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Residents in Coal Country Fight Opening of New Mine

Environment: As old seams are played out, companies look nearer towns for new supplies.


LICK CREEK, Ky. — Susan Skeens and other folks in Lick Creek sprang into action when a coal company moved to open a mine near their homes in this little Appalachian community where the loudest sound at night is often the mournful call of a whippoorwill.

"Everything I have will be covered with black dust," said Skeens, whose home is some 250 feet from the proposed entrance to the mine.

Lick Creek's battle to stop the project may be the first of many to come in Kentucky as older coal mines are played out and mining companies move closer to populated areas to dig.

In the past, Kentucky's coal was typically mined deep in the mountains where coal seams were thickest and easiest to dig out.

But after a century of heavy mining, "the easy coal is gone," said Tom FitzGerald, an environmental attorney representing Lick Creek residents. "Coal seams that once were considered marginal or problematic now are being mined. Often, they're close to homes."

Roy Mullins, a former coal miner now leading the charge to keep Clintwood Elkhorn Mining Co. from opening the mine in Lick Creek, said residents across the Appalachian coalfields have a vested interest in the case.

"It could be their community next," he said. "We're not trying to shut down a coal company, and we're not trying to put anyone out of work. But it's time for the communities to take a stand."

Residents of Lick Creek, a community of about 50 homes in a hollow in eastern Kentucky, have staved off the TECO Coal subsidiary for two years by obtaining a state ruling that mining would damage well water.

But TECO spokeswoman Laura Plumb said now that public water lines have been extended into the community, the state no longer has any reason to stop the underground mine from opening.

Residents disagree. They fear the dust, noise and other environmental effects.

Coal mining is a $3.5-billion industry in Kentucky, which ranks third, behind Wyoming and West Virginia, in tons mined. Kentucky's 15,500 miners produced 131 million tons in 2000 and made more than $678 million in wages, according to the Kentucky Coal Assn.

Bill Marcum, association vice president, said coal companies try their best to be good neighbors.

He said the state does not allow coal companies to begin mining until it is reasonably assured that there would be no harm to residential areas. If harm does result, Marcum said, government agencies can step in, imposing fines or even ordering mines to shut down.

Clashes between homeowners and industry are often attributed to burgeoning populations and the spread of development into the countryside. But that does not appear to be the case in Appalachia's coal country.

The population of eastern Kentucky's impoverished coal-producing counties dropped significantly during the 1990s, with most of the decline attributed to an exodus of people looking for work in urban areas.

Other communities across the region are having to live with mines edging closer to homes.

Residents of McRoberts blame a nearby mountaintop mine for recurrent flash flooding. Others complain that blasting shakes their homes like daily earthquakes. In the small community of Ary, residents complain that dust covers their homes, furniture, even the trees. Earlier this month, authorities evacuated 12 homes at Brushy when blasting sent rocks down a mountainside; one boulder destroyed a mobile home.

Charles Howard said a mine near Viper is causing his house to sink, and subjects his family to the roar of machinery and the beeping of heavy equipment moving in reverse.

"It's miserable," he said. "When I first bought property here, it was just so peaceful, so quiet. Now you can't sit outside in the evening. The noise is totally irritating."

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