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October 05, 2012

How One Activist Holds Big Coal Accountable in Kentucky

KY Kathy LittleNearby families breathed a little easier after Louisville Gas and Electric (LG&E) reversed course and withdrew plans to build a coal-burning waste dump at its Cane Run site. The news concluded a three-year battle between the coal plant and Sierra Club activists and nearby communities.

One of those activists was Kathy Little, who lives down the street from the Cane Run site. Kathy was named 2011 Louisvillian of the Year by LEO Weekly, Louisville's weekly magazine. She was also awarded the Sierra Club's 2012 Special Achievement Award for her instrumental role in LG&E’s decision to convert its coal plant to natural gas.

As LEO's profile explains it, Kathy's story of activism started with the view from her porch, which included open acres of farms and orchards when she bought her home in 1979. It's a different story these days. The Cane Run site got a lot bigger. Which is why Kathy uses YouTube and the media to share images of LG&E's dangerous coal dust, like the following:

Kathy's activism began in reaction to the enormous coal ash pond in Tennessee that breached in 2008 and sent more than a billion gallons cascading across 300 acres, pulverizing homes and destroying waterways. After that disaster, the EPA released locations of high hazard ash ponds.

"And I happened to be 50 yards from one," Kathy says. "I started inquiring about an emergency plan if the pond near us were to breach. I called around. Government agencies knew of nothing. I called LG&E and they said they had nothing like that and they weren't going to do it either."

Instead, LG&E wanted a permit to build another dry landfill. The message was clear: LG&E wasn't interested in public health and the safety of surrounding communities.

"I knew the black dust coming off the top of the landfill was not healthy to breathe. It's everywhere on our homes and cars. But what I am most fearful of is what it's doing to my child's health," Kathy says.

She soon after met and teamed up with Sierra Club activists, who helped her get the answers she was looking for.

"Armed with information, I went back to my neighborhood and walked around dropping off materials and looking for people who'd challenged LG&E about these issues. The answer was 'no.' I had people who were concerned, but that was it. Something had to be done."

Opportunity knocked this past summer when Kathy and other activists caught malfunctions at LG&E's sludge plant on camera.

"I passed along pictures to the media. The APCD (Louisville Air Pollution Control District) has fined LG&E $30,000 so far. Not bad, but I’m not finished," Kathy says.

LG&E's recent withdrawal of a proposal to build a new coal-burning waste dump at its Cane Run station validates what Kathy and so many other clean-air advocates have been working for.

However, the battle is just heating up. The current coal ash landfill is still there and toxic dust continues to loom over nearby residents. The utility is considering building a huge retaining wall, "possibly as tall as a 13-story building, so LG&E can put more waste in its current Cane Run dump on the same property," reports the Courier-Journal

Kathy will keep up the fight: "I will keep going out there and raising hell for people who don't have a voice and for our environment that is taking a heck of a hit."

-- Brian Foley


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