An Alliance Coal executive wrote an e-mail to his colleagues Nov. 13 to announce the firing of the state director of mine permits — just minutes after the firing happened.
"Ron Mills will be asked to resign this morning and will be replaced by Allen Luttrell on an acting basis," wrote Raymond "Rusty" Ashcraft, Alliance Coal's manager of environmental affairs and permitting at the company's Lexington office.
Ashcraft sent his e-mail at 9:24 a.m. Minutes earlier, Mills said in an interview Sunday, he was pulled aside in Frankfort and fired as director of the Division of Mine Permits. Later that day, his deputy, Luttrell, was named as his acting replacement.
The e-mail raises questions about Alliance Coal's role in the firing of Mills, who opposed a controversial policy — called "the 331⁄3 rule" — that allows the company to mine without showing that it has the legal right to enter all the land in its plans. Environmentalists say the policy is illegal and they will sue to block it.
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One of those environmentalists, Thomas FitzGerald, director of the Kentucky Resources Council, obtained a copy of the e-mail last week and provided it to the Herald-Leader.
Ashcraft did not return calls seeking comment Sunday. Last week, he said he preferred not to discuss Mills' firing.
Gov. Steve Beshear and the Kentucky Democratic Party are among the beneficiaries of several hundred thousand dollars in political donations made by executives and employees of Alliance Coal, based in Tulsa, Okla., and its political action committee. Beshear went to Union County in September to stand with Alliance Coal executives as they celebrated a new mine.
In October 2008, the Beshear administration overruled Mills on the 331⁄3 rule to "accommodate the coal interests," as officials phrased it in an internal e-mail the Herald-Leader obtained through the Kentucky Open Records Act.
Over Mills' objections, Beshear officials ordered the approval of five mining permits that Alliance Coal wanted covering about 55,000 acres in Hopkins and Webster counties.
Mills said he heard for months that Alliance Coal and the governor's office were pushing for his ouster because he opposed those permits. It's now clear the company was better informed about his fate than he was, he said.
"Ashcraft seemed to know before I did that I was going to be fired," Mills said.
"Obviously, somebody in the administration felt compelled to call him and tell him," Mills said. "But why? Why are they calling coal companies about their decisions to hire and fire the people in my position?"
It's a mystery, said Beshear spokeswoman Kerri Richardson.
"As for how Rusty got information on Mr. Mills being fired, I have no idea. I don't have any information for you on that," Richardson said.
State Energy and Environment Secretary Len Peters last week said he alone made the decision to fire Mills because he was dissatisfied with Mills' performance. Peters did not elaborate.
As a non-merit appointee, earning $78,948 a year, Mills served at the governor's pleasure. Previously, Mills spent about two decades as an attorney for the state's natural resources and environmental protection agencies.
FitzGerald, of the Kentucky Resources Council, said it's "very disturbing" that the Beshear administration would consult Alliance Coal about the firing of a mining regulator, especially one who did nothing wrong.
"Clearly, somebody was picking up the phone to keep Rusty Ashcraft in the loop," FitzGerald said. "It's blatantly political, and it's disgraceful that in this day and age, we're giving any industry that much clout over who regulates it."