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Lawmakers say no to tougher rules on mountaintop mines




FRANKFORT

Lawmakers in Kentucky have rejected a proposal that could have stopped mining companies from blasting off mountaintops to expose the rich coal deposits that have been a mainstay of the state’s economy since the industrial revolution.

Even so, mountain residents and environmentalists are heralding a vote on the issue this week as a milestone in a decades-long fight to end the method of mining that has changed landscapes in the coalfields.

Political leaders had historically turned a blind eye to the issue, fearing that a crackdown might put thousands of miners out of work. That lawmakers held hearings on the issue shows that opponents of so-called “mountaintop removal” mining are gaining ground, said Teri Blanton, a coalfield native and member of the environmental group Kentuckians for the Commonwealth.

“It is a victory,” she said.

Blanton and others have been lobbying for four years for legislation that would prohibit coal companies from dumping dirt and rock from mountaintops into streams and valleys. Until this year, the measure hadn’t even been debated.

However, House Appropriations and Revenue Committee Chairman Harry Moberly, DRichmond, had the legislation moved to his committee and held two days of hearings on it. The measure garnered 13 votes on Tuesday, two shy of the 15 it needed to be sent to the full House for consideration.

“We’re not quitting,” said coalfield resident Truman Hurt, a former underground coal miner whose home in Perry County is surrounded by so-called mountaintop removal sites. “We’re not giving up and going home with our tails tucked. We’re going to make them hear us.”

Bill Caylor, president of the Kentucky Coal Association, said the legislation would have crippled the mining industry, forcing companies to lay off workers and driving up the cost of coal.

Caylor and other industry leaders argued that mountaintop removal has a positive side that lawmakers shouldn’t ignore, including the creation of flat land that communities can use for economic development. The Kentucky Coal Association circulated a publication filled with photos of reclaimed mountaintop coal mines, some covered with lush vegetation and wild animals and others with housing subdivisions, golf courses, airports, cow pastures, horse farms, even industrial parks.

The photos, Caylor said, help to dispel claims by environmentalists that coal companies are creating barren moonscapes.

Dennis Walker, a coal miner from Hazard, was among a group of industry representatives who delivered boxes filled with thousands of petitions to the Capitol on Tuesday asking lawmakers to vote against the legislation.

Walker and the others said they took the proposal personally. “That’s our livelihood, and it would destroy us,” he said.

State Rep. Keith Hall, DPhelps, was among coalfield lawmakers who opposed the legislation. Hall said the measure would have far-reaching effects, including costing the jobs of miners, reducing state tax revenues and forcing electric companies to raise rates to compensate for higher coal prices.

Even so, Hall said the debate sends a message that coal companies would be wise to heed.

“I think it has put the industry on notice that you’d better do it right, obey the law and do it by the book,” he said.

Hall said the legislation, dubbed the “streamsaver bill,” proposes to curb water pollution. But, he said, evidence presented by experts showed that coal mining contributed far less to water pollution in the state than agricultural runoff.

For that reason, Hall said, it appears coal mining was being unjustly singled out by environmentalists.

More than 6,000 Kentuckians work on surface mines that might have been affected by the legislation. Hall said lawmakers simply couldn’t ignore the potential job losses.

“To target the coal industry, I think, is an injustice,” Hall said. “It’s a travesty.”

The legislation is House Bill 526.


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