By Wayne T. Rutherford
Last summer, InSite, of Greer, S.C., a for-profit consulting group, released a “Regional Blueprint for Economic Development.” The company was hired by Kentucky Power to create this document, which my staff and I found to be lacking and not very detailed in certain areas. The real question, however, is what was the motive behind this report and why did Kentucky Power, acting in conjunction with the Southeast Kentucky Chamber of Commerce, pay for it?
Prior to disclosing the findings of their report, InSite touted in a press release that it had been retained by the power company “to conduct a regional economic development study for the eight-county Southeast Kentucky region.” I am not certain as to why only these eight counties — Floyd, Johnson, Knott, Lawrence, Letcher, Magoffin, Martin and Pike — were included, but ironically, they are exactly the same counties the Southeast Kentucky Chamber of Commerce claims to represent.
I believe this so-called blueprint is nothing more than a smoke-and-mirrors attempt by Kentucky Power, using the Southeast Chamber as a corporate tool to try and move the public’s attention away from the catastrophic economic disaster that looms if the Big Sandy Power Plant is closed. In October, the Kentucky Public Service Commission conditionally approved a Kentucky Power Company proposal to buy a half-interest in the Mitchell power plant in northwest West Virginia to replace the Big Sandy coal-fired plant in Lawrence County.
It is astounding to me that Kentucky Power’s “economic blueprint” has the audacity to call for a raid on our coal severance tax money and ask for even more money from our counties after trying to put our miners out of work. Their plan advocates a $500,000 annual raid on our multi-county coal severance funds in addition to trying to convince fiscal courts in eight counties to give them an additional $200,000 to $400,000 per year for a “One East Kentucky” organization that would be a part of the Southeast Kentucky Chamber of Commerce. Most of the money their plan seeks would go to filling four high-paying economic development positions within this organization. This would place our economic development decisions primarily in the hands of four people who are accountable to no one except the Southeast Chamber, and certainly not directly to the people of the eight counties.
For years, we didn’t have much to show for our abundant coal resources except for black lung disease and cheap electric power rates. Now, due to the heartless decisions made by the leadership of Kentucky Power, we are facing the loss of scores of high-paying coal jobs in addition to skyrocketing power bills that will result in future years from the retiring of Big Sandy’s Unit 1 near Louisa and the purchase of the West Virginia plant. In times of weather-related disasters, and in general throughout the year, Kentucky Power has tremendous, diligent on-the-ground employees who do a great job. My deep disagreements certainly do not lie with them, but with the misguided corporate leadership of a company that owes better to the Eastern Kentucky coalfields.
My heart breaks for our coal-mining families who are struggling because of recent layoffs and mine closures. The tough decisions and burdens these hard-working people are facing are on my mind every day. I was elected to represent all the people of Pike County. I will never surrender in the fight for our coal miners and our coal industry here in Central Appalachia.
I am not worried about the insignificant findings of a flawed, non-comprehensive report bought and paid for by Kentucky Power, the company seeking to close down the Big Sandy power plant and put our coal miners out of work. Nor am I worried about what a regional chamber of commerce with their own narrow agenda thinks about me. The men, women and children of Pike County and Eastern Kentucky are who I’m worried about and it is for them that I try to do everything I can do to secure our tomorrows.
My administration will continue to work closely with the Kentucky Cabinet for Economic Development, federal agencies and officials, the Big Sandy Area Development District, the cities of Coal Run Village, Elkhorn City and Pikeville, and all individuals and community leaders who are sincere in their desires and honest in their motives for what is best for all our people.
Wayne T. Rutherford is currently serving in his sixth term as judge/executive of Pike County, the largest land area county in the Commonwealth of Kentucky and the state’s historic No. 1 coal-producing county.