A court decision that's expected later this year could decide the fate of a proposed Western Kentucky surface coal mine, and potentially set a precedent for other mines in Daviess County. For the past two years, residents and environmental groups have been campaigning against the mine, arguing it will irreparably damage the environment and erode nearby residents’ quality of life. And they’re using a unique, and unexpected, tool to fight the mine.
Carlin Gregory is driving his pickup truck up Russell Road, in the tiny town of Utica near Owensboro. He’s surveying the footprint of a surface mine proposed for the area.
“Everything you see in front of you now is going to go,” he says. “That house is going to go—they’ve signed with them. So they’ll be coming around that knoll, everything on the right hand side here you can see.”
He’s talking about the Pleasant Ridge Mine, a project that would cover about 600 acres at the edge of Daviess County, and directly abut Camp Pennyroyal, a Girl Scout camp. Coal company Western Kentucky Minerals estimates it can mine about 2 million tons of coal there over the next decade.
On one side of the road, there are people who have signed leases with the company. They're getting money for agreeing to let the company use the land for mining. Christina Taylor is on this side. Her husband’s family has owned the land for nearly a century.
“We’ve paid taxes all these years and owned it and I think it’s no more than right for us to make a decision whether we want to mine or not,” Taylor says.
But on the other side are people like Carlin Gregory who won’t profit from the venture, but will have to deal with declining property values, noise and dust.
“It’s very irritating, you know, to think that what you’ve done, it’s just all gone just because somebody wants to come in and strip mine,” he says.
And that’s the conflict that’s been going on for years in Utica. It’s similar to the fight that happens whenever a new coal mine is proposed .But Daviess County is a bit different, and the mine’s opponents have a unique tool. They’re using one of the least sexy bureaucratic hurdles possible: zoning regulations.
In almost all of Kentucky’s counties, the decision whether to permit a coal mine falls to state and federal agencies. But Daviess is one of several counties with county-wide zoning. Land has to be zoned for mining before companies can file for permits.
In 2012, the Daviess County Planning Commission approved the rezoning for the Pleasant Ridge Mine. That decision was appealed to the county fiscal court, where it was upheld.
Judge-Executive Al Mattingly says he knows some residents are concerned about the mine…
“…but it’s legal. And if they meet the requirements of the state and meet the requirements of the county, do you deny what is legal?”
But the mine’s opponents say it’s not legal. Carlin Gregory and four others have filed a lawsuit appealing the planning board’s zoning decision, arguing there wasn’t due process of law, and the board made its decision based on an independent investigation by its chairman that wasn’t subject to cross examination. (Their arguments are laid out in this brief.) That case is currently before the Daviess Circuit Court.
The fight over Pleasant Ridge is just the beginning, and it's a beginning that could block future coal mines in Daviess County. Both sides say it’s about something bigger than this one coal mine.
Christina Taylor will get a dollar-fifty for every ton of coal mined on her land. But she says the community will be strengthened, too.
“Everybody benefits from this,” she says. “Everybody heats their house from it, that makes employment. Everywhere you turn there’s employment for people to make a living. And that’s what I don’t understand. When people want to be negative, ‘well if it don’t benefit me, then I don’t want it.’ But it’s going to benefit everybody!”
Western Kentucky Minerals estimates the mine will employ about 25 people directly, plus ancillary economic benefits to nearby businesses. Taylor sees the project as inevitable: someone will come and mine the coal eventually, so why not now?
But the mine’s opponents are taking a longer view. The Sierra Club has been waging a campaign against coal-fired power plants, with a goal of reducing local pollution and the effects of climate change. The group’s organizers see stopping the Pleasant Ridge mine as one step toward their overall goal of moving the region away from coal.
There are more than a dozen coal-fired power plants within a 50 mile radius of Owensboro, and Sierra Club Pennyrile group chair Rick Fowler says tapping those underground coal reserves in Utica will only contribute to the larger problem.
“The many are suffering for the good of the few in this battle,” Fowler says. “The people that own the coal mines and the money interests, they’re gaining and the rest of us are losing. If coal were the only way to produce electricity, I might have to rethink my position. But coal isn’t the only way to produce electricity.”
A decision in the case is expected later this year.