By Ryan Van Velzer
March 14, 2023 - The Kentucky arrow darter is a colorful little fish found only in the southeast part of the state, but pollution and sediment from coal mining have degraded its remaining habitat.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listed the species as threatened back in 2016 and protected nearly 250 miles of streams in eastern Kentucky. But under a bill moving through the Kentucky legislature, surface mining companies would more easily be able to get permits to dump pollution into those protected waterways.
Protections for the darter and other species included under the Endangered Species Act is one hurdle surface mining companies have to clear before the state’s Energy and Environment Cabinet will issue a new permit for pollution discharges.
Senate Bill 226 would make it easier for surface mining companies to receive the permits that allow them to dump their pollution into protected waterways.
The measure passed out of the Senate last week and the House Natural Resources Committee on Thursday. It now goes to the House floor for a vote – the final step in the legislative process before heading to Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear’s desk.
Republican Sen. Johnnie Turner of Harlan, the bill’s sponsor, says the proposal would help mining companies who struggle with environmental regulations.
“As it stands now, you can get a mine shut down and lose 300 and some employees just because of this timeline stuff, and it’s been a big problem,” he said.
One section of the bill would automatically grant surface mining companies a pollution discharge permit if the state Energy and Environment Cabinet takes longer than 60 days to respond.
Another section would shift the power balance in favor of mining companies seeking permits, granting them the presumption that they will maintain water quality for new permits as long as they already have a good track record of doing so.
The Kentucky Resources Council, an environmental advocacy organization, opposes the legislation, which they say would lower state requirements, allowing surfacing mining companies to dump more pollution into streams without accounting for water quality.
KRC Lobbyist Tom FitzGerald said that approach doesn’t account for the specific needs of critical habitats and would result in longer wait times for surface mining permits.
“If the goal is to streamline or expedite the permitting process, this will have exactly the opposite effect because it asks the [Energy and Environment Cabinet] to do things they cannot do under our delegated authority under the Clean Water Act,” FitzGerald said in the House committee Thursday.
Turner said he disagreed with FitzGerald and argued that he wrote the legislation in a way that protects companies and government.