MAC: Mines and Communities

US: Scouting for - and against - coal

Published by MAC on 2012-08-21
Source: New York Times

One might think that Scouts - of any gender - would seek to prevent mining, especially if it involves stripping the landscape for dirty coal.

But, according to a report by the New York Times, this ain't necessarily so.

In one rural part of Kentucky,  says the newspaper, Girl Scouts opposing such a mine "may be evenly matched" by those in the community who support it.

Mine Plan Puts Two Kentucky Fixtures on Collision Course

By Melena Ryzik

The New York Times

14 August 2012

UTICA, Ky. - The signs begin around Girl Scout Road, yellow placards dotting yards and affixed to trees along Route 231 here. "No Coal Trucks" they say, or, more to the point, "Stop Strip Mining." Some have a phone number for a clutch of residents in this small town, a dozen miles outside Owensboro, who aim to do just that.

The sentiment carries up hilly Girl Scout Road, where stately homes and a few horse farms border Camp Pennyroyal. For 55 years, the Girl Scout camp has been a destination for families across Kentucky and Indiana. Now, another fixture of the local landscape, coal mining, may be cutting in. A strip mine proposed by a nearby company, Western Kentucky Minerals, could soon surround the camp, altering its bucolic vista for years.

"Once you clear-cut those trees," said Lora Tucker, the chief executive of Girl Scouts of Kentuckiana, looking 300 yards out into the camp countryside, "it will never be the same." Camp Pennyroyal apparently sits on coal deposits too, but, Ms. Tucker said, "We would never mine this property, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever."

The area around it, however, is fair game: companies applied to mine it in 1986 and 1993, only to be rejected. But on Aug. 2, Daviess County Fiscal Court voted unanimously to approve Western Kentucky's 692-acre mine. Opponents are preparing to appeal - they have 30 days to do so - though they may be evenly matched by supporters. Ms. Tucker is opposed, but she is also realistic.

Coal supplies 96 percent of Kentucky's electricity, most prominently in the eastern part of the state, where big coal producers reign. Here, two hours west of Louisville, it is still vital, though firms like Western Kentucky Minerals are smaller, locally owned and entrenched - neighborly coal, in their view. Still, the fight against it has been fierce, as all sides struggle to preserve traditions that have been intertwined for decades.

The process has revealed the shifting alliances between environmentalism and community-building. It has also, unexpectedly, shined a light on the changing ways of the Girl Scouts, who have 2,500 members here, children and adults.

Tim Rhye, a developer for Western Kentucky, has a college-age daughter who attended Camp Pennyroyal, learning to hike in its woods and canoe on its freshwater lake. But, he said, she supports the mine: "She knows this is all Daddy has done his whole life. It raised her well."

Western Kentucky's mine, Pleasant Ridge, would have three sites - along Route 231, Girl Scout and Russell Roads - and produce an estimated 2.1 million tons of coal over a decade of surface mining. It has been in the works for five years.

Kent Overstreet, a lawyer who lives near one of the sites, represents other homeowners in the appeal. "There's the health risk," he said, "with fly rock, with ground vibrations, the damage to homes," plants and wildlife. "It changes the landscape forever."

"The mine keeps saying they want to be a good neighbor," Mr. Overstreet, 42, added. "But you can only be so good of a neighbor when you're blowing things up next to people."

Many residents here remember an earlier mine as a dish-rattling, dust-producing nuisance. To assuage them, Mr. Rhye and Tony Lanham, Western Kentucky's owner, gave tours around the blast sites at its mine in nearby Knottsville. "We've never denied that there's some aggravation," Mr. Rhye said. "But once we get started, they realize it's not as bad as what they had in mind." ( It's not "raping the land" anymore, agreed Ms. Tucker, who visited the Knottsville mine.)

Western Kentucky Minerals, a family business that has been in the area for a generation, has 45 employees and plans to add about 20 at the new space, which would take some two years to open. If the ruling is overturned, "we're in trouble," Mr. Rhye said. "We pretty much, as a company, have to have this project."

The fight against it started in earnest in February, at an Owensboro Metropolitan Planning Commission meeting that Susan Montalvo-Gesser attended with her Girl Scout troops. After conducting their own research, the girls - including Brownies as young as 7 - spoke in opposition to the mine, citing concerns about air quality and bird habitats. The committee deadlocked.

"The purpose of camping is to tell these girls, ‘leave no trace,' " said Ms. Montalvo-Gesser, 36, a lawyer at Kentucky Legal Aid in Owensboro who attended Camp Pennyroyal herself. "We couldn't sit by and not do anything when this proposal came, that would definitely leave a trace."

That evening meeting and two others that followed lasted until the wee hours, with hundreds turning up to speak. An online petition to protect the camp has more than 1,300 signatures.

But some are ready for Pleasant Ridge to open. "They told us any little stores around the mine have prospered," said Londa Mitchell, whose general store was appraised by Western Kentucky inspectors.

Chris Taylor, 64, and her husband, Shirley, 70, retired hospital workers who own a century-old 200-acre farm in the mining zone, drafted a contract with Western Kentucky last year, stipulating that once mining is completed, their land has to be made tillable. "It will be in better shape after they get through than it is now," Ms. Taylor said, adding: "If I thought it was going to tear up my house, I wouldn't want it done. We're not afraid."

Some property owners stand to make up to $500,000 from mineral rights, Mr. Rhye said, and depending on the price of coal, the county could earn millions from fees. (The money from the coalseverance tax goes to a fund that helps support new industries, said Al Mattingly, the judge executive for Daviess County.)

Many locals echoed Margaret Moorman, 69, a retired teacher who attended Camp Pennyroyal the year it opened.

Around here, strip mining is a "necessary evil," said Ms. Moorman, a Girl Scout volunteer for nearly 40 years whose daughter and granddaughter followed in her footsteps at the camp. She would prefer that the land she considers her favorite place on earth not be mined. But if it has to be done, she said, better a homegrown company does it. "We have already fought it twice, and won," she said. "How many times can you keep fighting?"

For the Scouts, the reality of the mine as a neighbor is beginning to take shape. There is talk of creating a coal badge, to teach girls about electricity from the ground up, all part of "discover, connect, take action," the Girl Scouts' new leadership code.

"The best-case scenario is that we can use it as a learning environment," Ms. Tucker said. "Maybe we've got some budding environmental scientists there that want to grow up and really look at sustainable energy."

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