HAZARD — As attacks on mountaintop-removal mining in Appalachia have grown increasingly sharp, the coal industry and its supporters have defended the practice by saying that reclaimed mine areas provide flat land for development in a place where level sites are scarce.
However, development was planned for less than 3 percent of the roughly half-million acres of land covered by surface-mining permits in Kentucky over the last decade, according to state data.
That amounts to less than 14,000 acres scheduled to be reclaimed for commercial, residential, industrial or recreational development, data from the Kentucky Division of Mine Permits shows.
"Precious little of it is actually put to a beneficial use," Tom FitzGerald, head of the Kentucky Resources Council, said of land that is surface-mined in Eastern Kentucky.
The issue of development has been a key theme in the debate over mountaintop mining in Appalachia.
Some flat land left after mining in the region's steep hills and narrow valleys has been used for development — including golf courses, prisons, housing and hospitals. Supporters of the coal industry say that flat land is a boost for the region's economy.
In and around Hazard, subdivisions and retail stores, restaurants and hotels, the industrial park, the airport, the large regional hospital, a National Guard armory and even a nursing home for veterans sit on reclaimed mined areas.
Overall, however, coal companies obtained permits calling for development on just 2.8 percent of the 496,014 acres that listed a post-mining land use in permits issued since November 1999.
Companies said most of the permitted land since 1999 — some of which has not yet been mined — would be reclaimed as fish and wildlife habitat or for hay and pasture. By far, those have been the most common post-mining land uses of the last three decades, and the industry and others say those uses benefit the region, too.
Pushing more development
A key state legislator is now pushing an idea aimed at promoting more development on reclaimed mined areas.
House Speaker Greg Stumbo advocates having coal companies consider community development needs as part of the process of getting a surface-mine permit.
Companies should sit down with local leaders, highway planners and economic-development officials to figure out whether work required to reclaim a mined area could be tailored to meet needs such as more housing sites or areas for road construction, Stumbo said.
Much of the development that has occurred on mined sites has been piecemeal, he said.
"I'd like to see us have some strategic planning so that what's left is in fact a benefit to the area, or a potential benefit," said Stumbo, a Democrat from Floyd County.
He cites the Mud Creek road project, which would create better access to Ky. 80 and U.S. 23 for residents of southern Floyd County, as an example of tying mining plans to development needs.
One section was first designed to run along the valley floor, but Elkhorn Coal Co. has offered to give the state the right-of-way to build part of the road on an adjoining mountain that the company has a permit to mine, Stumbo said.
The state could save millions by re-designing the road to be built on the mined area, Stumbo said.
When Congress approved sweeping changes in surface mining and reclamation law in the late 1970s, part of its intent was that sites have a greater use after mining than before, Stumbo said.
Appalachian coal states have skirted that concept a bit by deciding that pasture land is a greater use than timber land, which was the pre-mining use in most cases, he said.
"Not every site can be used for economic development, but strategic planning would still be worthwhile so that reclaimed land meets its highest and best use," Stumbo said.
Landowners have the final say on whether their land will be mined and on which type of reclamation to use. In some cases, coal companies own land, but in others, it's in the hands of private owners who lease it to companies.
FitzGerald, one of the state's leading environmentalists, said raising the level of scrutiny on what is considered a better use of land after mining would be a good step.
Federal law already requires detailed planning for development of mined sites in some cases. Those are instances in which a coal company doesn't plan to pack dirt and rock — called spoil — back on the mined area to restore the approximate original contour of a mountain.
That represents only a small percentage of the land covered under surface-mine permits in Eastern Kentucky.
FitzGerald argues that many mines have environmental impacts — such as burying stream areas — similar to those that require details on a developed post-mining use but don't require such planning because of the way they are classified.
Opponents of surface mining see the lack of development on large, reclaimed mined areas as evidence that mountaintop mining causes unjustifiable damage.
The coal industry touts developments such as industrial parks to make it seem as if a lot of mined land has been put to beneficial use, but that's an inaccurate picture, said Teri Blanton, a former president of Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, which opposes mountaintop mining.
"To say that you're creating flat land for economic development, it's just a lie," Blanton said.
In some cases, there have been problems with buildings on mined sites because of unstable ground.
Many of the areas mined in Eastern Kentucky won't be developed because they are far from towns and lack infrastructure such as water service, and there will be no demand for houses or businesses on many sites, some observers say.
"There are now hundreds of thousands of acres" mined in Appalachia, "and that kind of community development has not happened," said Rutgers University professor Steven Handel, who has researched mountaintop mining in the region.
Opponents of mountaintop mining say those facts eliminate any justification of surface mining as a way to create level land.
A study in southwestern West Virginia, released in 2002, concluded that it was unlikely that more than 3 percent of the land surface-mined there would be developed.
Reclamation would improve the development potential of sites, but limitations would include poor access to transportation and infrastructure, the study said. It pointed to declining or static populations as a reason that many counties wouldn't need significant amounts of land for new development.
Population trends in Eastern Kentucky raise similar questions.
Between 2000 and 2008, the population fell in all 11 Eastern Kentucky counties with the highest surface coal production in 2007, according to estimates from the Kentucky State Data Center. Those counties will continue to lose population over the next 20 years, according to projections.
But Paul Hall, executive director of the Kentucky River Area Development District, a regional planning agency based in Hazard, said he sees a need for more level areas that could be developed for homes.
"Building sites are really hard to come by, especially for the low- to moderate-income families," said Hall, a former coal-company executive.
Bill Hall, who sells real estate and manages commercial property in Hazard, said a flat lot for home construction can cost $50,000. Having more level housing sites would bring down prices so people could buy a spot for a mobile home or to build a more moderately-priced home, he said.
Opening mined areas
Many Eastern Kentucky residents say the level areas created by mining have helped the region, which for most of its history had little level land outside of floodplain areas.
"I think that it just provides so much more opportunity for development," said Lia Back, 41, a hospital employee whose home and job in Hazard are both on mined sites.
Some mined land in the region is being developed after sitting vacant for years.
Voncel Thacker is developing a subdivision, called The Meadow, in Knott County on an area he said was flattened by mountaintop-removal mining beginning in the late 1970s.
It sat empty for more than 20 years before he decided to develop it, said Thacker, an owner in Knott County's telephone and cable-television systems.
The site is along four-lane Ky. 80, the main road through the area, so it had readier access to infrastructure.
Thacker has put in streets, sidewalks and utilities and developed 52 lots, with the potential for more. Seven families have bought homes in the development so far, he said.
"Future development in this part of the world, that's where it's going to be," Thacker said of land leveled by mining. "You can't build on the side of a cliff."
Cities and counties in Eastern Kentucky are expanding municipal water service, and that will open more reclaimed mined areas for potential development, said Paul Hall, the area development district director.
Bill Caylor, outgoing president of the Kentucky Coal Association, acknowledged in previous interviews that a lot of surface-mined land in Eastern Kentucky won't be developed quickly, but he said no one can predict what the need will be someday.
He pointed to a site outside Hazard that was reclaimed as pasture land 25 years ago but now has houses on it. No one could have foreseen that at the time it was mined, Caylor said.
Mined land also has been used as habitat to restore elk to Kentucky, boosting hunting and tourism, and there are growing efforts to promote mined areas as locations for "adventure tourism" such as riding horses and all-terrain vehicles.
"In another hundred years, God knows what this will look like. But it will be used because it's level land," Caylor said.