PIKEVILLE — Coal miners who were given the day off work, caravans of environmentalists, businessmen and local politicians and pundits arrived Tuesday night for a public hearing on proposed changes to a 1982 federal regulation allowing valleys to be filled with dirt and rock left over from mountaintop mining.
Banners with the slogans "Coal Keeps the Lights On" and "Friends of Coal" stretched across City Park in Pikeville, where pro-coal groups were recruiting members and selling bumper stickers. The green T-shirts of Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, who are against mountaintop-removal mining, dotted the multicolored sea of shirts declaring "Coal Mining: Our Future."
The Army Corps of Engineers heard public comments before about 4,500 people in the Eastern Kentucky Expo Center concerning its proposal to eliminate the use of a nationwide permit for coal mining in six Appalachian states: Kentucky, West Virginia, Ohio, Tennessee, Pennsylvania and Virginia.
The goal of eliminating the permit in Appalachia is to reduce mountaintop-removal mining that has become more prevalent in the region in the past several decades, since the Clean Water Act's nationwide permit program began in 1982.
"Although its scale and efficiency has enabled the mining of once-inaccessible coal seams, this mining practice often stresses the natural environment and impacts the health and welfare of surrounding human communities," said a June 11 memorandum of understanding among the Army Corps of Engineers, the Department of the Interior and the Environmental Protection Agency.
Some coal miners at the hearing said their employers paid for buses to bring them to Pikeville.
Gary Baker, a foreman with Nally and Hamilton in Leslie County, said he came to the hearing "to help protect the coalfield, my job, my family." He said he has been a surface mine operator for 28 years, since he was 16, when he was paid in cash because he wasn't old enough to be on the books.
Baker said he believes the regulation proposals will end mining and eliminate jobs in a regional economy that needs mining.
That was echoed by some public officials and by representatives of the coal industry.
In one year of permit delays sparked by changes at the EPA and the Corps of Engineers, Kentucky has lost 3,000 mining jobs, said state Rep. Keith Hall.
The Nationwide Permit 21 has been used less and less over the past five or six years, said Nick Carter, president of Natural Resource Partners, a company that owns and leases coal property to mine companies. The permit is used for minor projects, such as putting culverts under a road, not for major valley fills, he said, because coal companies have recognized that environmentalists' litigation in West Virginia has made nationwide permits harder to get.
The nationwide permit program, under the Clean Water Act, allows for stream fills by many kinds of operations, including road and building construction, to receive minimal environmental review when individual permits for valley fills are modified. Nationwide Permit 21 deals specifically with coal mining.
"The people of Kentucky and Appalachian are paying the price in increased flooding and degraded water," said John Doerrfeld of Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, above the boos and heckles of coal advocates at the hearing. Doerrfeld said the regulation changes "come too late" for 1,400 miles of streams that have been buried or significantly damaged by mining.
State Rep. Leslie Combs read a statement from House Speaker Greg Stumbo, who said that the region has seen less flooding since the start of surface coal mining. Stumbo touted the rights of property owners to determine the use of their own land and said that since mining reforms of the 1980s, he has never heard a landowner complain about land use.
"That offends me," said Beverly May, a Kentuckians for the Commonwealth member in Floyd County. She said before the hearing that her group has sent members to Stumbo's office in Frankfort and been told he won't listen to complaints about coal and mountaintop mining practices.
Some coal companies have said that as many as half of their surface mine operations use Nationwide Permit 21 at some point, said Dave Moss, director of governmental affairs for the Kentucky Coal Association. He said the elimination of the permit would affect coal mine operations in Eastern and Western Kentucky, and he decried changes to decades-old regulations that make it harder for coal companies to do business.
"To me, it's a slow degradation of mining. ... It's a fight on multiple fronts," Moss said.
In September, as a result of the same memorandum of understanding that contained proposed changes to Nationwide Permit 21, the EPA put a hold on 79 valley-fill permits, including 49 in Kentucky. The EPA cited the need for further environmental scrutiny.
Moss said the coal industry is "under attack" by inconsistencies and changes in regulation.
Kentuckians for the Commonwealth member Ricky Handshoe has spent the past five years fighting valley fills by surface mine operations in and around Hueysville in Floyd County, where his ancestry goes back 200 years. He said he is thinking about leaving his home once his daughter finishes college. He said living next door to a surface mine is unbearable because of dust, blasting, speeding coal trucks and dirtied creeks.
Handshoe said he hopes the elimination of Nationwide Permit 21 would bring more environmental scrutiny and community awareness about how valley fills and surface mining affect Eastern Kentucky neighborhoods.
"When they leave, we're stuck with this problem," Handshoe said. "It's affecting my property from now on."