EPA Wraps Up Tour of Eastern Kentucky Amid Coal Industry Criticism

EPA Region 4 Administrator Gwen Keyes Fleming looks on as Lynch City Council member Stanley Sturgill shows her mountaintop removal on the Virginia side of Black Mountain. Officials from the Environmental Protection Agency were in eastern Kentucky last week to meet with residents of four communities affected by coal mining. But as those residents shared their stories and concerns, the coal industry criticized the trip as one-sided and anti-coal.

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There were nine EPA officials on the tour, including Region 4 Administrator Gwen Keyes Fleming and Senior Advisor on Environmental Justice Lisa Garcia. Over two days, members of the non-profit group Kentuckians for the Commonwealth escorted them from Clay County to Knott County to Letcher County, and ended the trip in Harlan County.

“It’s the first entrance to your left when you go up this road.”

Sandy Minton gave the visitors directions to the coal processing plant next to her house. She held a bag full of medication—her daughter’s prescriptions for a variety of breathing problems.

Minton says she’s concerned about the high levels of dust her kids, as well as those in the nearby school are exposed to.

“A lot of these schools, they’re not near anything like this,” she said. “They’re breathing good clean air. And unfortunately there are a few communities around here that’s having to deal with it.

“I could take you upstairs and show you my little girl’s windows, when I open the windows. I mean, in what, a month? [The dust is] an inch thick.”

In Knott County, many were concerned with a proposed permit by Leeco Coal for the Stacy Branch Surface Mine. That permit is one that was subjected to increased scrutiny by the EPA in 2009 and is still under review.

Besides asking the EPA to not issue the permit, the residents talked about broader economic concerns and the few opportunities that exist for young people in the area.

Ivy Brashear is twenty-four, and trying to find a way to stay in her hometown. She’s worried that once the region’s coal is gone, coal companies will pull out and the community will be left with devastated land, health problems and no jobs.

“They’re not going to be this big father-figure benevolent benefactor after those thirty years are up,” she said. They’re going to leave and we’re going to be here with dirty water and dirty air and cancer clusters and birth defects because of what they did. We need your help. We need your help to save what we have.”

Later that night, people packed into a theater in Whitesburg and testified about water pollution, the perils of an economy that’s too dependent on coal and the industry’s political influence.

“I want to talk for a moment about another insidious form of coal pollution, said former Kentuckians for the Commonwealth chair Doug Doerrfeld

“It is hard to overstate the degree to which the influence of coal has also polluted our democracy,” he said. “While coal mining provides just 1 percent of all jobs in the state and the industry contributes 2.5 percent of Kentucky’s economic output, the power of the industry’s money in our political system is overwhelming.”

During the meeting, Fleming and Garcia addressed community members directly. Fleming believes low-income or minority residents are disproportionately affected by pollution. She said her job is to follow the law.

“Y’all know that I’ve spent 17 years as a prosecutor, so adhering to the rule of law in a fair way is something that’s very true to my heart and true to the administrator’s heart as well,” Fleming said.

Fleming said her staff is open to future visits in the region and an ongoing discussion of the issues.

Some coal industry supporters, including Congressman Hal Rogers and chairman of the Pikeville-based Coal Operators and Associates Charles Baird slammed the EPA for not meeting with miners and state regulators during the trip. Baird also criticized the lack of advance notice to members of the media other than WFPL. But there were local media outlets at each event.

And two employees from the state Division of Water were present. Also, Bill Bissett of the Kentucky Coal Association confirmed that he was notified of the tour, and the EPA offered to meet with coal supporters for an hour on Friday.

But many members of the mining industry were at a conference in Lexington. Bissett said he thought the EPA could have made more of an effort to get a balanced perspective during the visit.

Many of the residents who addressed the agency wanted to make one thing clear: they’re not anti-coal. Stanley Sturgill is a former federal mine inspector and a city council member.

“If you’re concerned, you’re branded that you’re against coal, any way, shape, form or fashion,” Sturgill said. “We have tried to get that point across—we’re not. We’re strictly against surface mining; we’re for underground mining.”

Regional administrator Gwen Keyes Fleming has only held her position for a year, and this was her second visit to eastern Kentucky. She says any decisions the agency makes about mining permits will be governed by science and the rule of law and not based solely on testimonials from either side of the debate.