Not 'frivolous' for state to save Benham, Lynch

Rick Handshoe, right, talked with Gov. Steve Beshear last month about acid mine drainage in a pond above his Floyd County home.
Rick Handshoe, right, talked with Gov. Steve Beshear last month about acid mine drainage in a pond above his Floyd County home.

Good for Gov. Steve Beshear, who kept his promise to go to Eastern Kentucky to see some of the coal industry's unfortunate side effects.

He made the pledge in February to protesters who occupied his office. He made the trip in April, a fairly quick turnaround for a governor busy with the legislature and his own re-election campaign.

In Floyd County, Beshear saw water ruined by pollution from mining.

In Harlan County, he was asked to protect the ridges and streams around the historic coal towns of Lynch and Benham by supporting a "lands unsuitable for mining" petition. Two coal companies are seeking permits to begin stripping, blasting and building sediment ponds above the two towns which are home to about 1,300 people.

Beshear skirted the question. His Energy and Environment Secretary Leonard Peters interjected that the lands-unsuitable petition is under appeal.

It's under appeal because Peters' cabinet has twice rejected the petition as "frivolous."

If anything is frivolous, though, it's the cabinet's rationale: basically that the existence of underground mining or underground permits precludes protecting the land's surface and streams.

This Catch-22 approach is at odds with the U.S. Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act, which is supposed to govern state regulation of the coal industry.

It also reverses a position the cabinet took in 1999 when protection was being sought for the upper elevations of Black Mountain, a steep forest adjoining the area around Benham and Lynch which are nestled at the foot of Black Mountain and are the closest towns to Kentucky's highest point.

In 1999, then-Gov. Paul Patton and his environmental secretary, the late James Bickford, took the lead in negotiating a settlement in which the state paid $4.2 million for the timber and coal rights to preserve the state's summit. Extending the protection farther down Black Mountain would protect the state's earlier investment. It also would protect public water supplies, two historic districts, the views from them, a nascent tourism industry (in which taxpayers have also invested) and visitors and residents from noise and dust.

The 1977 federal surface mining law lays out criteria for declaring certain areas forever off limits to strip-mining. The 11,800 acres around Benham and Lynch more than qualify for the reasons enumerated above.

Kentucky has granted only a few lands unsuitable designations.

Meanwhile, nearby in Tennessee, the state is seeking to designate 67,000 acres of the Cumberland Plateau unsuitable for mining to protect scenic ridges and their future value for recreation, tourism and sustainable forestry.

Unlike Kentucky, the federal, not state, government, has primary responsibility for regulating coal mining in Tennessee. Before leaving office last year, Gov. Phil Bredesen petitioned the U.S. Office of Surface Mining.

The legal questions will be hashed out in coming months. More important are leadership and vision.

Bredesen extolled the value of preserving the natural beauty, cultural heritage, land and water of the Cumberland Plateau for future generations. So did Patton, a coal operator, who in addition to saving the top of Black Mountain and the Pine Mountain Settlement School, supported developing the Pine Mountain Trail.

Granted the economic picture was brighter when Patton was governor and the politics around coal less polarized. But leadership requires seeing beyond the complications of the moment to do what's right for the future.

Lynch City Councilman Taylor Hall told Beshear: "This town, if it dies, it can't be replaced, it can't be simulated, it can't be restored. ... If they are allowed to take these mountains, this town is gone, people's lives are gone, history is gone."

And the future will be gone for a place Kentuckians should hold dear.