FRANKFORT — Kentucky should be a "sanctuary state" for the coal industry, free from "the overreaching regulatory power" of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, according to a measure expected to get a Senate committee vote Thursday.
Senate Natural Resources and Energy Chairman Brandon Smith, R-Hazard, said he got the idea for Senate Joint Resolution 99 after hearing about "sanctuary cities" declaring themselves exempt from federal immigration law.
If cities can ignore federal law to protect illegal immigrants, Smith said Wednesday, then why can't Kentucky do it for coal companies?
Smith's resolution would give state agencies jurisdiction over mining-related environmental standards and require state agencies to "respect the rights of Kentucky coal operators." The Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet would be instructed to issue coal-mining permits that the EPA has denied because of concerns over water pollution.
Smith and his wife were managers at Perry Oil Co. in Hazard in 2008, around the time the company entered a consent agreement with the EPA. The EPA blamed the company for 7,000 gallons of oil poured into an unnamed tributary of Lick Creek in Laurel County. The company agreed to pay a $14,595 fine.
Smith said he since has left the company and was unaware of the consent agreement. That isn't what turned him against the EPA, the senator said. Rather, under President Barack Obama, the once-friendly EPA has become more adversarial, Smith said.
"Now they come down here, and they go out of their way to find things to write you up about," Smith said. "The EPA clearly is reacting to what it feels is the will of this president. They are going far above and beyond the call of duty."
Smith's resolution would be enacted law if the Senate and House passed it, although it wouldn't go onto the statute books. Smith said he doubts the EPA would change its pollution enforcement in Kentucky if the resolution passed, but he wants the legislature to make its beliefs clear. If enacted, a copy of the resolution would be sent to the EPA.
"We're doing it to raise awareness of the fact that the federal government is overreaching into parts of our economy and it's having a negative impact on Kentucky," Smith said.
Also Thursday, the House Natural Resources and Environment Committee will hear House Bill 421, sponsored by Chairman Jim Gooch, D-Providence. It would exempt coal mining from the federal Clean Water Act and other EPA regulation if the coal is used inside Kentucky and does not cross state lines.
Environmentalists say they're unhappy Gov. Steve Beshear and the General Assembly are attacking the EPA for enforcing environmental laws, some of which, they said, were neglected under previous presidents. Fourteen of them occupied Beshear's outer office last weekend, and hundreds more rallied Monday on the Capitol steps.
The Beshear administration has joined the Kentucky Coal Association's lawsuit against the EPA over water-pollution enforcement. In this month's State of the Commonwealth address, Beshear won thunderous applause from lawmakers by demanding that EPA regulators "get off our backs."
Federal action is welcome because the state government has done too little to protect the environment, said Truman Hurt, a retired coal miner in Perry County and member of activist group Kentuckians for the Commonwealth.
"The people and communities of Eastern Kentucky have suffered unnecessarily for years because the state environmental and mine-safety agencies have failed to fully and fairly enforce the law," Hurt wrote to Smith on Wednesday.
"Now that the EPA is finally stepping up to enforce the law and protect our precious water, you and the governor are making every effort to block that enforcement," Hurt wrote. "You seem willing to sacrifice the health and safety of your own constituents and the future of Eastern Kentucky in order to protect the rights of the coal companies to flatten the mountains and fill the valleys with their mine waste."