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Members speak out to protect climate, clean energy jobs

By staff - Kentuckians For The Commonwealth, December 11, 2017

In the final week of November, KFTC members Russell Oliver, Stanley Sturgill, Henry Jackson, Teri Blanton, Roger Ohlman, Mary Dan Easley and Mary Love converged in Charleston, West Virginia – alongside hundreds of other concerned people – to testify to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) against the agency’s proposed repeal of the Clean Power Plan.

“Now that we have cleaner, safer and cheaper ways to generate energy, the only question should be: how can we create more of those new jobs right here and right now in Appalachia? I know this because not only have I lived it, I’m still trying my best to keep living it,” said Stanley Sturgill of Harlan County, a retired coal miner and KFTC member.

Sturgill and others urged the EPA not to eliminate the Clean Power Plan rule. Issued in 2014, the plan is an Obama administration regulation that calls on states to develop plans for modestly reducing their carbon pollution. Most would do that through energy efficiency programs, development of solar and wind power, and reducing the amount of coal burned. States have lots of flexibility on how they choose to meet the standard.

Kentucky’s utilities would be required to reduce their carbon dioxide pollution by 31 percent by 2030 from the baseline of 2012 – something that will mostly be achieved anyway through coal plant retirements that have already happened or have been recently announced.

But, to meet or exceed the standard, the state also needs to adopt some new policies and strategies to reduce energy consumption and get more from renewable energy.

Instead, the EPA is proposing to do away with the rule, which has never actually been implemented due to court challenges. What’s more, the EPA’s proposed repeal of the Clean Power Plan has not followed the in-depth public engagement process that went into creating the plan.

KFTC member Mary Love pointed this out in her testimony to the EPA.

Kite Line: Appalachian Prison Resistance

By Kite Line - It's Going Down, November 3, 2017

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This week, we speak with Lill, a resident of Whitesburg, Kentucky. Whitesburg is located in Letcher County the proposed home to a new federal prison to be built on a mountaintop removal site. We have previously covered the strong local organizing in Letcher County that had helped put a stop to this toxic proposal. In light of recent efforts by the Bureau of Prisons to put the prison back on the table, we wanted to go in depth with a local organizer to help us understand the current situation and how others can support the struggle there.

DOJ Withdraws Funding Request for Kentucky Prison on Mountaintop-Removal Site

By Zoe Loftus-Farren - Truthout, June 30, 2017

Last month the United States Department of Justice (DOJ) withdrew its request for funding for construction of a maximum-security prison atop a former mountaintop-removal coal-mining site in eastern Kentucky.

The proposed $444 million facility, planned for Letcher County, has faced ongoing opposition from environmental and human rights organizations who have expressed a wide range of concerns about potential ecological and health impacts of the project. "Building this prison would have been terrible for the health of prisoners, the surrounding community and all the wildlife in the area," said Lori Ann Bird, who is environmental health program director with the nonprofit Center for Biological Diversity.

Read Earth Island Journal and Truthout's special investigation into America's toxic prisons.

The Human Rights Defense Center, a nonprofit that advocates on behalf of people held in US detention facilities, pointed to the history of mining-related pollution in the area -- including contamination of drinking water that could be used for the prison. The Human Rights Defense Center also noted the ongoing risk posed by more than a dozen active gas wells near the proposed site, as well as possible radon intrusion linked to coal mining in the area.

In a comment filed in response to the Federal Bureau of Prisons' (BOP) 2015 environmental impact statement for the facility, opponents also cited impacts on the local community -- including potential water pollution from the prison itself -- as well as on nearby habitat and wildlife. Two federally endangered species, the Indiana bat and the gray bat, are found in the region, as are some 60 other species with varying levels of state and federal protections. 

"It's a pretty huge step toward victory," Panagioti Tsolkas, cofounder of the Prison Ecology Project, a program of the Human Rights Defense Center, said of the DOJ's decision to abandon the plan.

The Prison Ecology Project and the Center for Biological Diversity point to growing local opposition, in conjunction with a coordinated campaign by advocates, as triggering the withdrawal. "This has been a tremendous effort by a lot of diverse groups coming together to oppose this prison, and shows the powerful impact we can achieve when the community comes together with activists from around the country to oppose a destructive project," Bird said.

In its announcement of the withdrawal of its request for funding, the DOJ cited a declining prison population over the past several years, and noted that the BOP could expand capacity at existing facilities and through private prisons if necessary. (The Federal Bureau of Prisons is a subdivision of the US Department of Justice.)

Not everyone has expressed support for the DOJ's decision. Local representative Hal Rogers (R-KY) argues that overcrowding in federal prisons necessitates new construction. In a June hearing on the Department of Justice's fiscal year 2018 budget, Representative Rogers argued that the project should proceed, emphasizing that Congress had already appropriated funding for the prison: "Congress has decided this and it's the Congress that controls the purse strings of the country… The money is there -- appropriated, authorized, everything in order." Rogers has also noted that the prison would be an important source of new jobs for an economically moribund region (though research shows that prisons generally don't improve the local economy and are, in fact, more likely to harm rather than help host communities).  

Opponents of the project remain cautiously optimistic while acknowledging that the victory may be temporary -- Congress hasn't yet passed the 2018 budget, and there's always the possibility that the DOJ could reverse course again at a later time. For now, the Prison Ecology Project is setting its sights on the next battle or battles, which might include: FMC Carswell, a women's prison in Texas built on a military base and surrounded by Superfund sites; a proposal to build a new prison on a landfill in Utah; a Hawaiian prison where the BOP has tried to skirt the environmental review process; and a proposal to build a women's jail on a toxic Superfund site in Los Angeles County.   

Tsolkas thinks the Letcher County win will lend momentum to these other fights. "The DOJ said basically they don't want the prison, they don't need it…. That's a powerful position to be fighting from."