Eastern Kentuckians are starting to wonder who might be to blame for this past week’s deadly flooding and whether it was a natural disaster or one caused by the coal mines that have drastically altered and scarred the landscape. They are still searching for missing loved ones, cleaning out their homes, and preparing for more rain.
Despite being required by law to try to restore the land to its natural state after mining is finished, coal firms that mined in eastern Kentucky frequently ignored compacted earth, ruined mountaintops, and deforestation. That disregarded duty has occasionally caused heavy rains to turn into floods in recent years, and it has also prompted locals who once relied on mining for employment and affluence to file lawsuits against their former employers in Appalachian courts.
The interest in holding someone accountable for the lost homes and at least 37 fatalities is growing, according to attorneys who have previously pursued these cases. However, they said it is still too early to pursue a case in the most recent flooding because studies must be completed and claimants must be contacted.
Ned Pillersdorf, a Kentucky attorney in Prestonburg who has previously been successful in suing coal firms for flood damage, said, “It may be too early to tell, but I’ve already received a couple phone calls.” “No one disputes the amount of rain we received; it was certainly a once in a thousand year event. But did the strip mines play a role?” Absolutely.”
Abandoned coal mines are abundant in Kentucky, particularly in the eastern mountains. Many are the product of mountaintop removal mining, which involves using explosives to blow off a mountain’s summit in order to access the coal inside.
The places in his county that have been struck the hardest are those that are closest to the strip mines, according to Pillersdorf, whose home was inundated.
In terms of corporate negligence, it is “clearly simply a slam dunk,” according to Alex Gibson, the executive director of Appalshop, the culture and education center in Whitesburg that was flooded with more than 6 feet of water. And of how we might foresee a result while ignoring all the warning signs up until the tragedy occurs, then claim that we were blind to it. It was created by God.
When contacted for comment, the Kentucky Coal Association, which represents the state’s mining operations, did not immediately answer.
Rainwater frequently finds its way into the narrow valleys or low-lying hollows where the majority of eastern Kentuckians live as a result of the disappearance of the mountains’ natural ridge lines, flora, and trees, as well as the mountain crevices that are mostly held by corporations.
Due to climate change, increased quantities of precipitation are being brought up from the Gulf Coast to Appalachia, increasing regional flooding in the absence of these natural safeguards.
They claim that it is a natural calamity, yet I apologize. According to Jack Spadero, a former director of the National Mine Health and Safety Academy who has recently testified as an expert witness in a number of litigation involving coal mines, this calamity was caused by extensive mining that has been going on for the previous 40 years. Eastern Kentucky’s landscape has seen a significant alteration as a result.
As if pulling teeth
A federal law known as the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act of 1977, or SMCRA, was designed to stop coal firms from leaving abandoned mines behind. The law mandated mine owners to reclaim the area and, to the greatest extent feasible, restore it to its natural state. In the subsequent 45 years, many businesses avoided that work, and several states in the area, including Kentucky, did nothing about it.
According to a database maintained by the Department of Interior, Kentucky presently has more than 2,800 entries in the national inventory of known abandoned mine lands, with the majority of them being situated in the state’s eastern hill region. The number in the inventory is probably a conservative estimate, according to experts, and recent bankruptcy of coal companies have made it more challenging to hold coal companies accountable.
Every state was mandated by the SMCRA to enforce the financial accountability and reclamation duties of the coal mine operators within its borders. Some states, like Kentucky, enabled mining corporations to post a bond to cover possible expenditures, while others forced them to pay reclamation fees up front. Small businesses in Kentucky used to be able to establish a pooled fund, while bigger businesses may self-bond, although the majority of transactions were conducted through a third party.
It’s like pulling teeth, according to Joe Childers, who has been suing powerful energy firms on behalf of disadvantaged Kentuckians for more than 40 years. “There are surety companies holding these bonds, which are woefully inadequate to conduct the real restoration job,” he said. “In the interim, nothing is accomplished. You get a rain event like last week and you get tremendous flooding because the slopes are damaged and haven’t been reclaimed. And the absence of adequate regulation only made things worse.
On July 30, an aerial view of eastern Kentucky.
National Guard of Kentucky via AFP – Getty Images
Since 2013, Kentucky has mandated that businesses contribute to a single bond pool by what is basically a tax on a specific amount of land or coal tonnage. However, there is now a sizable gap between the liabilities that were left behind and the trust fund the state established in 2013.
The Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet’s John Mura declined to speak further, stating that the state organization was currently organizing cabinet aid to the affected communities.
According to the regional think tank Ohio River Valley Institute estimated last year,, 408,000 Kentuckians live within one mile of abandoned mine site, and remediating it will cost close to $1.2 billion. According to a state report, the Kentucky fund had $52 million in it as of 2020.
According to the 2022 executive budget, Kentucky used slightly more than $1.5 million of its reclamation money. A further $75 million is anticipated for the state this year as a result of President Joe Biden’s infrastructure law, which allotted $11.3 billion for mine reclamation over the following 15 years. The federal government gave the state $9 million last year.
The new amount is significant, but “it’s just a drop in the bucket” compared to what communities in Appalachia need, according to Sarah Surber, a Wayne State University professor of public health who has worked as a lawyer and researched environmental justice issues in the area for more than ten years.
How do you rank the funding, she asked. How do you choose which mines get reclaimed and what does that mean for communities and their protection in terms of pollution and flooding issues? There are so many that have been left abandoned or in limbo, and more bankruptcy of coal mining companies are expected.
The images coming out of Kentucky this past week reminded Kevin Thompson, an attorney whose work garnered national attention for taking on the powerful coal CEO Don Blankenship, of the King Coal case he worked on in West Virginia in 2009 and the photos he took of the days following the flooding that occurred there.
Twenty low-income families were involved in the action, which Thompson claimed was brought against four large corporations because of two flooding disasters that destroyed homes.