Herald-Leader Editorial

Editorial: EPA should hang tough in coalfields

federal enforcement is best hope for protecting kentucky's water

June 10, 2012 

Stanley Sturgill, a resident of Lynch in Harlan County and a retired federal mine safety inspector, was among those arrested Wednesday at U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers' office in Washington.

U.S. Rep. Doug Lamborn, R-Colo., and his staff owe an apology to award-winning environmentalist Maria Gunnoe of Boone County, W. Va.

Although, really, in the scheme of wrongs perpetrated against coalfield residents, a false accusation of child pornography is no biggie.

Compared with poisoned water, elevated rates of cancer and birth defects, floods, blasting, ubiquitous dust, close encounters with coal trucks, poverty and the knowledge that anyone who protests the abuses is taking a personal risk, the harassment Gunnoe suffered recently at the U.S. Capitol is just about par for the course.

Someone in Lamborn's office sicced the Capitol Police on Gunnoe, who was there to testify before Lamborn's House Natural Resources subcommittee. Her offense? She wanted to include in her slide show a photograph of a Kentucky pre-schooler in a bathtub in the child's Pike County home.

The photo stands out from countless family photos of youngsters in bathtubs because of the water: It's a nasty burnt orange caused by pollution of the family's well by among other things, arsenic, from nearby coal mining.

Although the family and photographer Katie Falkenberg had given their permission for the photo to be shown to the committee, they did not want it reproduced here. Not because they think there's anything pornographic about it, but to protect the child, now 9, from any possible repercussions, in light of the brouhaha.

The episode serves as a perfect metaphor for what we have seen time and again: Those in power, notably elected officials but also state regulators, refuse to see what extreme mining is doing to people and the region.

They'd rather trump up distractions or sling around contrived catch phrases like "war on coal" than talk about how to ameliorate the destruction. They have no plans for diversifying the economy.

They shut off concerned citizens such as a delegation of Kentuckians who tried to meet with U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers last week at his Washington office to talk about mountaintop removal. Seven of them were arrested.

Our so-called leaders would rather blame President Barack Obama for what competition from cheaper, cleaner natural gas is doing to demand for Appalachian coal than engage in an honest discussion of how to mine without ruining water.

That dynamic was on full display in Kentucky last week at public hearings in Frankfort and Pikeville that the Beshear administration requested from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

At issue are 36 surface mining permits being blocked by the EPA on what the Beshear administration and industry contend are invalid grounds. (For perspective, there are 355 active, pre-final reclamation surface mining permits in effect in Eastern Kentucky right now; the EPA has not shut down mining.)

Rather than providing a forum for discussing standards for protecting Kentucky's water from the toxic fate of the Pike County pre-schooler's well, Kentucky pols just wanted to beat up the EPA on the coal industry's home court.

So much lame vitriol was spewed against the EPA and those who want to drink clean water it's hard to know where to start. One of the zaniest has to be House Speaker Greg Stumbo's assertion that the burial of hundreds of miles of mountain headwaters by the coal industry is justified by this newspaper's failure to protest the burial of a creek in downtown Lexington more than a century ago.

Dig through all the chest-pounding, and you arrive at the central question: Can Kentucky's state government be counted on to enforce coal industry compliance with clean water and other environmental laws.

Decades of evidence tell us the answer is no.

After questioning Gunnoe, Capitol Police determined no crime had been committed. Still, she deserves an apology for what she rightly terms as an attack on her character.

Likewise, the people of the mountains deserve real enforcement of clean water laws. The only possibility of that happening is for the EPA to hang tough.

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