In his remaining three years as governor, Steve Beshear should redeem his dismal environmental record. This would fit the progressive attorney general and lieutenant governor Kentuckians once knew.
Unfortunately, today's Beshear shows little inclination along these lines, except to keep raking in political money from the coal industry. That is why the federal government must exercise its duty to protect the public.
Nothing less is at stake than the safety and health of Kentuckians who live downstream from surface mining, which is pretty much all of us.
Since the federal government delegated enforcement to the state, Kentucky has always taken a liberal view of what's allowed. This enabled highly destructive mountaintop mining to spread far beyond the parameters spelled out in a landmark 1977 federal law.
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But Kentucky at least conducted the surface-mine inspections required by the law — until Beshear's term when the inspection rate has plunged to a two-decade low.
Blame the recession, inspectors retiring or the state's revenue crisis. Fact is, money to oversee the coal industry can and should be raised through fees on the industry. Beshear has raised permitting fees but used the money to speed up the output of permits, even though the state couldn't keep up with inspecting mines already permitted and operating.
Kentucky has forfeited $5.5 million in federal funding for surface-mine enforcement since 2008 because the state did not provide the required match. That money could have created good jobs, while keeping faith with the public.
When inspectors don't come around, violations and "off-site impacts" rise. That has happened under Beshear, as the Herald-Leader's Bill Estep recently reported, using data from the U.S. Office of Surface Mining and Reclamation Enforcement. In the charts on this page, 2009 is Beshear's first full year as governor.
"Off-site impact" is bureaucratese for mudslides, boulders raining down on people and property, and water pollution.
Though viewed as a favor, lax enforcement can also cost industry. The revelation that Kentucky's oversight of coal industry water monitoring had been a charade has cost International Coal Group $575,000 for submitting inaccurate reports. Other coal companies are facing the same complaint. Coal companies also have paid confidential settlements to flood victims in Kentucky.
The administration recently agreed to pay $275,000 to Ron Mills, former director of mine permits, who was fired, basically for enforcing an underground mining law the industry didn't like. So, the administration can't afford to inspect surface mines as required by law but it can afford to pay to fire someone for enforcing the law?
On the upside, the state's performance is improving, partly because the Appalachian coal industry is in a slump, meaning fewer mines to inspect. The inspection rate was 99 percent in the first quarter after the latest federal report. That is good news, but you wonder what corners had to be cut in environmental protection to beef up strip-mine inspections.