The Beshear administration seems bound and determined to let one of the governor's biggest political contributors ruin one of Kentucky's most beautiful and historic places — even if it puts coalfield drinking water supplies and the SOAR initiative at risk.
The state is proposing to lower a regulatory hurdle to coal mining within five miles upstream of a public water intake.
That change and others proposed for the coal industry's general discharge permit under the U.S. Clean Water Act will be the subject of a public hearing today in Frankfort.
If approved, such a change could have immediate implications for the historic mining towns of Lynch and Benham, where the five-mile rule has been an obstacle to surface mining by West Virginian James Justice, a huge contributor to Gov. Steve Beshear and his causes.
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Justice's A&G Coal has been seeking to expand from Virginia into Harlan County, a strip-mining operation that in 2005 dropped a boulder on a home killing a child in his bed.
In Kentucky, the proposed mining would pollute the underground reservoir and feeder streams that now provide high-quality drinking water to those who live at the foot of Black Mountain, the state's highest point.
The proposed regulatory change — and the mentality behind it — also are at cross purposes with SOAR, the bipartisan initiative to give Eastern Kentucky a new economic beginning.
What hope is there of retaining the best and brightest of the region's young people, much less attracting new investment and people, if we weaken drinking water protections and more or less invite the coal industry to mine right next door to towns and municipal water supplies?
The general permit, under which most mining discharges are approved in Kentucky, lasts five years. The current general permit, which expires July 31, excludes mining operations within the five-mile zone.
Once the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency approves a new general permit, the EPA will have no authority to object to mining approved by the state under its provisions. Also, the public has less opportunity to challenge mining under the general permit.
Continuing to require coal companies to go through the more scrutinized and transparent individual permitting process is not too much to ask when public drinking water is at stake.
In lieu of the long-standing five-mile rule, the Division of Water proposes that coal companies should plan for "catastrophic releases" into public water supplies, which does not sound all that reassuring to the downstream public.
Neither are the assurances that the understaffed DOW will vet mining plans under the general permit and reject those that threaten public water supplies.
Places that prosper build on their assets. In a region where 100 years of mining have damaged so many streams and wells, good water is an asset that a smart economic plan would never discard.
If Kentucky is foolish enough to forsake this protection, the EPA should veto the state's proposed general permit.