Abandoned mines and poor inspection worsened Kentucky floods, lawyers say

as eastern Kentucky people continue search for missing loved onesGet out of your homes and prepare for more rain, they’re starting to ask who’s to blame Last week’s deadly floods And was it a natural calamity or was it caused by coal mines, which have changed and worsened the landscape to a great extent.

Grime, eroded mountains and deforestation in eastern Kentucky are often ignored by coal companies mining there, despite legal requirements that they attempt to return the land to its natural state when mining is finished. . In recent decades, that denied responsibility has turned, at times, heavy rains into floods and local residents, who once relied on mining for jobs and prosperity, litigation in Appalachian courts against their former employers. Used to do

Lawyers who have pursued these cases in the past said it is still too early to pursue the case in the most recent flood, as studies need to be done and claimants have been contacted, but there is no way to search for lost homes. interested in keeping and at least 37 dead is growing.

“It’s too early to tell, but I’ve already had a few phone calls,” said Ned Pilersdorf, a Kentucky attorney in Prestenberg who has successfully sued coal companies for flood damages in the past. “No one is denying the amount of rain we have – it was actually a 1,000-year event – but did the strip mines contribute? Absolutely.”

Kentucky, especially the Eastern Mountains, is littered with abandoned coal mines. Many strips are the result of mining or mountaineering miningThe latter is a method in which mining companies use explosives to detonate coal from the top of a mountain to bring it in.

Pilersdorf, whose home was flooded, said the worst-affected areas in his county are those closest to the strip mines.

“It’s obviously just a clear slam dunk in terms of corporate irresponsibility,” said Alex Gibson, executive director of Appleshop, the culture and education center in Whitesburg, which was hit by more than 6 feet of water. “And how can we predict an outcome and ignore all the signs along the way until tragedy strikes and then act, ‘Yeah, but we didn’t see it coming. It was God’s work.'”

The Kentucky Coal Association, which represents the state’s mining operations, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Loss of natural ridge lines, vegetation and trees, and cracks in mountains that are largely owned by companies often funnel rainwater into thin valleys, or low-lying areas, where most Eastern Kentuckians make their homes. .

Without these natural protections, regional flooding has increased as new levels of precipitation have risen due to climate change. Gulf Coast to Appalachia,

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

‘Like pulling teeth’

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

According to the Department of the Interior database, the now-national list of known abandoned mine lands contains more than 2,800 entries for Kentucky, and much of it is located in the state’s eastern mountainous country. Experts also said the number in inventory is likely to be a conservative figure and the recent bankruptcy of the coal company has made pursuing accountability more difficult.

The SMCRA requires each state to implement the financial responsibility and reform obligation of coal mine operators in their state. While some states required mining companies to pay recapture costs in advance, others – such as Kentucky – allowed them to put up a bond for potential costs. In the past, small companies in Kentucky were allowed to form a pooled fund, while larger companies were able to self-bond, but most were done through third parties.

“There are surety companies that are holding these bonds, which are insufficient to do real reform work, but there are many people fighting to turn those bonds around too, so it’s like pulling teeth,” Joe Childers said. Said, who has litigated litigation for Kentuckian against major energy companies for more than 40 years. “Meanwhile, nothing is done. The hills are scarred, they haven’t been reclaimed and you get a rain event like last week and you have terrible floods. And that’s entirely because of the lack of proper regulation.” was over.”

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

Since 2013, Kentucky requires companies to make payments into a single bond pool, which essentially acts as a tax on a certain amount of acres or coal tonnage. But the gap between the liabilities left behind and the trust fund created in 2013 has widened significantly.

John Mura, a spokesman for The Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet, said by email that the state agency is “right now organizing cabinet assistance” in the affected areas and declined to comment further.

About 408,000 Kentuckians live within a mile of abandoned mine land, according to regional think tank Ohio River Valley Institute. estimated last year, And it would cost about $1.2 billion to fix. As of 2020, there were approximately $52 million in Kentucky funds, according to one state. report good,

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

The new amount is huge, but “it’s just a drop in the bucket” to meet the needs of communities in Appalachia, said Sarah Surber, a public health professor at Wayne State University who studies environmental justice issues in the region. and practiced law there. for more than a decade.

How do you prioritize [the funding]?” he said. “You have many that have been abandoned or sitting in limbo, you have more coal mine company fears of bankruptcy, so how do you decide which mines get reclaimed? And what does this mean in terms of communities and their safety regarding pollution and flooding issues?”

litigation challenges

Kevin Thompson, a lawyer whose work garnered national attention for challenging the mighty Coal CEO Don BlankenshipSaid that photos he saw from Kentucky last week reminded him of the 2009 King Cole case he worked on in West Virginia and photos he took there in the days after the floods.

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

Leave a Comment