The former head of Kentucky's mine permit division, who was fired last week by Gov. Steve Beshear, said Tuesday he had been trying to block what he called illegal mining permit practices.
Ron Mills said he refused to issue about a half-dozen mine permits requested over the past year, chiefly by the politically connected Alliance Resource Partners of Tulsa, Okla., because they did not comply with federal and state mining law.
Coal companies are required to provide documentation showing they have a legal right to enter and disturb all of the areas they will mine, Mills said. Instead, the Beshear administration issued permits to coal companies that demonstrate the right to enter and mine as little as two-thirds of the land in question, he said.
"I refused to sign those applications," Mills said. "I thought they were illegal. There was no support for them under the law."
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However, Mills said, after a debate within the Beshear administration that involved the governor's office, Natural Resources Commissioner Carl Campbell signed the permits over Mills' objections.
Mills said he was given no official reason for his firing Friday — as a non-merit appointee, he served at the governor's pleasure — but colleagues told him Alliance lobbied the governor's office for his removal.
In a prepared statement, Beshear spokeswoman Kerri Richardson said the governor does not involve himself with personnel decisions at the cabinet level.
Beshear also does not join in discussions about individual mine permit applications, although he has become concerned about a backlog in permits awaiting review at the state and federal level, Richardson said. That's why Beshear announced plans last week to hire an additional 19 employees at the state mine permits division to process permits more quickly, she said.
Campbell, the natural resources commissioner, did not return a call seeking comment. In a prepared statement, Energy and Environment Secretary Len Peters said he does not discuss personnel matters, such as Mills' firing, but he denied allowing the coal industry to get permits approved illegally.
"Neither the Energy and Environment Cabinet, Department for Natural Resources nor the Division of Mine Permits have been pressured by the coal industry to 'bend the rules' to allow mine permits to be granted," Peters said.
"Yes, we have taken a number of calls from the industry wanting to know the status of their permit applications, some of which date back two years," Peters added. "Limited personnel to do the proper inspections and investigations of all applications for mining permits has contributed to the inability to keep up with the demands for permits. That issue will be resolved soon when we bring on board 16 full-time and three part-time permit reviewers."
A call to Alliance's Lexington office on Tuesday was not returned.
In recent years, Alliance executives and employees have given several hundred thousand dollars in political donations on the state and national levels, including $70,000 to the Kentucky Democratic Party. Last month, Beshear named Raymond Ashcraft, Alliance's Kentucky manager of environmental affairs and permitting, to the Kentucky Geological Survey Advisory Board.
Joe Craft, Alliance's president, caused a controversy at the University of Kentucky last month by organizing a $7 million donation that will be used to build a new athletics dormitory to be named Wildcat Coal Lodge.
The 331⁄3 policy is the subject of a lawsuit the Kentucky Resources Council, an environmentalist group, is preparing to file. The group sent an intent-to-sue letter this week to state officials advising them to end the policy and stop issuing mine permits without all of the required documentation.
It's not clear when the Beshear administration first authorized the policy, but Mills tried to halt it after he was hired in July 2008, said Thomas FitzGerald, director of the resources council.
"To allow coal companies to go in and potentially undermine the private properties around their mines is a travesty," FitzGerald said.
FitzGerald said his own sources tell him Mills lost his state post because he was diligently enforcing the law, which angered some in the coal industry.
"I'm profoundly disappointed by this administration," he said.