coal truck
A coal truck rumbles through an Appalachian town, bringing mining debris along.
Photo: Kent Kessinger, via

The folks who live and breathe rural Eastern Kentucky mountain air sure do put up with more than their share of abuse. The attitude of rural mountain people epitomizes “live and let live,” taking that phrase to uncomplaining, unbearable extremes. Consider what we put up with around here.

With the end of summer, the muck on the roads and highways will become thick, black and brown. We will get to deal again with the familiar black ooze that slaps up against our fender wells and car/truck doors during winter months. Covering the roadways and building up on the roadside berms, this sludge comes from the filthy, overloaded coal trucks that line the highways.

The trucks transport the muck from strip mines and mountain-top removal sites that are nothing but mud pits on or near the top of the mountain. This vile substance gathers in huge balls and chunks between the wheels and on the wheel cover flaps ““ if any are present ““ of the massive dump trucks and eighteen-wheel tandem coal trucks. They drop the black muck on the roads and, if we are driving close enough, on our windshields, too.

The song of the rural mountains — wheezing, sneezing, and coughing, caused by the airborne particles — can be heard throughout the year. The situation for allergy and asthma sufferers will wax and wane as the warm, dry days decrease. (Someday those sounds will be put to music, and the anthem of the Appalachian Mountains will be born.)

Kentucky childhood asthma
During 2000 and 2001, several Eastern Kentucky counties had a high incidence of children’s hospitalization for asthma, notably Pike (246 cases) and Harlan (143). Bell, Floyd, and Perry counties all had more than 100 cases. Secondhand smoke also contributes to childhood asthma, and the Kentucky Department of Health reported smoking rates of 40.6% in Southeastern Kentucky.
Source: Kentucky Hospital Inpatient Discharge Claims, Kentucky Department of Public Health, Health Policy Branch, Prepared by the Kentucky Environmental Quality Commission

The tolerance level for torn-up roads, destroyed mountains, bad water, and a host of other abuses by the profiteers is so high here it’s almost unnatural. There is no other region in this country that would put up with the abuses we live with day to day. Is it that a job is more important than the health of our bodies and the quality of the way we live our lives? Or could it be that there are so many good things about living in the rural mountains that we tolerate the bad to the nth degree?

Someone may have the answer someday, but it’s for certain now that many outsiders are amazed at the way we continually tolerate the destruction of our region’s beauty, resources and people with so few complaints. “We take a lickin’ but keep on tickin’” ““ it’s as if we were following that as good advice. Many wonder how long we can keep on “tickin” before our mountain region begins to wind down or even stop. If the environmental abuse does not cease, it’s only a matter of time before we will be without clean water, fresh air, and stable land on which to place a house.

The candidates for governor in Kentucky have, for the most part, remained silent on the issues impacting the Appalachian Mountains. The front-runner, Democrat Steve Beshear, has not issued any strong statements that point to improving the situation here. His campaign has said nothing about the coal truck abuses, the contaminated water, or quality of life issues. If Beshear is to be the next Governor of Kentucky, he needs to tell Eastern Kentuckians that things in the mountains will change for the better.

A statement from the Beshear campaign noting, “Kentucky’s current regulation of mountain-top mining and removal is adequate” just doesn’t fly. Kentucky’s next governor will have to do better. Kentucky’s next governor will have to demonstrate courage and show his support for the Appalachian Mountains and the mountain people.

Roger C. Noe, former chair of the Kentucky House Education Committee, is Academic Dean of Southeast Kentucky Community and Technical College. He lives in Harlan County.

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