OVEN FORK — The rugged terrain surrounding the Poor Fork of the Cumberland River, tucked in the folds of the southeastern Kentucky mountains, is a lush and woody haven that appears much as it did centuries ago. The whispering river, 6 feet wide in some places, cascades down Letcher County's Pine Mountain, part of the Cumberland Mountains. Rare plants grow along the banks of the trout-filled stream — one of only six streams in Kentucky designated as a Class 1 waterway because of its pristine water and natural brook trout population.
On Thursday, more than two dozen nature enthusiasts and Letcher County residents gathered to contest a permit sought by Cumberland River Coal Co. to strip mine a few miles upstream, which they say will harm the river and nearby areas.
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Randall Watts, an environmental control manager at the Pikeville office of Mine Reclamation and Enforcement, heard comments regarding Cumberland River's application for a permit to strip mine more than 1,000 acres of mountains in search of the valuable low-sulfur coal that is abundant throughout the region.
In strip mining, massive machines remove coal from veins near the surface by stripping away the land and vegetation. The remaining rock and earth are often dumped down the mountain, burying hollows and streams.
Cumberland River is planning three hollow-fills, totaling more than 102 acres, and five sediment ponds covering more than 24 acres, according to the permit filed with the Kentucky Department for Natural Resources.
Many of the speakers, who gathered in a small community center off U.S. 119, were concerned about the effects the mining would have on the natural trout-filled river — a rarity in the state — as well as the nearby Bad Branch Nature Preserve.
The preserve is home to at least 20 documented endangered and rare plants and Kentucky's only confirmed pair of nesting ravens, according to the Kentucky Breeding Bird Atlas. They worry that the blasting will drive the ravens from their home.
Tim Guilfoile, vice president for the League of Kentucky Sportsmen and a member of the Sierra Club, said that if mining is allowed, the Poor Fork section of the river will be affected.
Guilfoile said the sediment ponds often leak into the streams, which kill macroinvertebrates that fish eat.
"If this mining is allowed, we are going to bury one of the prime tourist destinations in the state. This stream will die," he said.
Jim Webb, who lives at the top of Pine Mountain, is working to develop a campsite near his home. He has already attracted students from Kentucky, as well as groups from Maine and Indiana. "If we keep destroying our mountains, our hope for tourism is going to go down the poisoned, silted streams," he said.
Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear and Lt. Gov. Daniel Mongiardo have repeatedly said they are committed to making the state a leader in adventure tourism.
"I can't believe the administration is going to promote Eastern Kentucky as a tourist destination and at the same time destroy one of the few Class 1 steams in the state. That wouldn't make sense," Guilfoile said.
Cumberland River Officials declined to comment at the meeting.