How much abuse must E. Ky. take? Coal's legacy could be more ruin

It stands to reason that a second-term president thinks less about the moment's politics and more about his imprint on the future. Legacy concerns, we're told, are behind President Barack Obama's plans to tackle climate change, with or without Congress.

One of his first steps would be limiting coal-burning power plants to reduce emissions of heat-trapping carbon dioxide.

Legacy concerns should also weigh on Kentuckians as the boom-bust industry that has ruled the mountains for 100 years sinks into a long, last bust.

No less a friend of coal than Kentucky's Energy and Environment Secretary Len Peters says Eastern Kentucky coal production could rebound if natural gas prices rise, but: "We think it is clearly on a downhill slide. ... If it comes back, it's going to be ephemeral."

Interviewed for last week's segment of "Fifty Years of Night" by the Herald-Leader's John Cheves and Bill Estep, Peters said, "we're going to stop mining in Eastern Kentucky with coal still in the ground."

As dire as that may sound in a coal-dependent region, Eastern Kentucky still has a substantial mining industry, employing on average 9,556 people in 2012 and producing 49.3 million tons of coal.

While big, publicly traded companies are pulling out in search of more profitable coal and gas fields, plenty of smaller, undercapitalized operators and contractors remain. They are more than willing to cut corners to make a buck.

Case in point: the Pike County surface mines that are sending rocks and trees crashing through roofs and into bedrooms, keeping people in fear for their lives. State Rep. Keith Hall, D-Phelps, holds the permits for these operations, but says they are operated by others, including a company owned by West Virginia billionaire James Justice, who, with his family, spent $271,600 toward Gov. Steve Beshear's re-election and inauguration.

This example of coal's undiminished clout underlines some legacy questions for Kentucky: How much more ruin of water, land and human health will we allow? And how to ensure coal industry obligations don't become even heavier public burdens?

The mines permitted under Hall's name are repeat violators of safety and environmental standards. A company representative once told an inspector that the operation would shut down and "let the state have the permits" in response to more citations.

This is a potent threat. Kentucky requires reclamation bonds that don't begin to cover the costs of stabilizing a site and controlling water pollution and flooding. Forfeited bonds paid just a fifth of reclamation costs from January 2007 to May 2010, prompting the feds to threaten to seize surface mining enforcement. The state responded with a plan that would cover two-thirds of costs.

Kentucky's record of rolling over to the coal industry is long. But if ever there were a time to change, it's now.

Surface mining techniques that are kinder to the environment require more workers. Reducing the size and number of stream-choking valley fills, then reclaiming the land without delay not only protects water, it also creates jobs.

The coal industry isn't dead; it's adapting. Can Kentucky do the same?