Politicians who love to skewer the Environmental Protection Agency could actually look out for Kentuckians' health by digging into why the agency shortchanges the state on funding through the Clean Water Act.
All right, we know politicians who love to skewer the EPA aren't really interested in looking out for Kentuckians' health. But the question needs to be asked, nonetheless: Why does the state with the fifth-highest number of water pollution permits rank 36th in federal funding for enforcing those permits?
Can Kentucky realistically be expected to beef up its admittedly spotty oversight without more support?
This may be a political question, but it has real-life implications for people in the coalfields and those living downstream.
The latest example of real-life implications comes in a peer-reviewed study published by the journal Environmental Research: Birth defects are more prevalent in Appalachian counties where there is mountaintop removal mining.
The researchers controlled for factors such as smoking, education levels and prenatal care, and they still found a statistically significant higher risk in places where strip-mining is releasing arsenic, lead, mercury and other toxins into the environment.
The study stopped short of saying that mining caused the higher rate of birth defects. But couple these findings with those from other studies, such as lower birth weights in the coalfields, and we should all agree that putting more toxins into the water is a bad idea.
The EPA has drawn the wrath of coal-state politicians by halting the rubber stamping of mountaintop mining permits and demanding greater protections for water before approving mining plans. This should slow the pace of environmental damage, for which we are grateful.
But there are plenty of existing mines — and other sources of water pollution — that require ongoing oversight — and plenty of evidence that Kentucky isn't providing it. The state late last year was embarrassed by revelations that its oversight of the coal industry's water monitoring was basically a charade. As a result, it's had to divert painfully thin resources and staff to examining past water monitoring data and violations.
We understand that federal funding through Section 106 of the Clean Water Act makes up a relatively small portion of states' budgets for clean water enforcement — about 18 percent. When Kentucky won the authority to administer the Clean Water Act in 1983, it assumed responsibility for paying for it.
One funding source is fees on pollution permits. Kentucky has low permit fees in comparison to other states, but the state's Division of Water did win legislative permission in 2009 to raise fees by 130 percent, Kentucky's first such fee increase ever. The Division of Water, which enforces clean water laws, lost more than 50 employees over the last decade. Even a little more money could buy a big improvement.
Kentucky's environmental agency has urged the EPA to revise its funding formula to better meet the state's needs.
Kentucky received about $2 million through Section 106 of the Clean Water Act in 2009. On a per-permit basis, Kentucky, the third largest coal-producing state and the one with the most coal mines, ranked 49th among the 50 states, receiving $193 per permit compared with the nationwide figure of $952.
In a time of federal cost cutting, the EPA is probably reluctant to make waves by taking funding from some states to give to others, even if they need it as desperately as Kentucky does.
Still, someone should ask.