Abandoned mines and poor oversight worsened Kentucky flooding, attorneys say & More news

 

As japanese Kentuckians proceed to seek for lacking family members, muck out their houses and put together for extra rain, they’re starting to ask who could possibly be at fault for this previous week’s lethal flooding and whether or not it was a pure catastrophe or one brought on by the coal mines which have drastically reshaped and scarred the panorama.

Compacted dust, destroyed mountaintops and deforestation in japanese Kentucky have usually been left ignored by the coal firms that mined there, regardless of authorized necessities that they try to return the land to its pure state when mining concludes. In current a long time, that spurned duty has, at occasions, turned heavy rains into floods and brought on native residents who as soon as counted on mining for jobs and prosperity to deliver litigation in opposition to their former employers in Appalachian courtrooms.

Lawyers who’ve pursued these instances up to now stated it’s nonetheless too early to pursue a case in the newest flooding, as research must be carried out and claimants contacted, however curiosity in holding somebody to account for the misplaced houses and at the very least 37 useless is rising.

“It may be too early to tell, but I’ve received a couple phone calls already,” stated Ned Pillersdorf, a Kentucky lawyer in Prestonburg who has efficiently sued coal firms for flood injury up to now. “No one is denying the amount of rain we had — it truly was a 1,000 year event — but did the strip mines contribute? Absolutely.”

Kentucky, notably the japanese mountains, are affected by deserted coal mines. Many are a results of strip mining or mountaintop elimination mining, the latter a way by which mining firms use explosives to blast off a mountain’s summit to get to the coal inside.

Pillersdorf, whose residence was flooded, famous that the areas worst hit in his county are those closest to the strip mines.

“It is obviously just a clear slam dunk in terms of corporate irresponsibility,” stated Alex Gibson, the manager director of Appalshop, the tradition and training heart in Whitesburg that was hit by greater than 6 ft of water. “And of how we can predict an outcome and ignore all the signs along the way until the tragedy happens and then act like, ‘Yeah, but we didn’t see it coming. It was God’s work.'”

The Kentucky Coal Association, which represents the state’s mining operations, didn’t instantly reply to a request for remark.

The lack of the pure ridge strains, vegetation and bushes, and the cracks within the mountains which might be largely owned by firms usually funnels rainwater into the skinny valleys, or low-lying hollows, the place most japanese Kentuckians make their houses.

Without these pure protections, regional flooding has grown as local weather change brings new ranges of precipitation up from the Gulf Coast to Appalachia.

“They’re saying it’s a natural disaster, but I’m sorry. This is a disaster that was made by a whole bunch of mining that’s been going on for the past 40 years,” said Jack Spadero, the former director of the National Mine Health and Safety Academy who has testified as an expert witness in numerous coal mine lawsuits in recent years. “It has changed the landscape of eastern Kentucky dramatically.”

‘Like pulling teeth’

The Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act of 1977, or SMCRA, was a federal regulation that was supposed to prevent coal companies from leaving abandoned mines behind. The law required mine owners to reclaim the land and return it to its natural form as much as possible. In the ensuing 45 years, many companies have avoided that work and many states in the region, like Kentucky, turned a blind eye to it.

Now, there are more than 2,800 entries for Kentucky in the national inventory of known-abandoned mine land, according to a Department of Interior database, and much of it is located in the state’s eastern hill country. Experts also said that the number in the inventory is likely a conservative figure and that recent coal company bankruptcies have made it more difficult to pursue accountability.

SMCRA required every state to enforce the financial responsibility and reclamation obligation of the coal mine operators in their state. While some states required mining companies to pay reclamation costs upfront, others — like Kentucky — allowed them to put up a bond for the potential costs. In the past, small companies in Kentucky were allowed to create a pooled fund, while larger ones were able to self-bond, but the majority were done through a third party.

“There are surety firms which might be holding these bonds, that are woefully insufficient to do the actual reclamation work, however many are even preventing to show over these bonds, so it is like pulling enamel,” said Joe Childers, who has litigated cases for vulnerable Kentuckians against major energy companies for more than 40 years. “In the meantime, nothing will get executed. The hillsides are scarred, they don’t seem to be reclaimed and you get a rain occasion like final week and you may have horrible flooding. And it was completely exacerbated by the dearth of correct regulation.”

Image: An aerial view eastern Kentucky on July 30, 2022.
An aerial view eastern Kentucky on July 30.Kentucky National Guard / via AFP – Getty Images

Since 2013, Kentucky requires companies to pay into a single bond pool through what essentially serves as a tax on a certain amount of acreage or coal tonnage. But the difference between the liabilities that were left behind and the trust fund the state created in 2013 has grown significantly.

John Mura, a spokesperson for The Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet, said by email that the state agency was “engaged right now organizing cabinet aid” to the affected areas and declined to comment further.

About 408,000 Kentuckians live within one mile of abandoned mine land, the regional think tank Ohio River Valley institute estimated last year, and it will cost nearly $1.2 billion to remediate it. As of 2020, the Kentucky fund had about $52 million in it, according to a state report.

Kentucky spent a little more than $1.5 million from its reclamation fund, according to the 2022 executive budget. The state is expected to receive an additional $75 million this year as part of President Joe Biden’s infrastructure law, which dedicated $11.3 billion toward abandoned mine reclamation over the next 15 years. Last year, the state received $9 million from the federal government.

The new sum is huge, but “it is only a drop within the bucket” to address the need for communities across Appalachia, said Sarah Surber, a public health professor at Wayne State University who has studied environmental justice issues in the region and practiced law there for more than a decade.

“How do you prioritize [the funding]?” she said. “You have so many which have been left deserted or sitting in limbo, you may have extra coal mine firm bankruptcies anticipated, so how do you resolve what mines get reclaimed and what does that imply for communities and their safety when it comes to air pollution and flooding points?”

Lawsuit challenges

Kevin Thompson, an attorney whose work earned national attention for challenging powerful coal CEO Don Blankenship, said the images he saw out of Kentucky this past week gave him flashbacks to the 2009 King Coal case he worked on in West Virginia and the photographs he took of the days after the flooding that happened there.

That case brought 20 low-income families against four powerful companies that Thompson argued were responsible for two flooding incidents that washed away people’s homes.

 

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