Denying mining's role in flooding

How's this for a great idea? Let the coal industry render places uninhabitable, then require federal taxpayers to bail them out.

That's the remedy recommended by state Rep. Keith Hall, D-Phelps, who blames the flash flooding that wiped out residents along Harless Creek in Pike County on "urban sprawl," not the stripping for coal of an estimated 75 percent of the watershed.

Of course, state and federal regulators enable the destruction — by consistently ignoring the provision of the law that requires consideration of the cumulative impacts of mining before issuing a permit.

Staff writer Dori Hjalmarson reports that the state Division of Mine Reclamation and Enforcement cited just one instance of mining contributing to last month's widespread flooding in heavily-mined Pike County: a permit violation by Cambrian Coal Corp., which was using a sediment pond designed to hold runoff from 9.5 mined acres to contain runoff from 16 mined acres.

Overflow from the undersized pond created a slide that piled up dirt 4 and 5 feet deep against at least one home near Powell's Creek.

An independent expert identified numerous other instances of mining worsening the flooding along Harless. Jack Spadaro, a mining engineer who has been an official in both the U.S. Office of Surface Mining and the federal Mine Safe and Health Administration, toured the area and said he saw seven or eight landslides and crumbling valley fills from mountaintop removal and contour surface mines. Based on maps and seeing the area, Spadaro estimated that three-quarters of the watershed had been strip-mined.

Spadaro is also an expert witness in a lawsuit in which residents are contending that vast disturbances from strip-mining in the Quicksand Creek watershed worsened flood damage to homes and businesses in Breathitt County in May 2009.

Mining's not entirely responsible for the flooding in Pike County, of course. A state road construction project apparently was a factor along part of Racoon Creek. And there was a lot of rain.

It's foolish, though, to keep officially ignoring the role that strip-mining plays in increasing flooding.

Several government studies in West Virginia have documented an increase in peak runoff flow in watersheds where there is large-scale strip mining and attendant valley fills.

With extreme storms expected to increase as a result of climate change, we need to be better prepared not just to respond to flooding but also to prevent it.

Rep. Hall says the answer is for the federal government to buy out home owners and businesses in flood-prone areas. While some of that might be advisable, rendering more and more of Eastern Kentucky unlivable is not a good long-term strategy for the region.