State

50 years ago, land was iconic in battle over surface mining. Now protest has come again.

The coal company tried to take his family’s land. Now he says the power company is doing the same.

Larry Bishop’s grandfather fought a coal company in court that tried to seize his land. He won, but now, years later, he says Kentucky Power is doing the same.
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Larry Bishop’s grandfather fought a coal company in court that tried to seize his land. He won, but now, years later, he says Kentucky Power is doing the same.

Protest has come again to a piece of land in Pike County that played an iconic role in opposition to surface coal mining as battles over the issue intensified in Appalachia five decades ago.

In 1967, Jink Ray, a World War I veteran and former miner, stood in front of bulldozers to block them from strip-mining land where he’d farmed for 46 years.

Now, heirs of Ray are invoking his stand in their effort to block construction of a high-voltage power line across the same land.

“There are a number of parallels that I can see,” said Gary D. Bishop, a grandson of Ray’s.

The power line at issue would cover a distance of about five miles, from an existing line in Floyd County to a new substation at the Kentucky Enterprise Industrial Park at Pikeville.

Kentucky Power said the project is needed to handle the anticipated electrical demand from EnerBlu Inc., a manufacturing facility planned at the industrial site.

The utility said EnerBlu plans to build a factory covering one million square feet to produce lithium batteries and other products.

Officials have hailed the facility as an economic Godsend for the region, where coal jobs have plummeted since 2011.

U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers, a Republican who represents the region, said at a conference in August that EnerBlu plans to hire 875 workers at an average salary of $39 an hour.

The company anticipates starting construction on the Pikeville plant this year, said spokeswoman Susan van Barneveld.

Kentucky Power said it would not be able to provide enough electricity to the plant without the new line.

The project, which would cost Kentucky Power an estimated$33.6 million, also would improve electric service in the area and generate about $229,000 in property-tax revenue for state and local government, the company said.

The state Public Service Commission would have to approve the company’s request to build the line.

The Ray heirs are objecting out of concern that the line would damage the 100-acre tract where Ray made his stand against the bulldozers of the Puritan Coal Company.

Ray bought the land at Island Creek after returning home from serving in France in WWI.

He finished building a house on it in 1921 and built a barn on it the next year, which still stands, according to the family’s motion to the PSC.

Ray worked as a miner after returning from the Army.

He also farmed, according to the 2008 book “Uneven Ground:Appalachia Since 1945” by Ronald D. Eller, a former University of Kentucky professor and leading Appalachian scholar.

Ray and his wife, Cricket, raised five children on the farm.

Ray had refused an offer of $2,500 from the coal company to strip-mine his property, but told the New York Times he heard a bulldozer coming anyway one day in June 1967.

“The dozer got about 40 feet across my property and knocked down a fence I had there to keep my stock, cow and a horse and some pigs as near as I can recall,” Ray, then in his late 70s, told the Times in a 1977 interview.

Ray stood in front of the dozer to block it, starting a three-week drama in which he and neighbors held off the company from mining.

One problem Ray and other landowners were confronting at the time was an instrument called the broad form deed.

Beginning in the late 1800s, entrepreneurs bought rights under those deeds to mine coal on tens of thousands of acres in Eastern Kentucky, with landowners keeping ownership of the surface.

The deeds allowed companies to use the surface in order to get at the coal. When landowners signed the deeds, surface disturbances were not considered large or controversial because mining was done underground.

But after companies developed equipment and expertise after WWII to strip away the surface of the land in order to reach the coal, broad form deeds became a bitter issue because of the massive surface disruptions.

The deeds allowed coal companies to tear away the surface “even if the result was the destruction of buildings on the land,” the Kentucky Encyclopedia said.

There were even tales of family cemeteries being uprooted to uncover coal.

“You don’t control your own land or your own life, really,” under such deeds, Ray said in 1977.

Puritan Coal got a court injunction against Ray allowing access to his land after the initial stand-off in 1967, but neighbors pitched in to block the company’s bulldozers from coming onto the land.

Gov. Ned Breathitt ended the confrontation by suspending the company’s mining permit.

Ray entered the lore of opposition to surface mining in Appalachia along with figures such as Ollie Combs, often called the Widow Combs, who was arrested after sitting in front of a bulldozer to block access to her Knott County land just before Thanksgiving in 1965, and Uncle Dan Gibson, an 81-year-old Baptist preacher who held off coal-company bulldozers with a squirrel rifle in 1965 to block mining on land owned by his stepson, who was in the military in Vietnam.

The protests helped build momentum for a 1977 federal law that included new controls and reclamation requirements on surface mining.

And Kentucky voters approved a constitutional amendment in 1988 requiring companies to get consent from surface owners to mine from the surface.

Ray died in 1992. His steep, wooded land was never mined, said Bishop, a prosecuting attorney in Ohio.

“To this day, the property remains unmolested its natural state, save for the home and barn and outbuildings at the foot of the mountain,” Bishop told the PSC.

The land is owned by a trust in the name of Bishop’s mother, Mary Sendelbach, who is one of Ray’s daughters. Another of Ray’s grandsons, Larry G. Bishop, lives on the property.

Larry Bishop 3
Larry Bishop lives on property in Pike County, Ky., where his grandfather, Jink Ray, stood in front of a coal-company bulldozer in 1967 to block mining on his land. Will Wright

Gary Bishop told the PSC that it has been hard from information on the project web page to see the exact route of the line and the location of 110-foot high towers.

A company agent initially told him the line would barely cross the corner of the property, then later said the proposed route had been moved so that it did not “interfere” with the property at all, Bishop told the PSC.

However, it appears from the most recent maps he received from Kentucky Power that the line could run practically through the middle of the property, Bishop said.

“The damage to the property will be enormous, akin to strip-mining in terms of the ecological destruction, “ Bishop said in the petition to the PSC. “This is because the power company plans to transverse steep mountainous land that will necessitate destroying old growth forest, bulldozing tons of mountaintop earth and creating a path of destruction that inevitably will further damage or destroy the family homestead via runoff and mudslides.”

Bishop said he favors progress and doesn’t want to scuttle a project that would benefit Enerblu.

But Kentucky Power could re-route the line to make sure it wouldn’t touch his family’s property, Bishop said.

There is uninhabited land nearby, and the company has already moved the route of the proposed line in some places to avoid areas prone to mudslides, he said.

Maps that Kentucky Power initially reviewed in planning the project did not show all the Sendelbach property, so the company is trying to get additional survey information and reviewing maps to see if the proposed line would cross the property, said company spokeswoman Allison D. Barker.

The company will contact the family after that review to figure out what to do, Barker said.

“Our transmission teams have an incredible record of working with landowners to reach agreements when it comes to upgrades and replacement projects,”Barker said.

Bishop said he and his siblings would consider a deal to have the line cross the corner of the property, but they strongly object to any substantial encroachment or having towers on the land

“We’re simply trying to protect what is ours,” he said.

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