Kentucky has more surface-mined land than other Appalachian states, and more mountains that have been lowered by mountaintop-removal mining, according to new research released Monday.
The research also found that very little of that flatter land is put to "beneficial" use. The research was conducted by Appalachian Voices and the Natural Resources Defense Council.
Supporters of the coal industry argue that the flat land left by mining is needed to boost the economy in a region where the topography is steep.
Bill Bissett, president of the Kentucky Coal Association, was skeptical of the research.
"I think it's unsurprising that these groups got the response they wanted," he said.
Nearly half the 1.2 million acres in the region that have been surface-mined for coal are in Kentucky, according to "Reclamation FAIL," the report from the environmental groups.
When the NRDC looked at the 500 mountains where mountaintop removal was used, it found 90 where mining was still taking place, 366 that showed "no form of post-mining economic reclamation excluding forestry and pasture" and 26 (or 6.3 percent) that had some sort of visible economic development.
Rob Perks of NRDC said researchers studied aerial images looking for things such as buildings that had been placed on reclaimed land. In one case, they found baseball diamonds, indicating that a sporting complex had been built on the land. But in the vast majority, they saw nothing suggesting that development had occurred.
Bissett, with the coal association, said the NRDC researchers might not have known what they were looking at.
"As they look at Kentucky, in many cases, they will not be able to detect an area that has been surface-mined," he said. "Once it's become something else, a shopping center, a school, a sports complex, no one considers it a mine anymore."
The study said 293 of those 500 mountains, or 58 percent, are in Kentucky. The next highest number was West Virginia, with 136, followed by Virginia, with 64, and Tennessee, with 6.
Matt Wasson, director of programs for Appalachian Voices, said he was surprised by how much mountaintop-removal mining was taking place in Kentucky.
"I think people tend to look at mountaintop removal as a West Virginia phenomenon," he said.
The information on acreage mined was compiled by using aerial images from the Department of Agriculture's National Agricultural Imagery Program. The images were taken from 2006 to 2008. Sixty sample plots were chosen at random, then combined with earlier studies to extrapolate information on the extent of mining.
In all, the study found, one in every 10 acres in the region has been mined.
"I don't think too many people outside the region appreciate just how much strip-mining there has been," Wasson said.
The research suggests that 574,000 acres have been surface-mined in Kentucky, followed by 352,000 acres in West Virginia, 156,000 acres in Virginia and 78,000 in Tennessee.
The report contains links to Google Earth images so readers can look at the mountains.
Last fall, the Herald-Leader reported that its research found some kind of development was planned for less than 3 percent of the half-million acres covered by surface-mining permits in Kentucky in the past decade.