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September 21, 2012

University of Kentucky Students Fight Back Against Coal

UK3The Wildcats are on the prowl.

More than 60 University of Kentucky students, faculty, and supporters rallied earlier this month to demand that the school change its cozy relationship with Big Coal.

At the rally, UK Beyond Coal activists shouted, "Ho, ho, hey, hey, Wildcat Coal Lodge needs a new name!" The rally garnered media attention and raised a campus-wide debate over the school's energy choice: a clean-energy strategy that invests in the state and creates jobs, or the status quo that sickens people.

"The coal industry has had a profoundly negative impact on the lives of countless Kentucky citizens, and it is embarrassing that the flagship university of this great state continues to stand so closely aligned with such companies," UK Beyond Coal Co-Coordinator Sam Beavin wrote in the Kentucky Kernal, the student newspaper.

A few years ago school officials willingly let UK become entangled with the coal industry's tentacles after the Board of Trustees approved the construction of a basketball dorm funded with coal-backed donations. As a result, the multi-million-dollar facility was named Wildcat Coal Lodge, now home of the school's celebrated basketball team. Big Coal has also paid thousands of dollars to sponsor sports games and has "spearheaded the donation for the Wildcat Coal Lodge, stipulating the building hold a tribute to coal in the lobby," reported the Lexington Herald-Leader.

"Tobacco and alcohol brands are strictly prohibited from sponsoring athletic events associated with the university, and yet the coal industry continues to exploit its ties with UK to promote its own interests and divert attention from the many negative impacts it has on our state," wrote Beavin.

Making an appearance at the rally was Mary Anne Hitt, the Sierra Club's Beyond Coal campaign director, who later blogged, "Many of us look to colleges and universities as pioneers of new technology and innovation, where a new generation learns and leads. That's definitely what I saw this week on the beautiful campus of the University of Kentucky."

UK students are the future of Kentucky. Shifting away from dirty energy toward a renewable future is an investment in the state. As Mary Anne's column pointed out, Kentucky's clean energy potential is sky high. While its neighbor to the north, Ohio, has seen thousands of new jobs bloom because of clean energy, Kentucky has squandered the opportunity. There are twice as many solar installations in Cincinnati alone than in the entire state of Kentucky. In Indiana, Ball State University expects to save $2 million per year in operating costs by replacing coal with a renewable geothermal system.

So far there's little sign University of Kentucky decision-makers want to change their relationship with Big Coal. But school administrators can't overlook the student body forever.

"We believe at the Student Coalition that the coal industry does not have the best interest of Kentucky in mind," UK Beyond Coal activist and student Patrick Johnson told the Courier-Journal.

UK Beyond Coal now has a seat on a committee -- along with administrators and faculty -- to help the school create a climate action plan that will put a target date on retiring campus coal boilers. It also seeks to propose creative solutions to the university that will invest in clean energy and prioritize the health and safety of students, faculty, and nearby families and communities.

Visit the Sierra Student Coalition's Campuses Beyond Coal campaign.

-- Brian Foley

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