A land-holding company has declined to sign a lease allowing construction of a trail on property it owns in Harlan County, stalling a project aimed at boosting tourism in an area long dependent on coal jobs that dried up in recent years.
Residents pursuing a ban on surface mining on the steep hillsides above the historic coal towns of Benham and Lynch think the company has refused to sign the lease in hopes of pushing them to drop the request.
“It’s like blackmail,” said Stanley Sturgill, of Lynch, a retired federal mine inspector and one of four residents seeking the surface-mining ban.
County officials said the company they have sought a lease from is Natural Resource Partners, which owns coal reserves in Appalachia and elsewhere. The company leases the reserves to others to mine.
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A subsidiary of NRP called ACIN LLC has property that would be restricted by the ban on surface mining if it is approved.
The company also did not grant access for the Benham electric utility to place solar panels on land the company owns. The city plans to install the panels at another site.
Representatives of Houston-based NRP and ACIN declined comment on the trail issue.
The delay has raised concern that the county could lose a $660,809 federal grant to develop the trail, which would involve upgrading more than five miles of an unused railroad bed connecting Cumberland, Benham and Lynch.
Supporters said the trail could have been done by now if the county had permission to build.
The request for a mining ban has been pending since 2010, when the four residents and the city of Lynch asked the state Energy and Environment Cabinet to declare more than 11,000 acres unsuitable for surface mining.
The others who signed the petition are Roy Silver, a professor at Southeast Community and Technical College in Cumberland; Carl Shoupe, a former coal miner and member of the Benham Power Board, which operates the city’s electrical utility; and Bennie Massey, a retired miner and longtime member of the Lynch City Council.
Federal law allows citizens to seek a ban on surface mining under certain conditions, including if it could cause significant damage to “important historic, cultural, scientific, or aesthetic values or natural systems,” or if it could hurt the long-range availability of a water supply.
The residents asked the state to ban mining on the ridges above Benham and Lynch out of concern that it could damage streams and underground reservoirs that supply water to the cities.
“The water supply is something that is not easily replaced and is deserving of the utmost protection,” said Tom FitzGerald, who heads the Kentucky Resources Council and represents the citizens in the case.
Silver said another concern is that surface mining could mar the view around the towns.
“Part of what attracts people here is the beauty of our mountains, and so we want to protect that view, not only for tourists, but also for those of us who live here,” Silver said.
Coal companies built Benham and Lynch in the early 1900s in a valley at the foot of the state’s highest peak, Black Mountain.
The companies created the towns from scratch to serve their mines, with stores, schools, hospitals, theaters and hundreds of houses.
The companies sold the houses to residents and gave up control of the towns six decades ago as coal markets changed, but both towns still have a number of historic structures.
The petition by Silver and the others asked the state to ban surface mining in the historic districts of both towns and in areas visible from those districts, as well as in some watersheds.
The Energy and Environment Cabinet dismissed the petition, saying it lacked merit and was frivolous. The residents appealed, arguing the decision was based on an incorrect interpretation of the law.
Three coal companies intervened in the case to advocate against having the land declared unsuitable for surface mining. The companies have contended the request is too broad and that it ignores other provisions in the law protecting the land around the towns.
Those companies are ACIN LLC; Resource Development LLC; and Revelation Energy.
The case has been pending so long partly because of periodic efforts to reach a settlement. The bankruptcy of Resource Development’s parent company also caused a delay.
Lynch dropped out of the case in 2016 after reaching a deal in which the coal companies pledged to replace water supplies if mining damages them.
The four residents, though, have continued to push for a ban on mining.
There was a significant development in late September, when a hearing officer ruled that the Energy and Environment Cabinet erred in rejecting the petition for a surface mining ban.
That 2010 decision did not properly consider whether the allegations of harm from the mining lacked serious merit, hearing officer Virginia Baker Gorley said.
Gorley recommended that the petition receive further review by the cabinet.
The case could continue for some time; either side could appeal to court if they lose at the cabinet level.
Local officials and residents have been working on the trail project for years as well.
A development group representing Cumberland, Benham and Lynch received the federal grant for the project in 2014.
The local Frazier Foundation also donated $100,000 for the project, said Bobbi Gothard, director of Tri-Cities Heritage Development, which promotes preservation and economic revitalization in Cumberland, Benham and Lynch.
Local officials are trying to develop tourism in hopes of boosting jobs. The local attractions include hunting and fishing, camping, hiking, horse trails, trails for off-road vehicles and a zip line.
Benham is home to the Kentucky Coal Museum, which is in the renovated coal-company commissary, and the Benham Schoolhouse Inn, where guests stay in what were once classrooms at the high school that was built in the 1920s.
The attractions in Lynch include historic buildings, including several crafted by Italian masons from stone quarried in the surrounding hills, and Portal 31, an exhibition underground coal mine. Bicycle riders can tackle the states’ highest peak and the city is working to develop a facility for recreational vehicle.
All three towns have been designated state Trail Towns and are working to expand the trail network.
The proposed trail on the old rail bed was to be part of the overall tourism development.
“It just all ties together to make a good tourism package,” Gothard said. “That was the goal, was to help the economy.”
The need for jobs has become more urgent the last few years.
In 2011, Harlan County produced 9.68 million tons of coal and had 2,310 jobs in the industry. Production in 2017 was just 3.58 million tons, and there were only 955 coal jobs in the county in the second quarter of this year, according to the Energy and Environment Cabinet.
An engineering consultant has drawn up plans for the proposed trail, so the county, which is administering the grant, could move quickly to start construction if it had a lease for the old rail bed.
“We’re basically shovel ready,” said county treasurer Ryan Creech, who is helping manage the project.
The grant terms allow the federal government to close out the award and take back any unused money if there’s been no progress on the project in a year, Creech said.
The last work on the project was in April, meaning the grant could be tagged as inactive in April 2019.
“It’s my concern that the project could be in jeopardy if something’s not worked out soon,” said county Judge-Executive Dan Mosley.
Local officials are considering voluntarily closing out the grant — stopping the clock — if the land-holding company doesn’t give permission soon to build on the old railroad bed.
That would allow the county to reactivate the grant later if it can work out a lease for the railroad bed with Natural Resource Partners, Creech said.
Residents have been trying for more than a year to get a lease deal with NRP.
The company gave a right of entry to the railroad bed. That allows people to walk on it in its unimproved state, but NRP would have to grant a lease before the county could spend the federal money to improve the trail, Creech said.
Local officials said the company has not told them specifically that the petition to bar surface mining is the reason for not signing a lease to allow development of the trail, but project supporters said they aren’t aware of any other reason the company would hold up the community project.
There won’t be mining on the route of the proposed trail because of where it’s located so close to the towns and Looney Creek, Silver said, and there would be a spot for coal companies to cross the trail with equipment to reach mines if necessary.
“They’re just flexing their muscles and trying to get us to settle on their terms,” Silver said. “One of the challenges for economic development in Eastern Kentucky has always been who owns the land.”