Tom Eblen: Blaming environmental regulators of coal is a strategy for losers

It's OK to be above law in Ky.

teblen@herald-leader.comAugust 12, 2012 

Tom Eblen

We curse the cop when we see lights flashing in our rear-view mirror.

Kentuckians are an independent people. We have good reasons to speed! Besides, speed limits restrict our "freedom" and take away our "liberty." They are downright un-American, forced upon us by politicians and government bureaucrats.

Of course, we know in our heart that the cop is just doing his duty for our own good. Without speed limits, crashes would claim a greater toll than the already obscene 32,000 deaths nationally each year, one-third of which are caused by speeding.

It is harder to visualize the tens of thousands of people who die prematurely or are sickened by air and water pollution caused by irresponsible coal mining and burning. This is a largely hidden toll, with no graphic video for television newscasts. But health researchers can prove and document it.

The National Resources Defense Council reported last week that Kentucky is the worst state in the nation for toxic air pollution from coal-fired power plants. It blamed that fact on state officials doing too little to force utilities to clean up.

The coal industry acts as if it is above the law. Kentucky government too often behaves as if it is owned and operated by coal interests.

Politicians love to rant about the Obama administration's "war on coal."

What they mean is that the Environmental Protection Agency, the Office of Surface Mining and other federal agencies are, for the first time in years, being better cops. They are enforcing environmental-protection laws, and they are trying to make state regulators enforce them, too.

Consider this recent example, at a joint meeting of the General Assembly's Natural Resources and the Environment committee on Aug. 2.

The issue at hand was OSM's demand that Kentucky follow the 1977 federal surface-mining law and require mining companies to post adequate reclamation bonds. If a company cleans up mined land as required by law, its bond is refunded. If it goes broke before the work is done, the bond is supposed to pay for cleanup.

The federal government has for years urged Kentucky to require higher bonds because in many of the 15 to 25 bond forfeiture cases each year there is too little money to do the work.

The Herald-Leader's John Cheves reported that in an average year, the state Division of Abandoned Mine Lands faces more than $4 million in unfunded reclamation costs because bonds are too small. Land is left scarred, and neighbors' property values are diminished.

The Beshear administration says that requiring adequate bonds would be "impractical and unaffordable" for many coal companies. The state Energy and Environment Cabinet has proposed raising bond requirements and creating a pool financed by fees on coal operations to help pay costs when an individual company's reclamation bond falls short.

That seems like a reasonable solution, but you can bet it won't happen unless federal regulators keep up the pressure. Most of us would find it reasonable to require an industry to clean up after itself. But to coal-industry apologists, it's war.

"There is an assault on Kentucky, and really our way of life," Rep. Jim Gooch, D-Providence, complained at the Aug. 2 meeting.

"I don't want to roll over dead and play stoolie in front of the federal government, either," said Rep. Keith Hall, D-Phelps, "because I believe in states' rights."

Despite earning their livings from coal-related businesses, Gooch and Hall are the chairman and vice chairman, respectively, of the Natural Resources and the Environment committee. No conflicts of interest there.

Federal regulators are not waging a "war" on coal. They are enforcing laws designed to limit pollution, sickness and premature death, which study after study have attributed to irresponsible coal mining and burning.

In the short term, the coal industry will find plenty of allies in this phony "war on coal." Kentucky miners are desperate for jobs, and other businesses like having electricity that has always been artificially cheap because the full cost of producing it hasn't been taken into account.

Western coal, cheap natural gas, renewable energy technology and the reality of climate change cannot be ignored. If Kentucky's coal industry wants a future, it must clean up its act and find ways to reduce the health and environmental damage of its product.

The coal industry faces inevitable change, the kind of seismic economic shift that Kentucky slaveholders and tobacco growers once faced. Continuing to blame the environmental cops whose lights are now in the rear-view mirror is a strategy for losers.

Tom Eblen: (859) 231-1415.Email: teblen@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @tomeblen.Blog: tomeblen.bloginky.com

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