Whitesburg KY

Citizens want state to make coal firm replace water wells

State first ordered wells replaced in 2007

At least seven Letcher County homeowners who had their water wells destroyed by mining activity have authorized an attorney to file a lawsuit against the Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet charging the agency with failing to enforce its own orders against the coal company that ruined the wells.

In a letter to Energy and Environment Cabinet Secretary Leonard K. Peters, attorney Ned Pillersdorf says the Cabinet has been violating state mining law by continuing to refuse to enforce it findings, at least one of which was issued as early as October 2007, that Sapphire Coal Company damaged the wells and had two years to provide the homeowners with a permanent water source.

All seven homeowners cited in Pillersdorf ’s letter live in the Premium (also known as Hotspot) community where Sapphire conducted underground operations at its UZ No. 1 and UZ No. 2 mines. Pillersdorf told Secretary Peters the letter, dated February 18, was being written to comply with a state law that requires the Cabinet be given 60-day notice before a “lack of enforcement” lawsuit can be filed in Letcher Circuit Court.

The Premium area homeowners named in Pillersdorf’s notice to the Cabinet are Alberta Bailey, Jennifer Bailey, Billy Banks, Gary Brashears, Sandra Napier, Kevin Miles and Jimmy Pigman. The Energy and Environment Cabinet’s Department for Natural Resources sent correspondence to each homeowner between October 2007 and April 2011 in which officials acknowledged Sapphire’s mining practices had destroyed their water wells. 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.

“You will notice in all of these correspondences there was assurance that my clients would be receiving permanent water supplies within a two year of the date of the correspondences,” Pillersdorf wrote in his letter to Secretary Peters. “In none of these instances has this occurred.”

Sapphire is a subsidiary of Blountville, Tenn.- based United Coal, which was purchased in 2009 by Metinvest. Metinvest is a Ukraine-based 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.

Rather than enforce the two-year requirement that Sapphire pay for and replace the damaged wells with permanent water supplies, the Energy and Environment Cabinet has been waiting on the Letcher County Water and Sewer District to extend public water lines into the areas where the affected homeowners live.

It is not acceptable that taxpayers foot the bill for damages caused by Sapphire Coal, Pillersdorf says in his notice to Peters.

“I have personally visited these locations and my clients continue to use temporary plastic water tanks as their water sources,” the letter says. “We also take the position that the enforcement of my clients’ rights should not be subject to the availability of government funding.

“Your Cabinet has found that Sapphire Coal has caused the contamination,” the letter continues. “Sapphire Coal should bear the financial responsibility and the Cabinet should perform (its) mandatory duties and enforce (its) administrative orders.”

The underground mine in question 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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