Whitesburg KY

Permit chief ’s firing flunks smell test

No one in authority in Frankfort is revealing much about the firing of Ron Mills, the state’s respected mine-permits chief, but this much is clear: The dismissal does not pass the smell test.

What the public does kno w is this : Mr. Mills had worked for 22 years as an attorney for the former Natural Resources and Environmental Protection Cabinet when he retired in June 2004. He had a reputation as a dedicated civil employee, and environmentalists applauded his appointment in 2008 as director of the Division of Mine Permits. On Friday, however, Mr. Mills was fired, and the Energy and Environment Cabinet won’t say why.

Mr. Mills believes he w as sacked because he r efused to go along with a state policy that allows permits to be issued to companies that have not obtained rights to enter and disturb all of the area they will mine, as the law requires. This policy, which Mr. Mills views as illegal, primarily benefited one politically active coal company, Alliance Resource Partners, he said. Alliance officials have been major political contributors in Kentucky.

Acquiring property access can be a complex procedure, especially in cases where surface and mineral rights have been separated and where there are multiple owners and heirs. In practice, however, there wasn’t really a problem for Alliance or other coal operators. Mr. Mills said he refused to sign about six permits, but he said they were nonetheless signed and authorized by his boss, Carl Campbell, commissioner of the cabinet’s Department for Natural Resources.

That’s problematic in itself. The process of obtaining mining rights should be demanding, if for no other reason than that the damage can be irreversible. Beyond that, the political reality is that much of the coal industry detests the cabinet’s legal staff, of which Mr. Mills had long been a key part, and that some operators deplored Mr. Mills’s hiring and wanted him dismissed. That raises the unsettling question of whether a compliant cabinet, working for a governor who will want to raise money in the coalfields for his re-election, simply went along.

One hopes that isn’t the case, and that the coal industry’s ability to insist on naming rights extends only to college basketball lodges and not to mine-permit offices. The U.S. Department of the Interior, which has overall responsibility for the federal law that Kentucky has been charged with enforcing in this state, should follow up vigorously on this case. Meanwhile, Gov. Steve Beshear’s office says the Governor was uninvolved in the decision to fire Mr. Mills. That’s surprising, and disconcerting, given the importance of Mr. Mills’s duties. But it does place the Governor in a position to demand an explanation — and to provide details that justify the dismissal or shed light on how a mistake was made.

In government, transparency is the best fumigator.

— The Courier-Journal, Louisville

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