Disastrous Disconnect: Coal, Climate And Catastrophe In Kentucky
This story is part of a series about the insufficient protections for vulnerable people as natural disasters worsen in a warming climate. The Center for Public Integrity and four partners – the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, High Country News, Ohio Valley ReSource and StateImpact Oklahoma – are contributing stories.
REGINA, Ky. — 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?
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.
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.
For two decades now, temperatures in the state have risen.
Scientists say the consequences include more heavy downpours. Kentucky storms dumping at least 2 inches of rain over a 24-hour period — storms that pose a flood risk — have increased 20 percent since the early 20th century, said Kenneth Kunkel, lead scientist for technical support for the federal government’s National Climate Assessment.
“We see very strong evidence for extreme rainfall increases across the eastern U.S.,” he said.
Kentucky disasters often hurt poorer areas. For example, more than half the counties hit by federally declared major disasters from 2009 to 2018 had larger shares of households receiving federal food aid than the state overall.
That’s a common problem nationwide, one the federal disaster relief system doesn’t effectively address, said Craig Fugate, a former FEMA administrator. Congress didn’t set up FEMA to account for inequalities that precede disasters, such as homelessness and poverty, he said.
“The system was built for the middle income,” Fugate said. “If you’re poor, the system is not designed to make you whole.”
In Kentucky, Bevin’s administration is basing its preparations for disasters on climate science, even as he casts doubt on it. A 2018 state flood risk assessment, citing a 2017 federal study about climate effects in the region, warns that flooding events are likely to become more frequent and severe.
At the same time, the state continues to push for the status quo on U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. In September, Bevin intervened in court to support the Trump administration’s “pro-coal” replacement to Obama’s climate rule — a substitute that projections by the independent research group Resources for the Future suggest would reduce U.S. climate-warming emissions just one-tenth of a percent by 2050.
Bevin is up for re-election Nov. 5. His opponent, Democrat Andy Beshear, acknowledges climate change is happening but also pushed for the demise of the Clean Power Plan — a rule put in place by the Obama administration — and has supported its replacement.
Planning for climate-worsened disasters, as Kentucky is doing, can save money and lives. Flooding is already the state’s “most frequent and costly natural hazard,” killing 41 people over a recent 11-year period and causing an average of $40 million in annual losses, according to the Kentucky Division of Emergency Management.
But simply planning won’t be enough, experts caution.
It will be impossible to protect people and infrastructure from climate change in the long term without also reining in — what scientists call mitigating — heat-trapping emissions, said Lynne Carter, a Louisiana State University adjunct professor.
“Right now, we’re … incrementally coping. We’re not even coping very well,” said Carter, a co-author of the most recent National Climate Assessment, released by the Trump administration. “If we don’t do any mitigation, the problem is going to just keep getting bigger and bigger and bigger.”
Kentucky isn’t the only state preparing for the very climate disasters its policies help fuel.
West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice, a Democrat-turned-Republican, leads a state that emits more carbon dioxide per person than all but two others; he says he doubts the science that man-made fossil fuel emissions are warming the planet.
Meanwhile, his emergency managers are planning for a future of more rain and landslides triggered by climate change.
In Nebraska, the state with the ninth-highest carbon dioxide emissions per person, Republican Gov. Pete Ricketts’ administration has questioned whether climate science is settled while relying on a hazard mitigation plan calling climate change “an increasingly important factor” in local risks.
Like the Kentucky governor’s office, Bevin’s campaign spokespeople did not respond to multiple requests for comment. A spokesman for Beshear, Bevin’s challenger and Kentucky’s attorney general, wrote in an email that all energy sources are needed to address the planet’s warming — he did not say how that would lower greenhouse gases — and the right strategy would provide jobs for Kentuckians.
“Mining plays an important role supporting Eastern and Western Kentucky families,” Sam Newton, the Beshear campaign spokesman, wrote in an email. “Andy is on Team Kentucky, which means he’ll fight policies that hurt Kentucky families and work with anyone to help Kentucky families.”
The offices of the West Virginia and Nebraska governors didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment.
There’s a cost to ignoring climate science. U.S. taxpayers already have begun paying it.
