By Steve Vied
MADISONVILLE, Ky. – U.S. Sen. Rand Paul and Jim Gray, the man trying to replace him in Washington, were both here on Thursday talking about coal. And while they agree that the coal industry in Kentucky is struggling, their approaches to tackling the problem are vastly different.
Gray, the Democratic mayor of Lexington, made a campaign appearance early Thursday afternoon at the Hopkins County Regional Chamber of Commerce, where he presented his plan to reinvigorate coal community economies, a plan centered around growing existing businesses while attracting new industry, focusing on clean coal technology such as carbon capture and storage, worker training and protecting miner pensions.
“All my life I’ve been in a family construction business,” Gray said. “I know western Kentucky. I grew up in Glasgow. We’ve done a lot of projects here. It’s a great place to live and work. We must invest more in roads and bridges to move goods, including the I-69 bridge. That is a job-creating bridge. We must also bring a modern economy to all of Kentucky. High-speed internet access is at the top of the list with corporations doing site selection.”
Gray, introduced by former Kentucky Sen. Jerry Rhoads, Rep. Brent Yonts and Sen. Dorsey Ridley, all Democrats, said repeatedly that he is the only candidate to actually submit a plan for coal communities.
“Rand Paul blames others, but he hasn’t said what he will do,” Gray said. “Kentucky deserves a real plan. I’ve been in business 40 years. I’ve deal with regulations, good and bad. I know that infrastructure like roads and bridges move products. You’ve got to have them. And we need trained, qualified workers to build the bridges and buildings.”
When retired miner Jackie Clayton told Gray that thousands of retired miners are at risk of losing their pensions as a result of coal companies declaring bankruptcy, Gray said he was aware of (the) issue and supported legislation to prevent it.
“You represent the hardworking people of America,” Gray told Clayton. “You and your friends deserve your retirement and you have my commitment on it.”
A few hours after Gray’s session in downtown Madisonville ended, the incumbent Republican Paul arrived at the Brown Badgett Technology Center at Madisonville Community College for a roundtable discussion of coalfield issues with coal industry officials and company leaders. During that hour, coal officials urged Paul to join with them in the fight against federal regulations that they said are weighing down the industry to the point that coal can’t compete.
In Paul, a former presidential candidate, the coal leaders found a sympathetic ear and a willing partner.
“It’s obscene what’s going on,” Paul said after hearing the of the effects of environmental regulations on coal. “If we don’t fight them, oil and gas will be next. They (environmental regulators) are coming after one group after another. The EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) shouldn’t say you have to do something with no recourse.”
Paul was told that miners in western Kentucky earn $79,000 a year.
“That person can buy a truck or a boat and eat in a restaurant,” Paul said. When those jobs are lost, the larger economy suffers, he said.
Paul said Donald Trump would support fewer regulations on coal if he is elected president, while Hillary Clinton would do the opposite.
“There are things we can do if we have a favorable president,” Paul said. “I think he could make a difference, even more so in western Kentucky where you still have working mines.”
Paul said that emissions from coal-fired power plants have been greatly reduced, but that information isn’t getting out.
“Alarmists say nothing is going right, but emissions are going down,” he said.
Paul pressed hard on his point that outsiders are telling Kentucky what to do when it comes to coal.
“There are so many good, hardworking people in the industry,” he said. “It offends me when people outside of our state who have never worked a hard day in their lives, with no calluses on their hands, want to tell us what to do and say we can’t drive a SUV or a truck. … I consider it a patriotic duty to defend the Kentucky coal industry.”
Paul insisted that coal will continue to be a viable source of energy for years to come.
“Eventually we are going to need it,” he said. “I’m not anti-natural gas or nuclear. We need them all, but coal will come back. I just don’t want it killed before it has a chance to come back.”