If Kentucky lawmakers want the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency off their backs, they sure have an odd way of asking.
Because they practically have issued an engraved invitation to the federal agency politicians love to hate through their continued cuts to the state agency that oversees pollution violations from coal mining.
Now the impact is spelled out in a recent ruling by Franklin Circuit Judge Phillip Shepherd. He found that the state Energy and Environment Cabinet has endured so many budget cuts in recent years that it virtually is incapable of enforcing the federal Clean Water Act.
His ruling puts federal authorities on notice that Kentucky has abdicated its responsibilities, providing the EPA with an opening to step in and enforce laws the state will not.
If so, lawmakers and Gov. Steve Beshear can share the credit for putting the EPA back on our backs.
And, as The Courier-Journal’s James Bruggers points out in a recent blog post, we got here through a practice known as “starving the beast” — in this case choking off funds state officials need to enforce the pollution laws.
Ruling in a case involving alleged violations by the Frasure Creek Mining Co., Judge Shepherd found that state cuts over the past 10 years have “drastically and adversely affected the ability of the cabinet to do its job in implementing the Clean Water Act.”
“With only a handful of enforcement personnel and a dwindling number of field inspectors . . . it is impossible for the cabinet to effectively regulate permittees such as Frasure Creek who systematically violate the obligations of the (law) for monitoring and reporting environmental violations,” the judge wrote in his Nov. 24 ruling.
It’s no wonder that the Big Sandy River, which runs through northeastern Kentucky, is 93 percent “impaired” and unable to support aquatic life, a detail Judge Shepherd notes. A major cause is sedimentation washed off from coal mining.
Even more troubling is that it took an outside group of citizens’ advocates to uncover the problems and bring them to the state’s attention. Groups including Appalachian Voices, Waterkeeper Alliance and Kentuckians for the Commonwealth found some coal companies falsified reports they are required to file with regulators.
Prodded to act, state regulators tallied up some of the faulty reports but did little to investigate the actual environmental harm, then attempted to enter into a modest settlement with Frasure Creek Mining in which it would pay a mere $310,000 in civil penalties. Judge Shepherd rejected the settlement as one that sends the message that “cheating pays.”
He also rejected the attempt of the state to cut the outside citizens’ groups out of its final settlement with Frasure Creek Mining, ordering they be included.
Despite blasts of hot air about big government, Kentucky is shrinking it when it comes to oversight of the coal industry.
Also this year, the General Assembly slashed the budget of the state agency that oversees mine safety, leaving it critically short of inspectors and reversing past efforts to strengthen the agency.
We may well starve the beast, but at what price?
— The Courier-Journal, Louisville