During the spring semester, the School of Environmental Studies provided several foundational experiences for students Chris Cornelius and Stefan Mitchell related to what it means to study the environment and live in Kentucky. Both took part in a field trip to witness mountaintop removal coal mining as a part of their classes in Environmental Geology and Environmental Law and Policy and attended the I Love Mountains Day rally in Frankfort as a part of the R.A.I.S.E. (Responsible Action Initiating Sustainable Efforts) student environmental club.
Chris hails from rural Meade County, Ky., where his family owns 1,800 acres of primarily forested land and operates a small-scale farm. They raise 60 head of hormone-free cattle, run a family vegetable farm, spend time hunting and fishing and put up canned produce to eat through the winter. Chris became interested in environmental studies through Future Farmers of America, where he was inspired to pursue a career that involved working with agriculture, forests and wildlife.
Chris describes himself as “someone who likes to explore all sides of an issue and draw conclusions from it to find a middle ground.” This is particularly true when it comes to coal mining. “I’ve known people my entire life who have been employed with the coal industry and it’s a part of who they are,” he said, “but you have to think about how the mining affects the environment and the health of the people in the area.”
Stefan, meanwhile, grew up in a military family and lived in Fort Knox for the last 10 years. He describes his upbringing as “somewhat sheltered.” Much of his childhood was spent on military bases where everything that you could need could be found on and around the base. When he was younger, he said, “my family used to sometimes drive from Fort Knox to Louisville. On the way we would pass the Mill Creek coal-fired power plant. It looked to me like the plant was producing clouds until I got older and learned more about what it does.”
Stefan was inspired to pursue Environmental Science as a degree after taking AP Environmental Science in high school and has enjoyed learning about this field in more depth since coming to Bellarmine.
Both of these students learned in their classes about how Kentucky and surrounding states are full of natural resources, and coal in particular. While they knew intellectually how coal was extracted and burned for energy, the field trip to Kayford Mountain, West Virginia, to see mountaintop removal coal mining for themselves proved transformative. This style of mining, which involves blasting away hundreds of feet of waste rock with no economic value to reach valuable seams of coal that are extracted rapidly with heavy machinery, is common in Appalachia and has replaced much of the more traditional underground mining operations in the area.
“Seeing the destruction of this natural beauty in person helped me understand the scale of these operations more than looking at pictures in a classroom,” Stefan said. “I never truly understood the lengths companies take to retrieve coal within a mountain until I looked across the landscape at Kayford Mountain.”
Chris was also highly affected by the experience. “It really reminded me of my home,” he said. “The people there were dependent on the resources that their land had to offer. I liked how the area was away from civilization and the people lived within the natural landscape. But when you hike to the top of the ridge in their hollow, from one end of the horizon to the other all you can see is 600 feet of rock blasted and scraped off the top of the mountain.”
As members of the R.A.I.S.E. environmental club, Stefan and Chris also took part in the annual activist march and rally against mountaintop removal sponsored by Kentuckians For The Commonwealth at the state Capitol in Frankfort. It was the first time either of them had participated in a public demonstration.
“I was amazed to see so many people congregated in Frankfort, all for the same reason,” Stefan said. “Seeing people’s intense devotion towards ending mountaintop removal was like nothing I’ve ever seen before.” Chris said he was inspired by the gathering, especially because “it was really cool to see people expressing their rights in America, to see people standing for what they believe in.” Both remarked that the slogan chanted at the rally, “This is what democracy looks like,” has really stuck with them.
The future of coal mining is clearly a controversial and complex topic, but these two students have begun to explore what it means for their state, for their careers and for their world.
“I feel a bit conflicted because I know people in my life who are very passionate about the coal industry,” Chris said. “I just don’t want them to pass judgment on me because I am against mountaintop removal. I hope that they could understand where I am coming from and open their minds to some other points of view so that we could find some common ground.”
Stefan added, “I can see both sides of the story. I see the negatives that burning coal has on the environment and human health, but also the need for this source of energy because of the way that we are currently so dependent on it. It just seems sometimes like we will never be able to break our dependence on coal, but I think that we have to.”
Dr. Kate Bulinski
Dr. Kate Bulinski is an associate professor of geoscience in Bellarmine’s School of Environmental Studies.