Davie Ransdell: Obama should do more to protect Ky.'s mountains, water from surface mining

Davie Ransdell of Oneida is a former coal reclamation technician and a retired supervisor for the Kentucky Division of Mine Permits.
Davie Ransdell of Oneida is a former coal reclamation technician and a retired supervisor for the Kentucky Division of Mine Permits.

I grew up in Clay County. Semi-famous as "The Land of Swinging Bridges," it is home to some of the most beautiful wild and scenic sites in Central Appalachia.

Oneida, the small community I call home, is rich in heritage, culture, beauty and an enduring sense of place.

Unfortunately, all of Eastern Kentucky is still under threat from surface mining. Though Eastern Kentucky has seen plenty of mining before, destruction is still happening on President Barack Obama's watch.

When Obama took office, I was a supervisor with Kentucky's Division of Mine Permits. After watching the erosion of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's regulation of environmental impacts of surface mining during the eight years of the Bush administration, I hoped things would improve under Obama.

Regrettably, under Obama we saw a coal boom between 2008 and 2011 that led to losses of more of our rare and unique Appalachian mountains. Recently, citizen groups exposed that a Kentucky mining company has violated the Clean Water Act nearly 28,000 times, likely the largest non-compliance of the act in its 42-year history.

Despite these flagrant violations of the law, state regulators continue to only give coal companies a slap on the wrist, making it clear that federal action is needed if we are going to see any real change on this issue.

Growing up in the mountains, I saw the devastation caused by coal companies during the "pre-law" years — before the 1977 passage of the U.S. Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act (one of the current laws that govern surface mining practices).

I saw the destruction coal companies walked away from. The eroding highwalls and hillsides would sit for years, creating sources for floods, pollution and basic hazards to inhabitants — human or otherwise. Entire ecosystems were decimated.

I saw this and, as much as anyone, wished it would go away but knew it wouldn't.

So in 1980, I earned a degree in reclamation technology from the University of Kentucky, a degree created to support the passage of the federal mining law. Initially I worked for the coal industry and then for Kentucky's Department for Natural Resources.

Living and working around coal mines, you often become desensitized to the sheer brutality inflicted on the environment. Surface mining in Appalachia is a destructive practice. Regardless of whether it is mountaintop removal, point removal or contour mining, the devastation is horrific to watch.

When you cut off the top or the side of a mountain, it will never be the same.

We'll never return those ecosystems to what they were.

After retiring in 2013, I began volunteering for citizens groups, including the Alliance for Appalachia, that are actively speaking up for the Appalachian communities.

Recently, the alliance put out a Grassroots Progress Report outlining the progress Obama has made and the places where his administration has fallen short regarding some key environmental rules.

The report is a good reminder that, for all the hysteria you hear from coal associations and state politicians, Obama could have — and should have — done much, much more.

We've seen little advancement on issues that should be really close to completion. The only grade the Obama administration has earned so far is "incomplete."

The Environmental Protection Agency is responsible for setting pollution limits. The scientific understanding of the pollution that results from all forms of surface mining, including mountaintop removal, has made tremendous strides in recent years.

The agency has the research and knowledge necessary to tell both the regulators and the regulated what needs to be done, but no safeguards have been put into place to make sure the states do anything at all — even as the scientific consensus grows about the importance of enacting these protective limits.

In September, a group hosted by the Alliance for Appalachia attended an interagency meeting to discuss our concerns. Most of the administration attendees were very new hires, and most were PR folks, without science or technical backgrounds to understand the details of our concerns.

The meeting we thought we were going to have wasn't what happened at all. The administration representatives said they wanted to "start a dialogue," but we thought the dialogue had started years ago in 2009.

I was frustrated. This meeting should have been the culmination of years of work, not the beginning.

There are only two years left in Obama's term. If the administration doesn't get serious, if the administration continues to restart dialogues instead of resolving them, these protections may never be enacted — and progress for the mountains and those who live there will continue to falter.