Seven states — all of which opposed the climate-focused Clean Power Plan — account for more than a third of FEMA spending to help communities rebuild after and adapt for natural disasters in the past 10 years, according to figures from the agency. Those states, including Texas and Florida, received $21 billion between them.
‘Ticking time bombs’
Small and seemingly benign, Harless Creek meanders beside a road that shares its name. Homes sit nearby between two mountains — Todd Bentley’s among them.
On a sunny day in June, his family gathered at his mother’s hair salon, a white-paneled house with a wooden porch that overlooks the creek.
Around a coffee table cluttered with newspaper clippings and photos of the flood, they remembered Bentley’s grandmother escaping up the mountain that night in 2010 in her pajamas, a quilt over her head. His mother, Janie Caudill, racing back from Tennessee, stopping only to pick up rubber boots. Residents shining flashlights across the creek to signal that they were alive.
The next day, Caudill’s uncle, Bill Blackburn, stopped by on the way to his house. He lived in the hollow and also hadn’t been there during the storm.
“He said, ‘Well, I’ve got to go home … I’ve got the keys right here in my pocket,’” Caudill remembered. “We didn’t have the heart to tell him that he didn’t have a door there to unlock.”
Pike County has a history of flash floods. Officials here cut a mountain in two in the 1970s so they could reroute the Levisa Fork of the Big Sandy River to avoid flooding, a $78 million operation that was one of the largest land movements in the Western hemisphere. But Harless Creek took everyone aback.
Seven inches of rain fell between 4 p.m. July 17, 2010, and 1 a.m. the next day. By 8:40 p.m., Harless Creek was over its banks, transforming into a torrent. The floodwaters damaged, destroyed and in some cases carried off more than 100 people’s property: homes, vehicles, sheds. In a county where nearly 30 percent of residents live in poverty, it represented an especially heavy loss.
The amount of rain the storm dumped was brutal, but Bentley and other residents suspected that nearby coal mines played a significant role in the flood. They hired lawyer Ned Pillersdorf, who asked an engineering firm to investigate.
The firm’s findings: The operations of two companies’ mines in the mountains above the neighborhood increased the size and speed of the flood. That’s because unstable dirt and rock surfaces exposed through mining sent more water downhill instead of absorbing it, Spadaro said. Forty-four percent more water rushed into the area, the firm concluded, increasing the “destructive energy of the flood waters.”
On behalf of the people with property damage, Pillersdorf sued both mines’ owners, Cambrian Coal and AEP Kentucky Coal. The businesses’ failure to follow mining rules worsened the flood and residents’ losses from the incident, he alleged in the lawsuit. The companies settled over the next two years, the amounts confidential.
Then Pillersdorf went after the party Bentley’s family thinks ultimately is at fault: the state of Kentucky.
First he sued the Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet, alleging the agency didn’t properly enforce mining rules — endangering residents — and demanding the state do its job. In 2014, the agency agreed to a confidential settlement and brought in federal investigators to ensure the mines complied with the law.
He later filed another claim against the state. Harless Creek residents requested payment from Kentucky’s claims board, asserting that the energy cabinet’s negligence increased their flood losses, but the cabinet argued that these claims were filed too late. An appellate court recently agreed with the state. The Kentucky Supreme Court is considering whether to review the decision.
Sitting inside his first-floor office in Prestonsburg, west of Pike County, Pillersdorf said it doesn’t surprise locals that companies would ignore mining rules to save money.
“What they don't understand is, why is the state so damn indifferent to how dangerous these ticking time-bombs are?” he said.
After the storm, the state issued citations to Cambrian Coal for violations that included mining without a permit, inappropriate cleanup and poorly designed and operated sediment ponds, which are intended to capture soil moved during operations. The penalty, after Cambrian Coal appealed, was eventually set at about $50,000. The state cited AEP Kentucky Coal for improper conditions that led to mudslides, fining the company $400.
U.S. taxpayers paid more than five times those combined penalties — almost $300,000 — just to rebuild Harless Creek Road, according to federal data obtained by Public Integrity.
