'Stream-saver' measure returns

On Feb. 15, a Sunday, a group of people will set out on foot from Lexington, heading to Frankfort with the message that coal mining is hazardous to Kentucky's streams.

They expect to cover nearly 13 miles that day, and 15 the next, arriving in the capital in time for a Tuesday morning "I Love Mountains" rally to support the so-called "stream saver" bill.

Todd Kelly, a Lexington nursery owner who is one of the organizers of the walk, says he doesn't know how many people will talk part, but notes that nine groups are sponsoring it.

"I think we're going to be pretty visible as we go down the road," he said.

But Kelly, like others involved in the walk and rally, isn't optimistic that the bill will get anywhere on this, its fourth annual try.

In explaining his pessimism, he rattled off the coal industry connections of House Speaker Greg Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg; Majority Floor Leader Rocky Adkins, D-Sandy Hook; and Rep. Jim Gooch, D-Providence, who is chairman of the House Natural Resources and Environment Committee.

Environmentalists were hoping that Gooch, who has declined to call the bill for a hearing in previous sessions, would be replaced as chairman. Gooch still is there.

Through a bit of legislative sleight of hand, the bill got a hearing last year before the House Appropriations and Revenue Committee. But it fell two votes short of the 15 needed to attach it to a measure to provide tax breaks on camel feed. Rep. Harry Moberly, D-Richmond, chaired that committee last year and was friendly to the bill. He is no longer chairman.

"We don't have as much hope this time, but it needs to still be brought up because it's something that's really important," said Rick Handshoe, a retired state employee from Floyd County who testified in favor of the bill before Moberly's committee.

He said the bill is more important this year because of a federal rule change pushed through at the end of the Bush administration that environmentalists say will make it easier for mining operations to bury streams.

House Bill 104, as it is known in this year's incarnation, is sponsored by Rep. Don Pasley, D-Winchester. It would stop coal mine operators from filling valleys and creek beds with excess waste.

The coal industry is adamantly opposed; Kentucky Coal Association President Bill Caylor says it would drive up the price of coal, while hurting production and employment.

The issue stirs passions: More than 1,200 people took part in last February's "I Love Mountains" rally.

They were followed in March by 2,000 people, many of them coal miners, who opposed the bill.

Another bill with a potentially major impact on an energy source is Senate Bill 13, which could clear an obstacle to nuclear power plants in Kentucky.

Kentucky has no nuclear power plants, nor anyone clamoring to build one here. But anyone who wanted to would have to overcome a law that says construction is prohibited "until means for disposal of high level nuclear waste" is approved by the federal government.

SB 13, sponsored by Sen. Bob Leeper, I-Paducah, would delete that hurdle and require only that a method be available to store waste.

The possibility of nuclear power in Kentucky was raised by Gov. Steve Beshear last fall when he released an energy plan for the state.

The governor said he wanted to talk with legislators and citizens about their feelings toward nuclear energy.

"We feel the legislation that currently exists restricts or retards seriously engaging in that conversation," Len Peters, secretary of the state Energy and Environment Cabinet, said Monday.

Still iffy, Peters said, is whether there will be legislation that would require emergency action plans for coal ash ponds at coal-fired power plants.

Kentucky officials started pondering such a requirement after a dam failed in late December at a large ash containment structure in Tennessee.

Such plans spell out procedures for notifying authorities if a dam fails or is about to fail. Federal recommendations for such plans also call for mapping the area that would be flooded in a break, as well as evacuation details.

Peters said it is too early to say whether a bill can be ready by this session. But, he added, "it needs to happen."