Improper surface-mining practices worsened flooding that caused widespread damage in Middlesboro in June, a lawsuit claims.
Mining near the city by several companies disrupted the natural drainage system, increasing the amount and speed of water that ran off mined areas during heavy rainfall, the lawsuit charges.
The lawsuit says the companies had been cited numerous times before the flood for alleged violations such as failing to keep vegetation on mined areas and failing to keep runoff-control ponds cleaned out, which would have reduced their holding capacity during a storm.
"To me, it was a ticking time bomb," said Prestonsburg attorney Ned Pillersdorf, who along with J. Warren Keller, an attorney in London, filed the lawsuit for 49 residents of Middlesboro.
The lawsuit lists nine companies as defendants. The companies had mining operations in the Yellow Creek, Stony Fork Creek and Stevenson Creek watersheds, the lawsuit said.
The companies are: Apollo Fuels, Bell County Coal, Strata Mining, Twin Star Coal, C&L Highwall Mining Partnership, LC&C Energy, T&T Energy, Stony Fork Mining and Tackett Creek Mining.
Attempts to contact some of the companies were unsuccessful, but the owner of one said the flooding happened because of torrential rainfall and the topography of Middlesboro, not because of improper mining or reclamation.
The city lies in a crater surrounded by hills.
"When it rains 10 inches in a place like this, you're going to have flooding, whether you have mining or not," said Ray Collett, a partner in C&L Highwall Mining.
Collett said state authorities regularly inspect coal mines, and companies have to fix problems that the inspectors cite.
The lawsuit said companies listed in the lawsuit had fixed some of the violations cited before the June 20 flooding, but some remained unabated.
The complaint is the latest of several large lawsuits in recent years claiming that surface-mining practices have caused or contributed to flooding and resulting damage in Eastern Kentucky.
Flooding hit several areas in Eastern Kentucky after storms early on June 20 reportedly dumped 6 inches or more of rain within a few hours in some spots.
The floods caused one death and millions of dollars in damage to homes, vehicles and public infrastructure.
In Bell County, high waters damaged at least 370 homes, said Paul Wilson, emergency management director for the county.
The damage ranged from minor to total. One of Pillersdorf's clients, for instance, lost his home and is living in a tool shed, Pillersdorf said.
President Barack Obama issued a disaster declaration covering Bell, Knox, Perry, Breathitt, Knott, Lee and Magoffin counties.
It is likely that other residents will join the complaint in Bell County, and other attorneys could file lawsuits for other people, Pillersdorf said.
The lawsuit seeks an unspecified amount of money to compensate people for property, inventory and income losses; the costs of replacement housing and vehicles; and the suffering caused by the "massive interference" in their lives.
It also seeks damages to punish the coal companies.