U.S. Environmental Protection Agency brass who were in Eastern Kentucky last week to hear residents' worries about coal industry impacts didn't make it to Big Branch in Pike County, which is too bad.
How many federal officials can say they've seen a water well that's been burning for three months, or talked to people like Denise Howard, owner of the fiery well, who fear for their water, homes, safety and health because of methane leaks from a nearby mine?
The two-day drop-in by EPA regional administrator Gwen Keyes Fleming did, nonetheless, ignite a firestorm of outrage from industry and elected officials who accused the agency of cherry-picking friendly forums.
This outrage would carry more weight had not the EPA been the No. 1 whipping boy of coal state politicians and Republicans in Congress for months. The Republican-controlled House voted last month to strip the EPA of its authority to enforce the Clean Water Act, and Republican presidential candidates are blasting the agency.
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Kentucky's Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear joined the coal industry in a lawsuit to shackle the EPA and famously warned "Washington bureaucrats" to "get off our backs." (He was curiously all right when Washington bureaucrats awarded Kentucky $14.5 million for coal research last week.)
The EPA is hearing loudly and often from its opponents who accuse the agency of killing jobs. The friends of coal have a very powerful megaphone and are using it.
Under the circumstances, it's a refreshing surprise that Fleming and her aides would venture from their offices in Atlanta to Clay, Perry, Letcher and Harlan counties for low-key listening sessions with people who have no power but live with the effects of mining, especially mountaintop removal.
The Harlan Daily Enterprise reports that during Fleming's visit to the historic mining town of Lynch every speaker stressed that they are not against coal but that two proposed strip mines would ruin the town's water, quality of life and future.
The Harlan newspaper reported that Fleming stressed the importance of "environmental justice." That was an apt theme. We all know that if Eastern Kentucky were inhabited by rich people, rather than poor people, the massive destruction of forests, streams and ancient mountains; the explosions; the clouds of coal dust; the release of toxins into the air and water; the burning wells would never be tolerated.
A recent poll of voters in Kentucky, West Virginia, Virginia and Tennessee found a majority oppose mountaintop removal and don't think environmental enforcement kills jobs. In contrast to the other coal states, Kentucky voters were more evenly split on mountaintop removal, which makes it convenient for Kentucky politicians to remain in the industry's pocket and take an extremely short-sighted view.
That's in contrast to Harlan County resident Carl Shoupe, a one-time miner, who told Herald-Leader reporter Bill Estep that a strip mine is "a payday for 12 men . . . but what is it for our grandchildren?"
It's sad that Kentuckians must rely on distant officials to safeguard the interests of our grandchildren. But as long as that's the case, we're glad for the visit.