Kentucky Approaches Coal Industry with a Carrot and a Stick

Matt Wasson, Appalachian Voices
Stream downhill from a mountaintop removal mine in Magoffin County, Kentucky.

In April 2010, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced a landmark decision to create new strict water quality guidelines that would minimize valley fills at mountaintop removal sites. These guidelines are not written into law and may be overturned by a future administration, but they represent a significant victory for those who are trying to clean up the mess left behind by the coal industry.

What has garnered less attention is the fact that Kentucky adopted a new set of guidelines months earlier, aimed at tackling the very same problem. The guidelines resulted from a collaboration in 2009 between the Kentucky Resources Council, the Kentucky Department for Natural Resources, the Office of Surface Mining, the Army Corps of Engineers, and the coal industry. The Kentucky Resources Council has been actively engaged in this issue for years and had announced its intention to sue regulators for not enforcing reclamation rules if changes were not made. Adhering to these guidelines will allow the coal companies to avoid expensive lawsuits, providing a significant incentive for cooperation. The protocol is now required for all pending and new requests for authorization made to the Louisville District of the Army Corps of Engineers and EPA Region IV.

Tom FitzGerald, executive director of the Kentucky Resources Council (and a key negotiator of the guidelines), has referred to this as “probably the single most important change in mining practices in many years.” It is also a rare example of environmental groups working in concert with the coal industry and stakeholders in government to lessen the impact of surface mining. While these kinds of negotiations may not garner the media attention that the anti–mountaintop removal movement does, they are equally vital in the fight against dirty coal.