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This news story originally provided by The Lexington Herald-Leader

August 8, 2005

Coal industry's models of success are just false fronts  

By Bob Sloan

Some people try to defend mountaintop removal coal mining, the shameful practice of reducing forested hills to dead heaps of rock, to reach thin seams of coal. It's the cheapest way to mine coal these days, partly because it requires very few workers.
 
These defenders of mountaintop-removal mining nearly always mention StoneCrest Golf Course in Floyd County as an example of how a mining site can be rehabilitated.
 
I never thought anything related to mountaintop removal would remind me of college history classes from 40 years ago, but whenever I hear about that golf course, I can almost hear a professor lecturing to a bunch of half-attentive students about "Potemkin villages."
 
He told us that when Catherine was empress of Russia in the early 1700s, she heard rumors that things weren't quite right in some newly acquired territories. She decided she should see for herself.
 
The rumors were true. Peasants were angry, there was resistance to her government and a few royal heads might roll if the empress found out how bad things were on the new Russian frontier.
 
Before her tour, a smart prince named Grigory Potemkin imported a few hundred well-fed Swedish and German farmers into the Crimea. He set them up with free land and new houses and cleaned up the few villages Catherine was likely to see up close. What he couldn't sanitize, he hid with fences and trees. Those projects became known as "Potemkin villages."
 
And they worked: Catherine did her big tour and went back to Moscow convinced things were just hunky-dory out there in the Crimea.
 
The coal industry has its own version of a Potemkin village with the golf course in Floyd County. StoneCrest claims on its Web site to be 700 acres of reclaimed mountaintop removal that has been successfully developed. I've seen pictures of it, and it's beautiful. It's also one of a kind.
 
Seven hundred acres is about 30.5 million square feet. A StoneCrest groundskeeper told me the intent was to put 6 inches of topsoil on the dead ground left by the coal operation. That's right at 600,000 cubic yards of dirt; delivering it would require 38,500 double-axle, six-wheel dump trucks, more or less.
 
The coal industry thinks we're dumb enough to believe somebody would bring that much dirt to cover up the destruction of a mountain more than once.
 
The coal industry has other Potemkin villages. One is the federal prison in Martin County, built on a former mountaintop removal site. Defenders of the mining method are pleased to describe the prison as reclaimed land put to good use. The implication seems to be that Kentucky ought to be thinking of penitentiaries as a new growth industry, to fill up empty dead places where mountains once rose.
 
But the supporters don't talk much about how the project went $60 million over budget, due mostly to buildings settling. That devastated ground just can't support anything that heavy.
 
And they don't mention the nickname locals pinned to their new pen: "Sink Sink."
 
Defenders of mountaintop removal will point to the new Lowe's store in Hazard. But they won't say anything about how it stood empty for at least six months longer than expected. It took that long for engineers to figure out what to do about the fact the new building began sinking into the dead ground on which it was erected as soon as the walls went up.
 
Empress Catherine probably got fooled because she wanted to believe everything was just fine with her empire. When that shrewd prince told her where to cast her eyes, she didn't bother to look past his prettified towns and imported farmers to see the disorder and rebellion beyond them.
 
The coal industry, determined to get to its version of black gold in the cheapest way possible, doesn't want the people of Kentucky to look beyond a golf course, a prison or a new Lowe's store.
 
But I think they will.
 
Bob Sloan of Rowan County is an author and former Herald-Leader contributing columnist.
 
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