Polluters ride free at taxpayers' expense

It's terrible that Kentucky fell so far behind in strip-mine inspections that the federal government penalized the state $1 million. Terrible, but not surprising.

Chop $800 million from state government and you get some big holes.

Shorthanded agencies are less likely to know when pollution is seeping from a mine, construction or manufacturing site. The people downstream end up paying the price.

Fortunately, there is a fairer way to pay for environmental enforcement, if only the legislature could shake off its fealty to special interests.

Industries in Kentucky pay a much smaller share of their environmental permitting costs than their counterparts in other states.

Just 11 percent of the cost of water and waste permitting and enforcement is covered by fees.

Most states, including those surrounding Kentucky, charge higher fees covering more of their costs.

When developers outside Kentucky, for example, obtain permits for discharging runoff from construction sites, they pay a fee that's high enough to pay for inspectors and monitoring to make sure mud and sediment aren't polluting streams. The developer folds the fee into the price of the project and it's eventually passed on to the buyer. What could be more fair?

Not so in Kentucky, where taxpayers pick up the permitting costs, in effect subsidizing the developer.

Kentucky taxpayers end up paying twice for polluting industries, once when the air and water are used for waste disposal, and again by paying most of the costs for processing permits and monitoring compliance.

One recent year, the coal industry paid fees of $1.6 million to cover the $8.6 million cost of issuing mine permits — and nothing to pay for enforcing the conditions of those permits.

The industry's almost-free ride, coupled with decimated state funding, has left the mine-permitting agency so understaffed, and produced such a backlog of permit applications, that the coal industry is willing to begin paying more of the permitting costs.

Kentucky's extraordinarily low environmental fees create self-defeating incentives. Low waste disposal fees discourage recycling because it's cheaper to bury recyclables in a landfill.

Kentucky has long scrimped on environmental protection. It's taken an especially hard hit during the latest downturn as Gov. Steve Beshear and lawmakers have tried to shield education and Medicaid while prisons suck up an ever increasing share of state dollars. Those three items account for about 80 percent of state spending, leaving 20 percent of state government to absorb most of the cuts.

Environmental agencies are struggling with far fewer workers and far fewer experienced workers since encouraging retirements was one of the state's cost-cutting strategies.

But even if the economy were humming and state coffers overflowing, Kentucky should increase its environmental fees. It's fairer to taxpayers.

The price of products would more accurately reflect their real cost, and that cost would be paid by consumers of the product, not the general taxpaying public.

If that encouraged wiser use of resources, the benefit would be multiplied.