For the first time in public debate with Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes, Senator Mitch McConnell vocalized why coal is no longer king in this country. It’s because it affects our health. Wow. Of course McConnell was actually quoting his colleague, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid on why he would not move new policies to expand coal in the US: “We talk about cost competitiveness, but one thing we fail to talk about is the costs that you don't see on the bottom line. That is: Coal makes us sick. ” Yes, a few words of truth did actually role out of Washington D.C.
What is interesting is that McConnell made this point as if health was something we don’t actually care about in Kentucky. He acts as if this was never a reason to think critically about a form of energy that creates the highest levels of health impacting pollution in the world. It’s rather ironic that the Senator pointed to health as a poor excuse for influencing policy when our state has some of the most expensive and worst health rankings in the nation. We may frequently be number one in basketball but we’re also number one in cancer, number two for lung disease and eighth for cardiovascular deaths. Poor air quality compounded by coal emissions is a strong factor in way too many of these cases.
The West African Ebola epidemic is terrifying. The disease kills swiftly and indiscriminately, leaving communities rattled by loss. The idea of this disease creeping across our borders and into our own lives has changed the way we pay attention to health. This awareness is critical. The reality is that more people will die from emissions caused by power plants in the coming year than will ever die from an Ebola outbreak in the US. The Clean Air Task Force estimates that 259 Kentuckians die annually as a result of the emissions from coal fired power plants in our state. It’s a silent killer but far more risky.
This week’s debate between McConnell and Grimes revealed very little about what the candidates would do to move Kentucky out of our number two rank for poorest health in the nation. Very little was shared about improving health literacy or plans to prepare for the health threats of our rapidly shifting climate. But maybe, just maybe, a few Kentuckians got it when McConnell quoted why our nation’s leadership is moving away from coal. “…It’s because coal is bad for our health.” Yes, Senator McConnell. You said it. It is. Now let’s take the steps to change that.
This blog post was written by Heather Warman and Deborah Payne as a special contribution to the Courier-Journal, available here.