Whitesburg KY

Attorney says state should put people before mining firm

The Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet is more concerned with protecting the coal company that destroyed the water supplies of 41 Letcher County citizens than it is with looking out for the interests of those citizens, said an attorney who filed a lawsuit on their behalf last week in Letcher Circuit Court.

“There are only two logical explanations that can be reached here,” said Ned Pillersdorf, a Prestonsburg attorney who represents the residents, all from the Premium community, in their complaint against Sapphire Coal Company and its owners. “One is that the culture at the Kentucky Environment Cabinet is such that they are so hopelessly confused they think their job is to protect coal companies rather than the environment, or that these shameful Cabinet officials are looking forward to landing a nice paying job with Sapphire Coal.”

Pillersdorf ’s comments were in reply to a statement Kentucky Department for Natural Resources spokesman Dick Brown made to WYMT-TV in Hazard on the station’s “57 Mountain News” telecast on Monday night.

Asked by a WYMT reporter for comment on the lawsuit and accompanying documents that show state regulators determined that Sapphire was responsible for destroying the water wells, Brown admitted the Energy and Environment Cabinet has given Sapphire a number of extensions on deadlines to fix the water supplies so the problem could be solved when public water lines are extended into the area.

“Forcing Sapphire into expensive and protracted litigation while the company awaits word of possible public funding for a permanent water supply solution, a project that should be underway soon, is counter-productive, in the department’s opinion,” Brown said in a written statement.

Sapphire is a subsidiary of United Coal, a Blountville, Tenn.-based company that was purchased in 2009 by Ukraine-based Metinvest. United Coal created Sapphire from the remains of the old Golden Oak Mining Company and Cook and Sons Mining, which it bought out of bankruptcy.

The lawsuit alleges — and state regulators agree — that Sapphire destroyed water supplies in the Premium area while conducting underground mining operations at its UZ No. 1 mine. Between October 2007 and April 2011, the Department for Natural Resources, a division of the Energy and Environment Cabinet, sent letters to at least seven of the homeowners listed as plaintiffs in the lawsuit acknowledging Sapphire’s mining practices had destroyed their water supplies. Each letter said Sapphire would have two years from the date the letter was written to provide the homeowner in question with a permanent water supply.

In a letter mailed February 18 to Energy and Environment Cabinet Secretary Leonard K. Peters, Pillersdorf said it is not acceptable that taxpayers foot the bill for damages caused by Sapphire Coal. Pillersdorf repeated his concerns after Brown gave what Pillersdorf has labeled an “astonishing statement” to WYMT.

“The Cabinet four years ago ordered Sapphire Coal to provide my clients with a permanent water supply within two years,” Pillersdorf said this week. “Four years later my clients have temporary tanks full of undrinkable water and have to wait for ‘possible public funding.’ Am I missing something? The public did not cause the water to be destroyed. Yet according to the Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet, the taxpayers should pay to clean up Sapphire’s mess.”

According to one of the 41 plaintiffs, the Premium residents “had wonderful water, clear, crystal clear, soft water, good drinking water, bath water, and all of a sudden it just turned really bad.”

The plaintiff, Sandra Napier, added that “until the state ruled Sapphire was at fault, we had to drive to Neon every day and haul drinking water and all of our water because there wasn’t any water here.”

The lawsuit asks for a trial by jury and seeks damages including but not limited to diminution of the plaintiffs’ property, destruction of contents, cost associated with finding replacement water, and cost associated with paying water bills in the event plaintiffs ever do receive a permanent water supply. The plaintiffs also seek punitive damages against Sapphire/United/ Metinvest, attorneys’ fees and compensation for expert witnesses.

The plaintiffs are also expected to file a “lack of enforcement” lawsuit against the Energy and Environment Cabinet. Under state law, however, that suit cannot be filed until 60 days after February 18, the date Pillersdorf gave notice to the Cabinet that he planned to take action against it in Letcher Circuit Court.

Metinvest is a steel company controlled by billionaire Rinat Akhmetov, whose $16 billion fortune placed him at No. 39 on Forbes’ Magazine’s March 2012 list of the world’s richest people. The underground mine which damaged the Premium residents’ water supplies was abandoned and sealed earlier this year after Sapphire announced it was closing its eastern Kentucky mining operations, including its offices at Isom and its processing plant at Camp Branch.

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