Kentucky Perspectives

ImageIt was the first full day that we were in Harlan and mountaintop removal was still a pretty new topic to me.  Just from hearing about it earlier that day, I had decided that I was strongly against it and disgusted with the greedy coal companies that destroy these beautiful mountains for really only one thing – money.  In the afternoon we went to a couple’s home who make art to symbolize their view of coal mining and mountaintop removal.  The first thing I saw when I walked into their cozy studio was a large, detailed sculpture of a woman lying as if she were a mountain with her stomach being torn apart by large machines.  She had tears streaming down her face, ribs showing, and blood dripping from her side to represent the immense pain she endured.  The sculpture represented the view of environmentalists that are fighting to end mountaintop removal in the Appalachian Mountains.  After looking at it for a while, I began to take in all of its elements as a whole and realized how much I loved the sculpture.  Personally, I agreed with its message and thought the artist had a great representation of what coal companies are doing to great Mother Nature.  Throughout our time at their house, I went back to that sculpture about five times and the image of it will never leave my mind.

I did not know what to expect going into our week in Harlan, Kentucky. The coal mining industry wasn’t something I’d put much thought into, honestly. It took almost no time for me to form my own opinions though. While, the people we talked to and events we attended were mainly against coal; I saw many local people that were pro-coal. The coal industry is what provides jobs in the area, without it there would be nothing left. Aside from the coal, I met some of the nicest people I have ever encountered. Overall, the week was a blast; learning to square dance and flat-foot stand out to me. The locals were so appreciative of our willingness to learn more about the coal industry and their culture.  I thoroughly enjoyed my week in Harlan, and hope that the work we did will make a difference.

 In the big white vans, we drove up winding steep roads until we reached the highest point in Kentucky. We were on Black Mountain and between Kentucky and Virginia. The weather was beautiful and the leaves around us had just started to change color. Looking over the edge of the road into the distance was just as stunning. There were a variety of trees and wildflowers changing into the new season. There was one thing that stood out right in the middle of the picture we were looking at. It was one mountaintop that has been and is in the process of being removed. After I saw it, unfortunately it was hard to not focus in on that mountain. It completely took away from the beauty of the rest of the landscape. The aesthetics no longer made sense as we saw the wildlife and in the center, half a mountain with no trees, but instead topped off with big machinery.

Today in Harlan Kentucky Gap Semester went to an activist conference in Virginia. We didn’t know a lot about the groups there and what they do other than that they are activists who oppose mountain top removal. We walked into a big room, completely bare other than a huge curtain drawing. A man was in the middle of explaining the significance of the drawing when we sat down. I’ve never seen drawing on a scale like this – the sheet was chronologically covered corner to corner with detailed representations of the coal industry and its effects on the environment. We all listened in, and once his explanation was over, most of us bought a copy of the drawing for our future dorms. We then split up into different groups for classes. I went to the biodiversity class. I learned about different species of plants and animals native to the area’s forests and mountains. Afterwards, we spoke to a panel of people who live in the area and have been personally affected by mountain top removal. What they had to say was shocking. Hearing devastating stories from the people the group aims to help was powerful. We then ate dinner and learned how to square dance.

ImageSo messy, today we weather proofed an older lady’s house to help lower her cost of energy. I had a caulking job and man did I make a mess. I got that stuff all over me, but I quickly figured out how to be efficient. After a ton of paper towels and a couple hours later not only were the caulking jobs done but everyone else’s jobs were done as well. It was a cool reminder at just how effective our group has become. We finished weatherproofing a house in one morning. We have definitely come a long way together and I hope we only continue to improve.

 The week in Harlan was really interesting. We were able to become highly immersed in the community functions, which was a ton of fun. The time I most enjoyed was when we went to a local gathering for dinner and music. We learned how to two-step and our group sang a song for all the people there. Some people tried flat footing but it was really hard to keep the steps with the rhythm. It was an amazing feeling being able to interact with the local community on a more personal level and I’d love to be able to do something like this again in the future.

