Accusing the federal Environmental Protection Agency of committing “administrative malpractice” and “egregious overreach upon the coal industry,” the Letcher County Fiscal Court this week adopted a resolution demanding the agency speed up the issuance of coal mining water permits in eastern Kentucky.
The resolution, signed by Letcher County Judge/Executive Jim Ward and adopted Monday night during the court’s May meeting, says “the EPA’s ‘regulation by ambush’ is unacceptable to the citizens, businesses and industries of the Commonwealth of Kentucky.” It charges that EPA officials have committed “malpractice through delay tactics that have halted the issuance of numerous mine permits without adequate explanation.”
“Moreover,” says the resolution, “this ruthless regulation has been limited to coal mining permits and further restricted to eastern Kentucky and West Virginia.”
The document will be submitted to officials from the EPA’s Region Four office in Atlanta during public hearings scheduled for Frankfort on June 5 and Pikeville on June 7.
The EPA agreed to hold the hearings after Kentucky officials said they were needed to help resolve the EPA’s finding that 36 mine-related discharge permits approved by the Kentucky Energy and Environmental Cabinet in 2010 and 2011 do not meet the requirements of the federal Clean Water Act.
District Five Magistrate Wayne Fleming, who joined all other court members who attended the meeting in supporting the resolution, asked Letcher County Judge/Executive Jim Ward if he knew how many mine permits were turned down in Letcher County during the period in question (Sept. 9, 2010 through Sept. 29, 2011). Ward said he knows of four. Fleming then asked if any of the denied permits were for underground mines. Letcher County Attorney Jamie Hatton answered that the denied permits were for hollow fills used in surface mining.
In a “Notice of Public Hearing” published in The Mountain Eagle and other area newspapers in the region on April 18, the EPA listed the location of each of the 36 proposed mining operations where permits are being held up. None are in Letcher County, but 17 permits are being held up in the neighboring counties of Knott (3), Perry (5) and Pike (9).
The Clean Water Act was adopted in 1972 during the Nixon Administration and requires the EPA to protect the nation’s waterways from pollutants. In blocking the 36 permit requests now in question, the EPA says the Kentucky Division of Water failed to properly consider “conductivity of water” issues when it issued permits to the companies through the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permits.
The agency says that the ease with which water conducts electricity is a good way to determine a stream’s health because it indicates the amount of dissolved solids such as sulfates, magnesium, calcium and sodium. Streams with lower conductive levels typically have lower levels of those pollutants and are better able to support tiny creatures that form the base of the food chain.
In an effort to answer its critics, the EPA says the 36 permits being delayed pale in comparison to 2,615 permits the agency has approved in Kentucky since 2009.
“Recent estimates from Kentucky Division of Water (DOW) indicate that since August 2009 the DOW has issued individual NPDES permits for approximately 87 surface mine-related projects and 28 underground mines or coal preparation plants,” the EPA says. “Additionally the DOW has granted discharge authorization to approximately 2,500 new and existing coal mining related projects.”
The resolution approved by the fiscal court says the EPA “is intent on destroying the coal industry in Kentucky.”
“It has blocked potential resolutions with the Commonwealth and delayed public hearings for almost two years after they were initially requested,” the document says.
Continues the resolution: “ We, the board of Letcher County Fiscal Court, hereby support the use and mining of coal in Kentucky, the economic prosperity coal provides through good jobs and affordable energy; the protection of our nation’s security and tradition of self-reliance through the use of coal, our most abundant and affordable domestic source of energy; the preservation of our environment by promoting good stewardship of our natural resources; and the strengthening of our communities by advancing technologies that mine coal using safe, environmentally and economically responsible mining methods. For these reasons we the Letcher County Fiscal Court strongly urge the Environmental Protection Agency to withdraw all objections to individual permits for mine throughout eastern Kentucky.”
In other business, the court voted four to one to approve a resolution approving the use of multicounty severance tax funds to fund scholarships to pay for coalfield-based fouryear universities to provide classes in regional community colleges, including Southeast Kentucky Community and Technical College in Whitesburg, to allow local youth to receive four-year degrees. Magistrate Fleming cast the lone no vote.
There are currently two proposals to allow for the use of the severance tax funds for scholarships for coalfield youth that are competing for Governor Steve Beshear’s approval through the Department of Local Government, which is responsible for distributing severance tax funds. One proposal, which is from the University of Pikeville, would provide scholarships for students from nine coal-producing counties in eastern Kentucky, Bell, Harlan, Letcher, Pike, Martin, Johnson, Floyd, Magoffin and Knott. The other proposal, from The University of the Cumberlands, would provide scholarships for 25 coal-producing counties in southeastern and southern Kentucky. Both proposals include Letcher County.
