Tour of region by EPA sparks controversy

By: Kendall Downing Email
By: Kendall Downing Email

It's a visit that now has lots of people in our area talking. Regional administrators from the Environmental Protection Agency have made a number of stops in Eastern Kentucky in the past couple of days.

Those from the EPA are calling it an "environmental justice" tour. Thursday they were in Whitesburg, and Friday they stopped in Lynch.

In the corner of Harlan County, some residents are putting up a fight to keep surface mining away from parts of Benham and Lynch.

"To try to save our mountains and our water," said Stanley Sturgill, with Kentuckians for the Commonwealth.

"We're opposed to strip mining within a quarter mile of the city," said Taylor Hall, Lynch Mayor.

Friday morning, Gwen Keyes Fleming, Regional Administrator of the EPA's fourth region, listened to concerned residents, former residents, and current leaders.

"We want to make sure that our waters are protected, and so we are trying to limit and certainly minimize the level of pollution that occurs," said Fleming.

At issue here are two permits for surface mines near the city of Lynch.

Federal officials said they could not discuss those permits at this time. Those at the meeting said they are not against coal. Many of them have worked underground.

"If they can come up with more jobs to support the people that are out of work around here in underground mining, then that's what I'm for," said Stanley Sturgill.

They want the history of the area to be preserved, and other opportunities to be created.

"You can get more coal, more jobs underground," said Benny Massey, of Lynch.

Keyes Fleming told Mountain News the EPA is not against coal.

"What the administrator and president have always said is that we are trying to prevent the pollution that results," said Fleming.

It's important to point out that nobody at the meeting today spoke out in favor of surface mining. EPA officials said they would likely be back in the area.

But many state and federal lawmakers are blasting the EPA because of this visit.

Mountain News has heard from lawmakers in both parties who are furious with the EPA. They, along with many media outlets across the state, claim they had no idea these EPA officials planned to be in our region.

It was the main topic of discussion during an energy subcommittee meeting in Frankfort.

You can read many of their responses listed with this story.

We heard from many lawmakers in both parties who are furious with the EPA.

They, along with many media outlets across the state, claim they had no idea these EPA officials planned to be in our region.

It was the main topic of discussion during an energy subcommittee meeting in Frankfort.

“My problem with the federal EPA is that I think they have an agenda and I think they are tied to groups that have an agenda and I think that is flat wrong for a federal agency to have a drawn opinion without hearing a cross-section of views and opinions come from everyone,”
House Democratic Floor Leader Rocky Adkins said.

“I have miners getting laid off every week. They're killing this industry and they're killing this commonwealth,” State Representative Fitz Steele said.

I continue to be disappointed by the EPA and their actions toward Kentucky’s coal industry. I have always believed that you play fair and work together, particularly when the issue impacts the livelihood of so many people. The abrupt “under the cloak of darkness” method of slinking into our region – without notifying the public which depends on the coal industry for survival – to stage meetings and site visits with people sympathetic to only one side of this issue is mind boggling to me. It’s bad enough that the elected officials weren’t invited – to snub our people is just terrible. I do feel that in my position I have worked cooperatively to engage the coal industry with other businesses and industry across the state to meet common ground. This stunt of the EPA is a slap in the face to me, my constituents and all of Kentucky,” Representative Leslie Combs said.

Kentucky Senate Majority Leader Robert Stivers (R-Manchester) released the following statement in reaction to news that EPA officials were in his district Thursday and today to speak to residents about the impacts of mining in Kentucky.
“Stivers stated, “I was shocked to have to read in the paper that the EPA was visiting my hometown. If they truly wanted to hear the impact that mining has produced, they could have, as a courtesy, invited legislators and other elected officials. It is apparent they don’t want to have both sides of the story told. Thousands of good paying jobs in eastern Kentucky are dependent on the mining of coal. The EPA announced late Thursday evening a series of community meetings in eastern Kentucky with high-ranking EPA officials. The actions of the Obama administration and the non-elected politburo of the EPA have attempted to paint a picture of widespread support for their heavy-handed, job killing policies that have squeezed the lifeblood out of the mining industry. The EPA has long overstepped their legal authority with their continued attacks on mining. This administration has escalated what was once deemed a “War on Coal” into a “War on Jobs” Kentuckians are now painfully aware of the damage that the federal government can inflict with the red tape of regulations. The time has come for all Kentuckians to stand up to these Washington bureaucrats and tell them to listen to the voices of the many families, including my own, that understand the many positive impacts that mining has made and continues to make in eastern Kentucky. Conducting meetings with hand–picked, liberal environmental extremists just to hear their own views parroted back, is proof that their policies are failures and we, as Americans, deserve so much more.”

The Chairman of Coal Operators and Associates Charles Baird said, "I find it extremely disturbing that Lisa Jackson, head of the Environmental Protection Agency, would send members of her staff into eastern Kentucky to study the purported environmental effects of coal mining with people who admittedly would like nothing more than to shut coal mining down completely. There was no public notice of this visit, other than to a hand-picked liberal radio station in Louisville."

U.S. Congressman Harold "Hal" Rogers (KY-05) issued the following statement in response to the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) unannounced tour of Southern and Eastern Kentucky. The regional administrator, Gwen Keyes Fleming and EPA administrator, Lisa Jackson’s senior advisor for environmental justice, Lisa Garcia, along with staff members from the Region 4 office reportedly made stops in Manchester, Vicco, Whitesburg and Lynch.

"I'm thrilled EPA is suddenly taking an interest in southern and eastern Kentucky. I'm hopeful this means my many congressional requests for answers, Congress' repeated calls for restraint, the petitions of coal miners to stop the attacks, and pleas from mining families to end the permit moratorium will be addressed. Unfortunately, this looks like a blatantly political listening tour from people they only want to hear from. I invite them to stay a little longer, now that we know they’re in town, so they can talk with water quality experts on how our region's water is improving and tour the reclaimed surface mines that are now home to wild turkey, deer and elk. They could also visit the hospitals, shopping centers and other economic development projects that are now sitting on flat land. Before they leave, I know several thousand coal miners that have been waiting for a chance to chat with them about their livelihoods, their families’ well-being and the job-killing regulations of this Administration."

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