Kentucky National Guard Soliders and Airmen aided in flood relief efforts in response to a declared state of emergency in eastern Kentucky in late July 2022. (Courtesy Footage)

Making Waves — Kentucky

December 18, 2023

Climate problems may seem too big to tackle, yet people all around this great nation are taking action. This is a state-by-state review of how some are responding.

This week’s column looks at: KENTUCKY and the question is: How long can Kentucky deny that its economic drivers are affecting every aspect of its waters?

As I was preparing for this column, Kentucky experienced a dramatic flood, one of a series of catastrophic weather events in the past year. As a consequence, alphabetically I’m jumping past Iowa and Kansas to focus on the Bluegrass State. Flash floods along the Kentucky River, a tributary of the Ohio River, brought devastation to communities along remote hollows, creeks, and steep hillsides in eastern Kentucky. Our first podcast focuses on interrelated water topics in Kentucky, covering everything from extreme weather events such as these to water quality, to “forever chemicals,” and finally to the bourbon business.
Podcast: Sustainability Now! (Dec. 13, 2021)
Episode: Corporate Responsibility & Climate Change with Ryan Van Velzer [58 mins]

On climate change, Kentucky is affected on all sides – notably as a major coal-producing state contending with pressures to decrease coal burning in power plants. Efforts to introduce solar in Kentucky have had mixed results, hampered in part by power companies that have different (or no) incentives for solar and sometimes have adverse policies on net metering. While the loss of coal jobs and general economic depression in Appalachia have left many small communities at ever greater risk for losses due to climate effects, powerful interests in fossil fuel resources are working against efforts to implement climate-positive programs. It’s an untenable, unsustainable situation.

On water quality, as is recently true in many states, it was discovered that a family of long-lasting chemical pollutants known as PFAS are widespread in Kentucky waters. PFAS are a man-made chemical group of carbon-fluorine chains that are persistent in water, soil, and air. Their bonds are very hard to break and harder to track as they move through the environment. The podcast gives us helpful basic info about PFAS. Specialized reverse osmosis filters, when installed in municipal water supplies, can remove PFAS from drinking water but in the natural environment (and in our bodies), these compounds accumulate and persist, rather than being broken down or eliminated (this is called bio-accumulation). Kentucky has detected the widespread presence of PFAS, but not all readings were above a concerning threshold. The state continues to issue permits for some industries to dump PFAS into waterways. The EPA is due to issue guidelines this year.

Water quality also figures into bourbon production, but the limiting factor appears rather to be the long-term availability of white oak for barrels. Climate change has brought more invasives to Kentucky’s white oak stands, making it harder for native saplings to grow. Mature trees are being harvested for bourbon barrel-making faster than the stock is regenerated. Some distillers in the $8.6 billion bourbon industry have joined forestry programs to fund sustainable forest management and white oak planting initiatives. It is good to find evidence of proactive eco-work in Kentucky.

I close on a positive note about river clean-up along the Ohio River which forms Kentucky’s northern boundary. When flooding occurs, we often forget that all the houses and household belongings that were ripped apart or could float away probably ended up in or along the banks of rivers. This was also true for all the debris from devastating tornadoes that ripped through a six-state area last winter, hitting Kentucky especially hard. The following upbeat podcast is about Living Lands & Waters, a river clean-up enterprise that has had a significant impact in over two dozen rivers of the Mississippi watershed and has made multiple visits to the Ohio. They’ve also worked on the Potomac in D.C., the Delaware, the East River in NYC, and the Cuyahoga in Cleveland. They also have ancillary tree-planting and educational operations as well. They are enthusiastic and quite inspiring and run an effective operation that has removed a total of 12.8 million pounds of trash as of August 2022. Check out their inspirational story here:
Podcast: The River Radius Podcast (2/25/2022)
Episode: Cleaning Rivers by the Barge Load [51 mins]

Let me know if you have a podcast to recommend, or have a comment about my column or have trouble finding a particular podcast I’ve mentioned. Happy listening!
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Note: This column, part of a series looking at examples of positive climate action, state-by-state, first appeared in the Forest Press 08-10-2022. If you are interested in this state’s topic, check online for updated news, as a lot may have changed in a year.

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