Governor sees nothing amiss in dismissal

jbrammer@herald-leader.comDecember 8, 2009 

FRANKFORT — Gov. Steve Beshear said he sees no reason to investigate the recent firing of a state mining regulator who blames political pressure from the coal industry for his dismissal.

Beshear said he is not aware of anyone in his administration contacting Alliance Coal about the firing of mine permits director Ron Mills and can't explain how an Alliance executive knew about it within minutes.

"We certainly can't control every phone call that comes into state government or out of state government," he said.

The Herald-Leader reported Monday that Raymond "Rusty" Ashcraft, Alliance Coal's manager of environmental affairs and permitting, wrote an e-mail to his colleagues at 9:24 a.m. Nov. 13 that predicted Mills' firing. Minutes earlier, Mills had been pulled aside in Frankfort and fired.

Ashcraft's e-mail also identified Mills' replacement, who was not named until later that day. "Ron Mills will be asked to resign this morning and will be replaced by Allen Luttrell on an acting basis," Ashcraft wrote.

Beshear said Mills' firing does not warrant a state investigation even though critics, including Kentucky Resources Council director Tom FitzGerald, say Ashcraft's e-mail raises questions about Alliance Coal's role in the firing. Mills had opposed a controversial policy that allows the company to mine without showing it has the legal right to enter all the land in its plans.

"I do not micromanage our cabinets," Beshear said.

Ashcraft has said he prefers not to discuss Mills' firing. He did not return a message seeking comment on Monday.

The Democratic governor, in an end-of-the-year interview with reporters in his Capitol office Monday, also defended Energy and Environment Secretary Len Peters' firing of Mills and the controversial mining policy that Mills and environmentalists oppose.

Beshear said Peters makes all his decisions based on what he thinks is in the best interest of his cabinet.

"He has no ax to grind. He owes nobody anything. He is not going to allow any particular interest, be they mining interest or environmental interest, to influence his decisions," Beshear said.

Beshear called the mining policy Mills opposed "legal and a proper way to implement our rules."

The so-called "331⁄3" rule lets companies get underground mining permits if they obtain rights to enter two-thirds or more of the property they want to mine.

Mills contends that state law requires coal companies to document that they have obtained rights to enter and disturb all of the area included in their mining plan. Mills has said he was fired for not going along with the policy that benefited Alliance.

Over Mills' objections, Beshear officials ordered the approval of five mining permits this year that Alliance Coal wanted. The permits cover about 55,000 acres in Hopkins and Webster counties.

Beshear noted that Kentucky and Indiana have used the 331⁄3 rule in the past.

He said the rule respects the rights of all landowners and keeps people working because "no one is allowed to mine anybody's property that they don't have permission to mine."

Beshear said that he had no role in firing Mills and that he learned about it that day or the next.

He also said Alliance president and chief executive officer Joe Craft never complained to him about Mills.

Asked whether Craft ever complained to him about the backlog of mining permits, Beshear said, "Oh, I've had a lot of people in the industry complain about the backlog in the permits. And that has been a problem."

He said some mining permit applications have been waiting for up to seven years for state action. "There's no excuse for that."

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