Our week in Harlan County, Kentucky exposed me to a culture, people, and various issues that I was previously unfamiliar with.  The interactions with the local people that were facilitated through the numerous trips to local community centers, businesses, and organizations gave us the opportunity for us to become truly immersed in the culture of Appalachia.  At the beginning of the week, I set a personal goal that focused on gaining knowledge and understanding of the people in Appalachia in order to be able to brainstorm effective ways to potentially diversify the economy of Appalachia.  As the world moves away from the use of coal as a primary source of energy and electricity, it is incredibly important that the area of Appalachia is supplied with the means to once again stabilize their local economy.  We heard throughout the week, from various sources, that Harlan County, KY has the potential for economic development in the fields of agriculture and tourism however, through the interactions with the local people it was evident that no concrete plan was in place to help the area achieve the set-up of even a foundation off of which these industries can grow and expand.  I am extremely passionate about facilitating a program that can educate local youth about the economic issues that surround the coal industry in Appalachia, with hopes of giving the local people the tools needed to diversify their economy away from a heavy reliance on the coal mining industry.

This week has presented tons of information that has completely changed my view point on Kentucky. The economic conflicts involve the state changing its source of revenue from coal to tourism. For a vast majority of the people, who were born into coal mining communities, changing jobs is removing a way of life. I entered this experience wanting to compare the conditions of the people at Pine Ridge to Harlan. Harlan had a strong economic history because of the mining industry, therefore I did not consider them having as many troubles as the Lakota. Throughout the week I began to find many similarities between the areas and understood the distress Harlan must be facing. My most enjoyable parts of this week were dancing at the community center, using the mining simulations and working at the house.

 After spending a week in Harlan exploring the complex issue of coal mining, I have come to realize that mountaintop-removal mining and the problems that it brings is an issue far more complex than I originally thought. In my opinion there are three main types of people in respect to the mining controversy in Harlan. The majority blindly promote all forms of mining claiming that “Mining is the future” for Harlan, and the only way to save its floundering economy. Then there are the nostalgic few who recognize the disastrous effects of mountaintop-removal mining, but still cling to the mining industry as the sole panacea for Harlan’s poverty problem. Finally, you have the minority, the activists. A select few (approximately 6,000) residents in Kentucky who lobby for the removal of the mining industry entirely, because they are aware of all of the numerous destructive long term effects that it brings to Eastern Kentucky. These three groups have their niches in Harlan’s political sphere, and yet there exists a fourth entity with more influence than all three combined. The Coal Corporations. The corporations exist outside of the citizens of Kentucky, in fact over 90% of all of the mineral rights in Kentucky are owned by non-Kentuckians. These corporations blindly disregard the countless ramifications their operations have on the citizens of Harlan, and continue to abuse their influence here. Harlan is a broken place, and unless we as citizens continue to spread the truth about the decades of abuse they have received from coal companies, change is impossible.

This week in Harlan has been more fun that I would’ve ever expected it to be. Between learning how to two-step, flat foot, and square dance and learning about Appalachian culture, there’s been a lot of laughter and great memories. Though not all is fun and games. The root of Appalachian culture is lies in the coal mines and the current issue of Mountain Top Removal (MTR) mining has the town (and what seems like most of the state) turned against each other due to the varying opinions. On one side are the pro-coal supporters while on the other are the activists trying all they can to stop MTR mining. As we learned about the severe negative effects of MTR, all I could think about was the fraking going on in my state and all the problems caused by that process. As I look around Kentucky all I can see is another Pennsylvania. Split by opinions on energy and money and land. And while Harlan has been a lot of fun, seeing the similarities of here and my home state hasn’t.


Wednesday was our final morning in Kentucky.  We visited the Kentucky Coal Academy, a center that educates miners on how to safely use coal mining equipment.  After a week of learning about all the unsafe working conditions in mines, I thought giving miners proper safety training was a step in the right direction towards less hazardous mines.  This was the first pro-coal location we visited, so it was interesting to get a different perspective on coal mining.  Also, a large percentage of the citizens here in Harlan are pro-coal, so talking to the director of the Kentucky Coal Academy gave me some insight into the local opinion on coal. After hearing the director speak, we all had the opportunity to try out different mining simulation equipment; possibly my favorite experience during the Kentucky portion of our service!  We used three different simulators: a coal mining machine, a safety beam-placing machine, and a truck driving simulation.  The coal mining machine had a very complicated remote which was identical to the actual remotes used in mines.  The buttons on the remote controlled turning on the blades, turning on the conveyor belt, moving up and down, and a few other features.  The safety beam-placing machine was equally as complicated, involving many different buttons and levers.  In real life safety beams are placed in mine ceilings to prevent it from collapsing on miners.  In the truck driving simulation it was a bit hard to park backwards, but pretty straight forward.  All in all I really enjoyed this day because it allowed me to get as involved in the mining process as I could without actually entering a mine.




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