center, Library of Congress.
-- Mark Mattson