By Chris Porter, Development Director, Bluegrass Greensource



Conundrum – noun

  1. a kind of riddle based upon some fanciful or fantastic resemblance between things quite unlike; a puzzling question, of which the answer is or involves a pun
  2. a question to which only a conjectural answer can be made.

(From Mary Knight’s Saving Wonder)

The Thursday morning was cold and the sky spit snow as we gathered at the entrance of Portal 31 Mine in Lynch, Kentucky. My daughter was ecstatic as we climbed into the rail cart and began our descent into the mine. It was a new experience for us both. As our car wound its way through the mine’s exhibit, we learned about the men who had worked in that mine and the community that grew up around it in Harlan County.

We were taking part in the culminating field trip of Bluegrass Greensource’s Kentucky Energy for Youth program. This overnight field trip presented students from Central Kentucky with the opportunity to learn about coal’s economic, cultural, and environmental impacts on Kentucky’s past, present, and future. Benham and Lynch are neighboring towns that were both former coal camps and are now in the midst of a difficult transition to a new way of life. For many Central Kentuckians, what little they know about coal communities comes from media and partisan campaigns. We are all familiar with “Friends of Coal” and “I Love Mountains,” but we don’t often take the time to become familiar with the people whose lives exist between these two opposing viewpoints. The history and reality of life in the mountains is far more complex than any particular slogan can convey.

As my daughter and the other children bustled about Lynch and Benham, it was so humbling to watch them grapple with these complexities – with the hard work, sweat, and pride that built these communities, and with the economic and environmental struggles that they face in the wake of coal’s decline. Much has recently been said about the solar panels that sit atop the Coal Museum in Benham, but it was inside the museum where students learned just how dangerous the job of underground coal mining is. At the Catholic Church in Lynch, students learned about the diversity of languages and nationalities that worked in the mines and built these communities. Visits to former bath houses that are being converted into shops and a mushroom growing business illustrated the ingenuity and hard work that residents are pouring into forging a new future.

That Thursday night, in the former gymnasium in the Benham Schoolhouse Inn, 60 Central Kentucky students gathered around Mary Knight, the author of the young adult novel Saving Wonder, a book about an Eastern Kentucky boy who fights to save his family’s land from mountain top removal. Each child had received and read the book as part of the program. In their conversation with the author, they wrestled with the conundrum—an issue to which there is no easy or certain answer—that coal mining represents for many communities in Eastern Kentucky.

The next day, the sky was clear and cold, and the sun shone as my daughter and I ascended to the top of Black Mountain at the Kentucky/Virginia line. On a clear day you can see all the way into Virginia to what used to be a mountain but is now a massive brown scrape in the ground – a mountain top removal site. It was quiet at the top of the mountain as I described the process by which MTR coal mining works.

“Who takes care of it after they’re done?” my daughter asked. “What happens now?”

“That’s what we’re trying to figure out,” I said.

The Kentucky Energy for Youth Program is funded through the Kentucky Department for Energy Development and Independence.