In Washington D.C. and the Kentucky state capitol, liquid coal incentives are environmental questions, matters of national security. But in Eastern Kentucky, jobs and community impact are at issue. With no major industry besides coal here, new technology and demand for minerals could revitalize the region’s economy. At least, that’s the coal and energy companies’ message.

Peabody Energy is considering locating a new plant in Pike County, and on June 18th Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, a statewide grassroots organization, held a protest in Pikeville against coal-to-liquid incentives. Across from the hotel where Kentucky Senator Jim Bunning joined Governor Fletcher for an energy symposium, more than forty individuals stood in blistering ninety-degree weather. The theme was consistent: Say no to liquid coal and big business.

The promises of economic revitalization and jobs have been made before, said Carl Schue, a third generation coal miner from Harlan County. “They are consolidating our schools. People are leaving,” Schue told the crowd outside. “We have the highest cancer rate in the nation, the highest diabetes rate in the nation. Guys, I’m really not sure coal is the answer.”

Another protester, Erica Urias, expressed disgust that in a county where many households still lack safe drinking water, the government might subsidize a technology that requires 7.3 barrels of water to produce one barrel of fuel.

Sam Gilbert from Letcher County said that coal-to-liquid plants would intensify the harmful effects of mining on the region. Manufacturing liquid coal would require increasing the nation’s coal output — by 40%, if the US replaced just 10% of transportation fuel with coal-to liquid, according to a National Coal Council study. Gilbert added his concern that if the state supports liquefaction technology, enforcement of existing mine safety and environmental regulations will suffer. “The government is not going to let laws slow down the mining process to keep this plan from getting all the coal they can slide through,” he said. “For that, you are going to see more and more bloodshed from deep mining and strip mining.”

“They don’t care,” Gilbert added. “We are throw away people.”

Two speakers voiced disappointment that more of their neighbors hadn’t attended the rally. According to one Kentuckians for the Commonwealth organizer, many in the region support coal-to-liquid because they believe it will provide much needed jobs — or fear they will lose the jobs they have by speaking out against the coal industry.

More than 25% of the nation’s coal mines are located in Kentucky. Eastern Kentucky produces about 78% of the state’s coal. Peabody Energy estimates that a coal liquefaction plant will provide 500-1,000 construction jobs and 375-800 fulltime jobs in the plant and mine.

The debate continues on July 5th when state legislators return to Frankfort.

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