Letter to the Editor: Tighter coal regulations maintain accountability, safety, environment



A recent letter gave three reasons why we should “leave coal alone.”

The first reason was that coal is an important part of Kentucky’s economy. It is indeed a necessary component of our current energy economy. It won’t be replaced soon. But this does not exempt the coal industry from criticism.

The author claimed that the mining regulations are arbitrary. But they are not. They are intended to ensure that coal is mined safely, and that it doesn’t damage the environment. I hope we all agree that these are worthy goals.

Regulation is an awkward way to achieve this. It would be far better if the coal companies did it right in the first place, or if the coal industry would police itself.

Most of the damage to health and the environment is local, so you would think that local entities would be more proactive and effective in requiring proper procedures.

On the other hand, having regulation done at the federal level has the advantages that it affects all coal producers equally (whereas a state that sets high standards puts itself at an economic disadvantage) and it protects people who are well downstream and downwind.

Requiring safe and environmentally proper mining does raise the price of coal and electricity, but this has to be weighed against the cost of injured miners, dirty water and unclean air.

Setting regulations entails finding the balance between cost and benefit. They say that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure; cleaning up a polluted stream or treating a miner with black lung disease is hard, and preventing these things is easier, but apparently people have to be told to do this.

The third point was that “the more control government has of an industry, the more prone to corruption politicians will be.” If government really is that easily suborned, “political science” is an oxymoron.

But actually the argument goes the other way. If corporations are going to try to corrupt government, they can’t be trusted to do the right thing on their own.

And while there are frequent stories in the newspaper about government officials on the take or bending the rules to favor friends, the point is that they have to leave a paper trail showing what happened, which greatly increases the likelihood that they will get caught. There aren’t many stories about coal companies behaving illegally because there is no public record to inspect (except what the regulations create), and thus no way to bring them to justice.

For example, coal companies are required to submit reports to the Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet, reporting on the quality of the water of streams that drain the sites they are mining.

Last fall an environmental group looked at the reports that had been submitted and discovered 20,000 violations of the Clean Water Act, including instances of falsified entries. Apparently, no one at the cabinet noticed.

The result is sure to be more rigid rules on reporting, since both the coal companies and the Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet were failing to do their duty. They will complain about the increasing number of “arbitrary regulations,” but it is a consequence of their own actions.

Joseph P. Straley

Physics and astronomy professor