AEP Kentucky Coal maintains it didn’t contribute to the flood. The state mine regulator’s spokesman agreed. The residents’ engineering firm did not. While the company settled, it did not admit liability and only “participated in the settlement to promote a prompt conclusion to the case,” AEP spokeswoman Melissa McHenry wrote in an email.
Cambrian Coal didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment. Neither did Booth Energy, which previously owned the company.
Bentley’s family has far more complicated feelings about the mine owners than about the state’s handling of the situation.
Bentley’s son, Tyler, now 24, is a coal miner. So were Bentley’s father and grandfather, and Bentley himself, before an accident on the job in 2002 left him unable to work. Judi Casalino, his aunt, used to be a sales executive for a coal company.
“It’s hard for me,” she said. “I know that coal mining had a whole lot to do with what happened up here,” but she couldn’t help but also think of Cambrian Coal’s economic impact.
She pointed to Jim Booth, who’d long run the company: “That one man employs 500-something people right now in eastern Kentucky, so let’s give him credit where credit’s due. If he weren't in the business, it'd be a whole lot of people would have no jobs.”
Just days before, though Casalino didn’t know it, Booth had resigned as a director and shareholder at the company. Shortly afterward, Cambrian Coal and related businesses filed for bankruptcy protection. As of early October, the company owed local governments and schools more than $1 million in unpaid taxes, the Lexington Herald-Leader reported.
Today, the mines that settled with neighbors over the flood have been cleaned up, according to the state. But people here remain shaken.
One neighbor sleeps in her clothes every night “because she’s afraid she might have to get out,” Caudill said, while Bentley, his stepfather and his son “get really paranoid” if there’s a storm brewing. Some people are gone: They couldn’t bear to live here after the flood.
And Blackburn, the uncle who didn’t have the door to lock? Two years afterward, he was dead.
“He grieved himself to death,” Caudill said. “He just couldn’t deal with what he’d lost.”
Power and the powerless
Five days after Cambrian Coal settled the lawsuit brought by Harless Creek residents, then-Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., delivered a tribute on the Senate floor to a fellow Kentuckian — Cambrian’s then-owner, Booth.
Booth is a “treasured citizen,” “someone who has taken it upon himself to make an investment in the betterment of his community, county and state,” McConnell said. “Booth’s story is one of success in the free market, and a testimony to what can happen when a small business is given room to take root and grow.”
What prompted this 2012 outpouring by McConnell, one of the most powerful men in Washington, isn’t clear.
But Booth, named by the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting in 2014 as one of “Kentucky’s top 10 ‘power players,’” is a reliable political donor who has supported many of the state’s key officials, including McConnell, Bevin and Beshear, the attorney general.
Bevin tried to unseat McConnell in the 2014 Republican primary, and Beshear — a Democrat — is running against Bevin in the governor’s race this year. But when it comes to coal, they’re on the same page.
Beshear took over his predecessor’s legal fight to block the Clean Power Plan. McConnell marshaled states across the country to resist the rule, and this year — five weeks after acknowledging that human activities are changing the climate — declined to bring up for a vote a bill to keep the U.S. from pulling out of the international agreement to slow global warming. Bevin tapped a former coal executive to head the state’s Energy and Environment Cabinet and pressed an electric utility earlier this year not to close a coal plant.
Newton, the Beshear spokesman, wrote in an email that the attorney general bases his policy decisions on what he believes is best for Kentuckians.
McConnell, Bevin and Booth didn’t respond to requests for comment. But as recently as this month, McConnell called the Clean Power Plan a “misguided,” “job-killing” and ineffective approach to addressing climate change. Bevin has argued that such rules would suffocate businesses and wouldn’t help anyone. And in a 2013 interview with the Lexington Herald-Leader, Booth said, “When we say there’s a war on coal, we’re sincere.”
The coal mining industry has sunk at least $2.2 million into state and federal Kentucky elections since 2012, according to data from the National Institute on Money in Politics. But these companies don’t need donations to get politicians on their side.
“In Kentucky, it’s more the perception,” said Erin Savage, a program manager for Appalachian Voices, an environmental group. “If you’re not a friend of coal, then you’re not going to get the votes.”
Despite the sector’s enduring political power, coal bankruptcies are mounting as competition from natural gas, solar and wind intensifies. That creates problems beyond job losses: Kentucky and states across the country haven’t required companies to set aside enough money to clean up mines when operations cease.
