Why some people in these historic coal towns now want to block nearby surface mining

Residents have renewed a request to bar surface mining on steep slopes overlooking two historic Kentucky coal towns.

The petitioners are concerned that surface mining on the mountains near Benham and Lynch, in Harlan County, would damage water sources that serve the towns and mar the view as local officials, business owners and community leaders try to boost tourism and create jobs.

“Surface mining within the watersheds serving the communities as their sole source of drinking water, and within the viewshed of these historic towns, threatens irreversible and significant damage to the communities,” the request argues.

The petition is the same as one first filed in August 2010, but it was only recently put back on track.

The Energy and Environment Cabinet declined to process the initial request, saying it lacked merit and was frivolous. The appeal of that decision went on for years as attorneys for the residents and the affected coal companies discussed settling the case, an effort that stalled at one point because one of the companies went bankrupt.

After the two sides couldn’t reach a deal, state hearing office Virginia Baker Gorley recommended overturning the 2010 decision that said the petition was inadequate.

The state used the wrong standard in that ruling, failing to consider if the allegations of harm from surface mining around the towns lacked serious merit, Gorley said.

R. Bruce Scott, deputy secretary of the Energy and Environment Cabinet, upheld that recommendation and told the people seeking the mining ban to re-submit the request by late December.

Federal law allows citizens to seek a ban on surface mining if it could cause significant damage to “important historic, cultural, scientific, or aesthetic values or natural systems,” or if it could hurt the long-range viability of a water supply.

The petition at Benham and Lynch seeks to bar surface mining anywhere that could be seen from the historic districts of the towns, and in watersheds that supply their water plants.

The request, if successful, would make more than 10,000 acres on the mountains overlooking the towns off-limits to surface mining.

The taller building at left, built in 1923, was the coal-company commissary in Benham, where miners could buy a wide range of goods. The building, which now houses the Kentucky Coal Mining Museum, is among the historic structures in downtown Benham. Bill Estep

It could take some time to resolve the request. An initial decision will be made by the Energy and Environment Cabinet, but there could be an appeal in court after that.

The coal companies that would lose the ability to mine have not formally responded to the petition.

However, Revelation Energy, which holds coal leases around Benham, opposes the petitions, said Lexington attorney Billy R. Shelton, who represents the company.

Those pursuing the request are Roy Silver, a professor at Southeast Community and Technical College in Cumberland; Carl Shoupe, a former coal miner and member of the Benham Power Board, which operates the city’s electrical utility; Stanley Sturgill, a retired federal coal-mine inspector; and Bennie Massey, a retired miner and longtime member of the Lynch City Council.

Their petition is rooted in the history of the towns and their hope for the future.

Manufacturing companies built the two towns in the early 1900s in the valley along Looney Creek near the state’s highest peak, Black Mountain.

International Harvester built Benham and U.S. Steel built Lynch, creating the towns from whole cloth — schools, churches, hospitals, stores, mine buildings, utilities and hundreds of homes — in what was then a relatively isolated area in order to get coal for their manufacturing operations.

The coal tipple at Lynch was the biggest in the world, and in February 1923 miners there set what was then a world production record, cutting out enough coal in nine hours to fill 256 rail cars, according to a local history.

U.S. Steel and International Harvester gave up control of the towns decades ago.

Both still have a number of historic structures, however, and have worked to create tourism attractions in hopes of boosting the local economy.

A loss of coal jobs since 2012 has sapped counties in Eastern Kentucky.

Harlan County had 2,310 coal jobs in 2011, but that number had plunged to 771 in the third quarter of 2018, according to the Energy and Environment Cabinet.

Benham features the Kentucky Coal Museum in what was once the company commissary; the Benham Schoolhouse Inn, where guests stay in what were once classrooms at the high school built in the 1920; and other renovated historic buildings.

Lynch also has several renovated buildings from the old coal camp, as well as the Portal 31 exhibition underground coal mine, and is developing a campground for recreational vehicles.

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Miners outside the portal of U.S. Steel Mine No. 31, which was in the heart of Lynch. The company built the town beginning in 1917 to get coal needed for manufacturing operations. Today, Mine. No. 31 is the site of an exhibition coal mine that visitors can tour. Bill Estep

Both towns, along with neighboring Cumberland, have been designated as trail towns and are working to expand the trail network.

Logging, blasting, dust, noise and the visual scars associated with surface mining will hurt the view that is an integral part of the “cultural and historic values” of the historic districts of the town, and diminish tourism investments, the petition claims.

Surface mining also would add sediment to streams that feed local water systems, and could alter the water chemistry and hurt the quality, according to the petition.

Coal companies are required to guard against sedimentation during surface mining and to reclaim areas after removing the coal.

However, the standards and the use of the best technology don’t prevent all impacts to areas outside the boundaries of mines, according to the petition, which was prepared by Tom FitzGerald, head of the Kentucky Resources Council.

“It is the sensitivity of the resource that is the viewshed of Benham and Lynch and the source of their water supply that makes the mere application of the permitting and performance standards insufficient to protect these values,” the petition argues.