Whitesburg KY

Who’s in charge?

Gov. Steve Beshear should explain who’s regulating the coal industry — state government or the coal industry?

This question is prompted by a string of things we know and a few we don’t.

We know the state fell far behind in strip-mine inspections because of a crisis in funding and staff, falling from a 97 percent inspection completion record to just 83 percent in the most recent fiscal year.

We know Beshear unveiled a plan to hire more personnel to speed up the mine permitting process and clear a backlog of coal industry applications.

We’ve yet to hear of a corresponding increase in inspectors to be sure the industry is complying with the new permits and the law. Strip-mine inspection is so underfunded the state was required to return $1 million in federal matching funds.

We know the Beshear administration reinstated a possibly illegal underground-mine permitting policy to, in the words of a high-ranking environmental official, “accommodate the coal interests.”

We know Ron Mills, the official who refused to sign permits under the accommodating policy, was fired.

Now we learn that a coal company executive knew about the firing as soon as Mills did.

On the morning of Nov. 13, Alliance Coal’s manager of environmental affairs and permitting, sent an e-mail to his colleagues announcing: “Ron Mills will be asked to resign this morning and will be replaced by Allen Luttrell on an acting basis.”

Just moments before the e-mail went out, Mills was fired as director of the Division of Mine Permits and later that day Luttrell was named as his replacement on an acting basis.

Why, you m ay wonder, would a coal com pany executive be so well-informed about the inner workings of Kentucky’s environmental enforcement agency?

Good question, and one of the things we don’t know, though it seems fair to surmise there is a close relationship between the coal executive and someone high in the Beshear administration.

Alliance Coal’s CEO Joe Craft and others connected with the company have given hundreds of thousands of dollars to political campaigns and parties, so the Beshear administration has an incentive to accommodate them.

The problem is that getting into the habit of accommodating the coal industry can endanger the public.

The dispute at hand turns on whether the state can legally issue a permit to mine underground in areas before landowners have given all the necessary permissions. It likely will be decided in court.

But the environmental cabinet and Beshear’s appointees decide on a daily basis all kinds of questions that have a much greater potential for directly hurting the public: Whether to permit coal-waste impoundments that hold millions of gallons of toxic material, and under what conditions, for example. Questions about the use of explosives that can send boulders and rocks flying onto homes and roads. Questions about whether mining will ruin groundwater and surface water.

The coal industry will always push for what’s quickest and cheapest for it.

And continuing to drastically underfund environmental inspection is another way of accommodating the industry.

Beshear should explain what’s going on. Or else just go ahead and slap a Coal Lodge sign on the Governor’s Mansion.

— The Lexington Herald-Leader

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