For Beshear, will coal money drown out Lynch?

Almost half the residents of the historic Harlan County town of Lynch are poor, and their per capita income of $11,206 is half that of Kentucky as a whole.

They can't afford to protect their interests by showering money on political campaigns and parties — in sharp contrast to the owner of the Virginia coal company that wants to strip 1,105 acres of forests and hills around Lynch.

A&G Coal owner James C. Justice II and his family spent $271,600 toward Beshear's re-election and inauguration, according to an analysis by reporter Tom Loftus of The Courier-Journal.

The Beshear administration has given preliminary approval to an A&G plan residents say will destroy their water supply and their town.

Justice also owns the Greenbrier Resort and Casino in West Virginia. He, his wife, son and daughter combined to give $50,000 to the Kentucky Democratic Party, $121,600 to the Democratic National Committee and $100,000 to Beshear's inaugural committee.

"I'm a real believer in Gov. Beshear," Justice told Loftus in a phone interview. "Just from a distance I am just so impressed with the way Kentucky conducts their affairs."

The only private-sector interest that outdid Justice was another coal operator, James Booth of Inez.

Booth, a chairman of Beshear's inaugural committee, his family and employees spent $279,300 toward the governor's re-election and inauguration.

Booth's Cambrian Coal already has benefitted from a questionable decision by the administration.

Cambrian's plan to chop 400 feet off a mountain near Elkhorn City in Pike County will pollute tributaries of the Russell Fork that were already seriously degraded by earlier mining.

An administrative law judge ruled the state had failed to properly consider the cumulative impact on water and halted the mining.

But Beshear's environmental secretary Len Peters overruled the judge and allowed the mining to continue, under a water-discharge permit issued to another company for a much smaller mine.

Franklin Circuit Judge Thomas Wingate later ruled he lacked the authority to stop the mining.

Only large groups spent more on Beshear. State employees, the Kentucky Education Association and the National Governors Association together spent about $2 million on Beshear's behalf, according to Loftus' analysis.

Just two coal operators and their associates spent more that $500,000.

With coal money talking so loudly and directly into his ear, the governor should try extra hard to hear average Kentuckians whose homes, health and future are imperiled by the coal industry's most destructive practices.

The ridges that cradle Lynch — and are at risk of being destroyed — are part of Black Mountain, Kentucky's highest point, which school children fought to save from strip-mining in the late 1990s.

You can't put a price tag on the history and possibilities that will be lost if Beshear sacrifices this little corner of Kentucky.

Political greenbacks or the green hills of home? We wait to see which Beshear prizes more.