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Kentucky’s Leaders Are Siding With the Coal Industry, and Its Poorest Residents Are Paying a Price

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Joanna Eberts

This story was produced in partnership with the Center for Public Integrity.

Todd Bentley stepped onto his porch and saw the storm swelling the creek near his home. If this kept up all night, he feared, the creek could overflow its banks and wash out his neighborhood’s road. He headed out into the rain with his teenage son to secure his mother’s trailer across the street.

In minutes—before they could finish—they were up to their waists in floodwater. They had to clamber into the hills to escape. There they crouched for hours in their family cemetery, lightning striking around them, the water below them carrying cars, ripping up pavement and lifting homes off foundations.

“He started crying on me, it was happening so fast, and I, literally, I shook him,” Bentley recalled. “I said, ‘Son, listen. We’re fighting for our lives now—you’ve got to keep it together.’”

Nine years after they survived the flood, storms fill Bentley with dread. He watches the creek. He paces.

What if it happens again?

Todd Bentley stands in the hills near Harless Creek.

Rachel Leven / Center for Public Integrity

Flash floods have troubled Kentucky for decades. Now, extreme rainstorms are worsening with climate change, increasing the odds of more disasters like the one Bentley’s community endured. For Kentucky’s poorest residents, the people living in flood-prone hollows with surface mines nearby, that means an ever-present threat to both life and hard-won possessions.

But the state isn’t on the front lines of the fight against global warming. Its leaders, concerned about the impact on coal, have positioned themselves on the other side of that battle.

That’s created a dangerous and expensive disconnect—and not just in Kentucky, a Center for Public Integrity analysis shows.

Nine of the 10 states that emit the most heat-trapping carbon dioxide pollution per person helped block the Obama-era Clean Power Plan, which would have been the largest effort by the U.S. government to limit climate change. Four of those states, including Kentucky, were among those most often hit by disasters in the past 10 years—generally powerful storms, which science shows are worsening as the planet warms.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency said it sent nearly $2 billion in taxpayer aid to those four states over the same period to clean up and prepare for future hits. That accounts for two of FEMA’s major programs, just part of the disaster aid flowing to states.

Kentucky alone received more than $530 million from 2009 to 2018. Severe storms and floods accounted for most of its 16 federally declared major disasters. Half of those battered Pike County, home to a quarter of the state’s active coal mines in 2018 and to Bentley’s neighborhood.

The choices that state leaders make now will have life-changing consequences for generations, experts warn. Michael Hendryx, a public health professor at Indiana University Bloomington who studies environmental justice, said he wonders whether officials promoting inaction truly think global warming is not an emergency or are simply making a cynical bet that they won’t be harmed.

“They’ll be the people who have the money and power to defend themselves as climate change gets worse,” he said. “If we don’t do something really powerful and really meaningful soon, then the people who live in vulnerable areas … will suffer the most.”

In some parts of Kentucky, residents say they believe the state’s treatment of coal has increased the risk of disasters in yet another way. Consider the Harless Creek flood that threatened Bentley’s life. Water rushing down the hills from mines—including one the state had allowed to operate on an expired permit—intensified damage from the pounding rain, according to an engineering study prepared for a lawsuit. Afterward, the state cited two companies for violating laws intended to protect people living nearby.

The Kentucky governor’s office didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment. John Mura, a spokesman for the state’s mine regulator, the Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet, wrote in an email that the agency concluded the mines above Harless Creek did not contribute to flood damage. But both the agency and the companies settled lawsuits filed by people living along the creek.

Todd Bentley’s family and neighbor sit at the hair salon owned by his mother, Janie Caudill, on Harless Creek Road in June. From right to left are Janie and Bob Caudill, Judi Casalino, Bentley and Lonnie Matney, their neighbor.

Rachel Leven / Center for Public Integrity

The state now has a system in place to prevent companies from mining with expired permits, Mura wrote.

“The Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet has worked with mining companies to increase safety practices while it has been extremely diligent in holding permit holders accountable to their permit obligations,” he wrote.

Harless Creek was one of at least three cases in Kentucky in which engineering studies found that inappropriately operated or cleaned-up mines worsened flood damage, said Jack Spadaro, a former federal mine regulator who served as an expert witness for plaintiffs in lawsuits about those incidents. The floods collectively killed at least one person and destroyed the homes or belongings of more than 250 residents, according to news reports.

But the problem is far more widespread than just those three cases, Spadaro said. And the areas around mines tend to be poor, making recovery much harder for the people living there.

“When they lose their house,” he said, “they lose everything.”

In September, Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin stepped up to the lectern in a historic downtown Louisville hotel to deliver the keynote speech at an energy conference for leaders from southern states.

Days before, dozens of countries and businesses committed to swift action to stem the climate crisis by reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Demonstrators turned out in cities around the world, including Louisville, to demand that elected officials do better. But at the Louisville conference, sponsored by oil, gas, coal and electric-utility interests, speakers suggested that the causes of global warming are uncertain. Bevin called people pushing for climate action irrational. His message: Leave fossil fuels alone.

“We are prematurely abandoning our [fossil fuel] assets for what I feel—and I think it’s probably shared by others—may be misguided reasons,” said Bevin, a Republican whose state is the country’s fifth-largest coal producer.

In fact, the science is clear: What’s happening to the planet is different from the natural variability of past eras, when Earth gradually warmed and cooled as its orbit shifted. The world has never in recorded history been so warm, or warmed this fast, U.S. and international research shows. Most of that change occurred in the past 35 years, triggered by decades of heat-trapping, man-made emissions, the federal government says. Burning fossil fuels such as coal is the primary cause, according to decades of scientific studies.


© Mother Jones