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Friend of coal becomes its victim

An abandoned coal mine is causing an Eastern Kentucky hillside to slide slowly onto the home of former state Rep. Howard Cornett, R-Whitesburg, who championed coal companies in the legislature.

The "continual flow" of water from the abandoned mine has saturated Cornett's yard and the foundation of his home, according to Steve Hohmann, director of the Division of Abandoned Mine Lands. Parts of the hill are sliding down, putting the house at risk.

Long a defender of coal companies' interests, Cornett lost his seat after he unsuccessfully pushed a bill to allow more overweight trucks on state roads, angering his constituents who considered such trucks dangerous. In fiery speeches, Cornett said his opponents wanted to destroy the coal industry.

"Howard Cornett wasn't sympathetic when we asked for protection from overweight coal trucks or when we asked for protection from hazardous coal-mining practices. Now the shoe is on the other foot," said Patty Amburgey of Letcher County, a former Cornett constituent who is active with the grassroots group Kentuckians for the Commonwealth.

The woman who replaced Cornett, Rep. Leslie Combs, D-Pikeville, said Monday that abandoned coal mine sites, including slurry ponds, pose environmental and safety hazards throughout Eastern Kentucky.

"It's a real issue out here," she said.

The mine threatening Cornett's home was owned by Cook and Sons Mining Inc. of Whitesburg, which — before its 2003 bankruptcy — was a Cornett campaign donor.

To save his home, Cornett must rely on a reclamation plan being drawn up by state officials at the Division of Abandoned Mine Lands.

The state estimates that the Howard Cornett Reclamation Project — its official name — will cost $40,000 to $50,000, with contractors' bids due Nov. 6. Funding has been secured from the remains of Cook and Sons, its bonding agent and the Bristol, Va., mining company that acquired much of Cook and Sons' properties.

The work will consist of a reinforced concrete wall along the hill behind the Cornett home, off Ky. 3401 west of Whitesburg, and subdrains to catch water seeping from the hillside.

Cornett, who served in the Kentucky House from 1998 to 2006, did not return calls seeking comment.

Once a mining company declares bankruptcy and disappears, which is common, the government has to determine who is responsible for the mess left behind, when it happened and how to pay for it if there are not federal funds or sufficient bonds available, Combs said.

Amburgey, the citizen-activist in Letcher County, said her grandmother's property had five abandoned mines on it that spilled waste into waterways and posed a threat to children who wanted to play inside of them. It took a decade for the government to properly close those mines, she said.

"These abandoned mines are all over Kentucky, and there isn't enough money to take care of all of them, unfortunately," Amburgey said. "I'm glad that we made a priority of protecting Howard's place."