Fleming said that while he supports higher education and has a grandchild who would benefit from the scholarships, he does not feel comfortable with the level of information that has been provided to the court regarding the use of coal severance tax funds for scholarships. He added that many students with four-year degrees are having trouble finding jobs and reminded the court that the original purpose of returning coal severance tax funds to coal-producing counties was to create alternatives to mining as the chief means of employment. Fleming also said there isn’t enough information concerning how long money will be taken from coal severance funds to fund the scholarships.
“$6 million (the amount proposed for the first two years of the project) would go a long way toward creating jobs,” said Fleming. “I know several kids with degrees who are working at fast food restaurants right now. That money was set aside to create jobs not related to coal. I think it’s a back door move and we don’t know enough about it.”
Judge Ward said the program is set up so that local youth don’t have to leave the area to receive a fouryear degree and said two other counties have already approved using the funding. Ward said if it goes forward without Letcher County’s approval, the county will lose out on the funding but the severance tax funds would be spent anyway.
The board also voted to appoint Diane Adams of Blackey to replace Phillip “Pee Wee” Back on the Board of Directors of the Letcher County Water and Sewer District. Back, the former board chair, submitted his resignation in April after a controversy involving the county using severance taxes to pay tap fees for water customers. Benny Hamilton of the Kentucky River Area Development District, who works with the district on grants and other funding, told the court that the board has elected current member Bernard Watts as its new chairman. The court also re-appointed Jeanette Ladd of Haymond to the Letcher County Library Board.
Hamilton reported that the Water and Sewer District has a payment of $22,589.69 due to the Kentucky Infrastructure Authority (KIA) on a bond issued for water line extensions. Hamilton said money which is currently being re-directed in the state legislature to allow the district to use funds from the now defunct Blackey Wastewater Plant Project for general purposes is likely to be allocated in June or July but will not be drawn down in time to make the KIA payment. The court voted unanimously to make the payment and recoup the cost when the KIA funds are drawn down.
Hamilton told the court that $500,000 of other funding from the Blackey Wastewater Treatment Plant Project will be made available to extend lines to Carcassonne. In response to a question about water line extensions funded by James River Coal, Judge Ward said the hold up with getting water into the lines stems from a land dispute. County Attorney Jamie Hatton told the court the matter has since been settled and the project only awaits the hook up by the power company to provide water to several families whose water was impacted by mining operations.
Judge Ward told the court that as soon as county workers are freed up from Memorial Day preparations on county cemeteries, work will resume on the county Recreational Vehicle Park at Fishpond Lake. Magistrate Fleming and Judge Ward both praised Letcher County Ranger Phillip Slone, who is living at Fishpond Lake and taking care of security as well. Fleming said the lake is much cleaner and safer now that Slone is in residence and Judge Ward said he is doing a great job.
Ward said he is particularly pleased that litter and dumping has decreased at the lake and added that litter in the county is one of his pet peeves. Ward urged people who use Letcher County all-terrain vehicle trails and other county facilities to carry out what they carry in. County Attorney Hatton added that if anyone is seen littering or dumping garbage, they are subject to a $500 fine and urged witnesses to report instances of littering.
David Narramore of the Letcher County Tourism Commission presented the court with the 2012-2013 schedule of events for county tourism activities and encouraged each of the 26 festivals and events to move toward using the annual format for the publication. Narramore also announced the Agrestic Music Festival to be held in the Whitesburg City Park May 26. Proceeds will benefit the Letcher County structured classroom for autistic children. A kids’ fishing tournament will be held at Fishpond Lake June 23 from 9 a.m. until noon. Bait and poles will be furnished and admission is free.
In other court business:
• The court tabled the second reading of the county budget for Fiscal Year 2012–2013 because it hasn’t come back from Frankfort. Judge Ward said the court will hold a special meeting to vote on the budget when it is approved.
• The court voted unanimously to approve the Regional 911 Contract which allows a regional board to administer 911 activities.
• The court unanimously approved the County Road Aid Cooperative Resolution allowing the county to accept state funds for county roads.
• The court voted unanimously to approve the first reading of a resolution to set a speed limit for Seals Branch at 15 miles per hour.
Bank balances for Letcher County agencies are:
• General Fund $861,126.17
• Road and Bridge Fund $458,400.11
• Jail Fund $192,294.24
• LGEA Fund $1,889,343.38
• Senior Citizens Fund $47,022.41
• Forestry Fund $10,480.88
• Letcher County Public Courthouse Corp. Funded Depreciation Reserve Account $565,831.89
• Letcher County Public Courthouse Corp. Debt Service Account $35.83