Kentucky residents try to block surface mining in coal county
Surface mining on steep slopes overlooking two historic coal towns in Eastern Kentucky could damage their water sources and hurt the potential to boost their economies though tourism, residents said at a hearing Friday.
Residents from Benham and Lynch, in Harlan County, urged the state to bar surface mining around the towns.
“It’s literally going to destroy the water coming off the mountain,” Carl Shoupe, a former underground miner from Benham, said of proposed mining near the town.
No one representing the coal industry spoke at the hearing.
However, coal companies and the Kentucky Coal Association have objected to the request to bar mining, arguing that it would deprive people of jobs, diminish tax revenue for the county and state, and put valuable coal reserves off-limits to the companies without sufficient justification.
The petition at issue seeks to bar surface mining anywhere that could be seen from the historic districts of the towns, which include all of Lynch and part of Benham, and in watersheds that supply their water plants.
If the request is successful, it would make more than 10,000 acres on the mountains overlooking the towns off-limits to surface mining.
The residents pursuing the petition are Roy Silver, a professor at Southeast Community and Technical College in Cumberland; Shoupe, a 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.
The concern is that the logging, blasting, noise and dust from surface mining, as well as the alteration of the mountains, would hurt the view that local people enjoy and is a tourism draw.
“Would you want the mess that your surface mining leaves behind?” Sturgill asked industry representatives at the meeting.
The towns have worked to develop tourism based on their history of underground mining, and surface mining is not compatible with that effort, the residents argue.
They also raised concerns that surface mining would hurt the water supplies for the town.
The water at Benham is so pristine that a study showed it would support development of a bottling plant, supporters of the petition said.
“Pure enough to drink right off the mountain,” Silver said at the hearing, showing a video of a stream coming off the ridge above the towns.
Tom FitzGerald, executive director of the Kentucky Resources Council, said that surface mining can cause a significant increase in the amount of sediment going into streams, and can also release other pollutants.
The potential for increased sedimentation holds even in the “unlikely” event that the mining is in complete compliance with rules, FitzGerald said.
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.
There is a pending request to conduct surface mining on the ridge overlooking Benham, but it has been on hold because of the residents’ petition.
FitzGerald cited several cases in which the state or federal governments barred surface mining for reasons similar to the concerns at Benham and Lynch.
Those included prohibiting mining to protect Fern Lake, the water supply for Middlesboro, and Cannon Creek, the source for Pineville, and to protect the views from Pine Mountain Settlement School and Cumberland Gap National Historic Park, he said.
Preserving the view from Benham and Lynch and protecting their water supplies represents a higher value than mining coal, FitzGerald said.
International Harvester built Benham, and U.S. Steel built Lynch in the early 1900s in the valley at the foot of the state’s highest peak, Black Mountain.
The companies created the towns from scratch to house thousands of workers needed to mine coal for their manufacturing operations.
Lynch grew to be the biggest coal-company-owned town in the world.
U.S. Steel and International Harvester gave up control of the towns decades ago as mining operations changed, and both towns have had a hard times as coal jobs dwindled and people moved away for work.
Both still have a number of historic structures.
Benham is home to the Kentucky Coal Museum and the Benham Schoolhouse Inn, which is in what was once the local high school.
Lynch also has several renovated buildings from the old coal camp, as well as the Portal 31 underground exhibition coal mine.
Coal companies and the industry want the state to deny the petition.
Any surface mining in the area would be controlled by stringent rules that would guard against blasting damage and control dust, and the areas would be reclaimed, the industry said.
It’s also unlikely that mining would hurt the towns’ water supply because of protections in the law, according to industry responses.
There has been a good deal of mining in the petition area, and it has not hurt the quality of the towns’ water sources, ACIN LLC, which owns most of the land covered in the petition, said in its response.
That mining already changed the view of the mountains visible from some parts of the towns, and the impact on the view of any additional surface mining would likely be minimal and temporary, the company said.
ACIN said there are millions of tons of high-quality coal in the area covered by the petition, so barring mining would have a “devastating economic impact” on the company, contractors that could mine the coal and on local businesses and families in a place that is suffering economically.
That harm that would “strongly outweigh any environmental benefit,” the company said.
Mining is the best use for the area in question because of the economic benefit in jobs and taxes, according to the industry.
Opponents of the petition said mining also is unlikely to hurt tourism.
“It is hard to imagine that someone who would travel to this remote location to learn more about coal mining would be upset to see coal mining occurring,” Tyler White, president of the Kentucky Coal Association, said in a response to the petition.
Charles Snavely, secretary of the Energy and Environment Cabinet, will decide whether to grant the petition and declare the area unsuitable for mining.
Either side could appeal that decision.