Kentucky's Coal Cabinet

03/22/2011 03:39 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

There's a storm brewing in Kentucky among coal companies and state government. A coalition of environmental and citizen groups has been calling out some of the nation's biggest coal companies for egregious violations of the Clean Water Act -- violations numbering in the tens of thousands over just a few years. The strangest part? Every time the people have the goods on yet another lawbreaking operation, the Commonwealth steps in, sweetheart deal in hand, to insulate the coal barons from justice. If you're a Kentucky resident wondering whose interests your elected officials serve these days, you can now rest assured: it isn't yours.

In Kentucky, environmental protection of the commonwealth's precious natural resources and waterways is supposed to be handled by the Energy and Environment Cabinet (EEC). Unfortunately, there are a whole lot of energy company interests and not many environmental concerns locked away in that Cabinet; if you pried it open, you might find it filled with coal.

Industry running a state is nothing new. Poultry-industry giants like Perdue dictate Maryland's and Georgia's agricultural policies. King oil holds court in Alaska on everything that even touches on energy. But the influence of coal operators in Kentucky is something special. This is how far Kentucky is shamelessly willing to go: local senator Brandon Smith (R-Hazard), Chair of the Natural Resources and Energy Committee, just introduced a resolution to make Kentucky a coal company "sanctuary" where federal environmental laws and Environmental Protection Agency jurisdiction magically disappear. If Senator Smith gets his way, they'll be a regulatory wall around Kentucky to keep DC meddlers out of coal company activity that poisons local communities and their drinking water.

Perhaps Senator Smith's attempt to bar EPA from the Commonwealth arises from his lack of understanding that the Clean Water Act is every bit as much a law as any other law of the land, including labor laws. Like our environmental laws, the federal prohibition on child labor, enacted earlier in the 20th century, also inconvenienced the coal industry, taking away a much-used source of cheap labor. But you don't hear Senator Smith screaming that our Labor Department should be barred from Kentucky so mines can freely employ children once again. Sorry Senator, neither you nor your campaign funders get to pick which laws you adhere to and which ones you ignore.

More likely it's because Senator Smith, and many other mostly Republican politicians, have a general disregard for environmental laws these days. They somehow think that an environmental law is less of a law than other laws, that it can be ignored, circumvented or simply not enforced. They're not really laws, more like advisories. They read the Clean Water Act as saying: "It's illegal to discharge pollutants into waterways, unless you really want to. Then, you go right ahead." And that's the way Kentucky looks at environmental laws that attach to the coal industry.

Look at the Kentucky Coal Cabinet's actions this past October when environmentalists found tens-of-thousands of cases of false reporting -- violations of permits and monitoring requirements -- against ICG Knott County, ICG Hazard, and Frasure Creek Mining. Instead of letting the case go before a federal judge to decide the issue as federal law allows, the Cabinet swooped in to file their own handholding version of "enforcement": a gentle slap on the wrist for the coal companies that have done so much damage to Kentucky's natural resources. If you doubt that, consider that while Kentucky could have sought penalties of $25,000 per violation, per day, for ICG and Frasure Creek, they instead penalized these coal giants a paltry $204 and $281 per violation, respectively, totaling about $660,000 for 2,765 violations of the Clean Water Act. Compare that travesty with more substantive penalties recently announced by the state of West Virginia and Federal authorities against Arch Coal and Consol Energy of $4m and $5.5m respectively for violations of the Clean Water Act.

Even worse, when environmentalists asked to take part in the proceedings to ensure that the interests of citizens were properly protected, the Cabinet fought with all its might to keep them out and called their own citizens "unwarranted burdens." There's not enough room in Kentucky's Coal Cabinet for anything other than coal.

Another case has been filed by the same groups this month -- for many of the same type of bald-faced violations -- against Nally and Hamilton, Kentucky's fourth-largest producer of surface mine coal. In the next several weeks, we'll see whether the Cabinet lets the laws of the land play out the way Congress intended them to.

There's not enough room in this piece to debate coal and whether the dire and irrefutable impacts of its continued use on our air, water and health are worth the false economic benefits trumpeted by industry hacks. That debate is happening in many other arenas; the more thoughtful and informed it is, the worse coal industry practices look. This piece is about something much simpler and very American; a basic tenet upon which this country was founded - no one is above the laws of the land. No one, not any individual, government official, industry or corporation gets to exist outside our laws. To suggest that any law should be ignored or suspended for the sole benefit of coal company profits, as Senator Smith has done, is nothing less than, dare I say it?, un-American.