Herald-Leader Editorial

State working against citizens, for coal

State works against citizens, regulator

August 9, 2011 

A pair of news items reminds us that the coal industry has quick and easy access to the Beshear administration, while citizens with complaints about the coal industry, well, not so much.

The Cabinet for Energy and Environment plans to keep challenging the right of citizens groups to have a say in a court action against two coal companies that have admitted to thousands of water-pollution violations.

The groups, which include Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, uncovered the violations and late last year filed a notice of intent to sue in federal court. Instead, the cabinet launched its own investigation and reached a settlement with Frasure Creek Mining and ICG Hazard and Knott County. The state settlement prevented a suit from going forward in federal court.

The citizens groups were dismayed when the cabinet proposed levying fines of just $660,000 for violations that could have cost millions and asked to intervene in the settlement. Franklin Circuit Judge Phillip Shepherd allowed them in.

The Beshear administration and one of the coal companies teamed up to appeal Shepherd's decision.

Last month, the state Court of Appeals denied the state's request to exclude the citizens' groups. The ruling was no surprise. In its appeal, the state had argued that the Franklin Circuit judge lacked the jurisdiction to rule in the case, an odd contention considering the state had filed the case in his court in the first place.

Nonetheless, a cabinet spokesman says an appeal is planned to the Supreme Court, tying up state resources in a dubious fight to exclude citizens from a decision about the water on which all Kentuckians and all life depend.

Meanwhile, staff writer John Cheves reported on the latest development in a lawsuit filed by a former state regulator who says he was fired for blocking an illegal policy supported by the coal industry.

As head of mine permitting, Ron Mills had halted a Fletcher administration practice that allowed coal companies to begin mining before showing they had permission from all the property owners in the area.

In a deposition, an Alliance Coal official said he was informed of the firing by one of two aides in Gov. Steve Beshear's office, Geoff Dunn or Jeff Belcher, with whom he said he has frequent contact. Belcher denied making the call, and Dunn said he couldn't remember if he had.

At any rate, the Alliance Coal official knew about the firing and was telling others in the industry about it almost before Mills knew he was losing his job.

In a political world where money is speech, it's easy to see why Alliance has the administration's ear. The company's employees and executives are regular contributors to political campaigns, and the parent company, Alliance Resources, based in Oklahoma, gave $2 million last year to Republican Karl Rove's American Crossroads super PAC.

It's an interesting contrast — a coal executive in Tulsa has a hotline to the Kentucky governor's office while the administration fights to keep citizens groups out of a Clean Water Act enforcement action.

It's not what anyone would call a level playing field.

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