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Report: Mined lands developed little


Development was planned for just a fraction of the roughly halfmillion acres of land covered by surface-mining permits in Kentucky during the last decade, according to state data.

The issue of development has been a key theme in the debate over mountaintop-removal mining in Appalachia.

Data from the Kentucky Division of Mine Permits show that development was planned for less than 3 percent of the land — amounting to less than 14,000 acres scheduled to be reclaimed for commercial, residential, industrial or recreational development, the Lexington Herald- Leader reported this week.

“Precious little of it is actually put to a beneficial use,” Tom FitzGerald, head of the Kentucky Resources Council, said of land that is surface-mined in eastern Kentucky.

Some flat land left after mining in the region’s steep hills and narrow valleys has been used for development — including golf courses, prisons, housing and hospitals. Supporters of the coal industry say that flat land is a boost for the region’s economy.

In and around Hazard, subdivisions and retail stores, restaurants and hotels, the industrial park, the airport, the large regional hospital, a National Guard armory and a nursing home for veterans sit on reclaimed mined areas.

Overall, however, coal companies obtained permits calling for development on just 2.8 percent of the 496,014 acres that listed a postmining land use in permits issued since November 1999, the newspaper reported.

Companies said most of the permitted land since 1999 — some of which has not yet been mined — would be reclaimed as fish and wildlife habitat or for hay and pasture. By far, those have been the most common post-mining land uses of the last three decades, and the industry and others say those uses benefit the region, too.

A key state legislator is now pushing an idea aimed at promoting more development on reclaimed mined areas. House Speaker Greg Stumbo advocates having coal companies consider community development needs as part of the process of getting a surface-mine permit.

Stumbo said companies should sit down with local leaders, highway planners and economic-development officials to figure out whether work required to reclaim a mined area could be tailored to meet needs such as more housing sites or areas for road construction.

Much of the development that has occurred on mined sites has been piecemeal, he said.

When Congress approved sweeping changes in surface mining and reclamation law in the late 1970s, part of its intent was that sites have a greater use after mining than before, Stumbo said.

Appalachian coal states have skirted that concept a bit by deciding that pasture land is a greater use than timber land, which was the pre-mining use in most cases, he said.

Landowners have final say on whether their land will be mined and on which type of reclamation to use. In some cases, coal companies own land, but in others, it’s in the hands of private owners who lease it to companies.

FitzGerald, one of the state’s leading environmentalists, said raising the level of scrutiny on what is considered a better use of land after mining would be a good step.

Bill Caylor, outgoing president of the Kentucky Coal Association, acknowledged in previous interviews that a lot of surface-mined land in eastern Kentucky won’t be developed quickly, but he said no one can predict what the need will be someday.

He pointed to a site outside Hazard that was reclaimed as pasture land 25 years ago but now has houses on it. No one could have foreseen that at the time it was mined, Caylor said.

Mined land also has been used as habitat to restore elk to Kentucky, boosting hunting and tourism, and there are growing efforts to promote mined areas as locations for “adventure tourism.”

“In another hundred years, God knows what this will look like. But it will be used because it’s level land,” Caylor said.

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