Mary Cromer, deputy director of the Appalachian Citizens’ Law Center, worries that the fallout from rising bankruptcies and idled mines could mean more sites that increase flood risks. Her team, which represents coal miners, their families and others in Central Appalachia pro bono, can’t keep up with the demand for help as it is, she said.
That’s because Kentucky law makes it hard for people to get legal assistance with damage caused by mine-worsened floods. Coal companies aren’t required to pay victims’ attorney fees — as they would be if they’d instead contaminated local drinking water — so that expense often comes out of any settlement or court-ordered payout. Too often, Cromer said, cases don’t make financial sense for a private attorney to take.
Harless Creek residents benefited from a perverse sort of luck: They were so numerous that they could seek help from the same lawyer and spread the impact of the fees between them. On top of that, they alleged that the flood damaged well water, not just their homes.
But that wasn’t the case for Laura Thacker and her husband, Elvis, when their property in another part of the county was damaged — twice. They live next to the Bevins Branch mine, owned by the Justice family.
The state began negotiating with companies connected to the West Virginia governor and his relatives in 2014 to resolve hundreds of violations there and at other mines. In 2016, after that work was supposed to be completed, a flood destroyed the Thackers’ home. That same day, the state cited the mine for not meeting runoff control requirements. Similar flooding damaged the Thacker’s garage in 2018. The Justice companies blamed the incident on the rain, but the state pointed to the poor cleanup of the mine.
The settlements the Justice company offered the couple weren’t enough to cover the cost of rebuilding, Thacker said. But the lawyer she consulted warned that attorney fees would probably eat up whatever extra money they won if they went to trial. The Thackers had to replace their house with a smaller double-wide trailer. Their loan payment costs them $200 more a month. They couldn’t afford to move.
“People don’t understand when you go through a flood how fast everything can be taken away from you,” Thacker said. “We don’t have anything at all against coal. But … there’s rules and regulations that they need to follow.”
Mura, the Kentucky mine regulator spokesman, wrote in an email that the state is taking further action to ensure the Justice companies comply with their permit. Spokespeople for the companies and the West Virginia governor’s office didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment.
Spadaro, the former federal regulator, said state officials who don’t require mines to promptly fix problems put people at risk. Violations are common. Only 57 percent of Kentucky mines inspected from July 2017 to June 2018 fully complied with the law, according to the most recent federal evaluation. More than one in 10 permitted sites had infractions that created off-site impacts, the report said.
A spokesman for the federal Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement put a positive spin on it, noting that the share of Kentucky mines out of compliance with the law was the lowest in a decade.
Spadaro, who investigated for West Virginia the notorious 1972 Buffalo Creek disaster, in which three coal-related dams in that state failed and killed 125 people, has a harsher perspective: “There's not one mine that I have found in compliance.”
‘Say a prayer’
Doug Tackett, Pike County’s emergency management director, isn’t sure what to think about climate change. Sitting in his downtown Pikeville office in June, he explained that he regularly hears from the National Weather Service about weather cycles, not the planet’s warming. The rhetoric about climate change causes and solutions is confusing, too, he said.
“They blame it on things like fossil fuels and stuff like that. But I don't think you'll ever get away from fossil fuels,” said Tackett, surrounded by computers, a large radio console and a walkie-talkie that murmured continuously. “It keeps the economy and everything else moving.”
A little more than half the county’s residents believe climate change is happening and 44 percent say it’s mostly caused by human activity, a lower share than the nation as a whole, according to a 2019 survey by the Yale Program on Climate Communication. When politicians express doubt about climate science, that has an effect, said Anthony Leiserowitz, director of Yale’s program.
What Tackett is certain about: He’s never seen anything like the Harless Creek disaster.
It was one of two flash floods in Pike County that July night. In the other, rescue teams were able to navigate the waters to save people in 75 homes.
In Harless Creek, that wasn’t possible. Water that normally burbled a shallow 6 inches in the creek bed had become a 12-foot-deep monster that split a house in half and carried a couple down the hollow as they held on in terror. If responders went in, Tackett said, they would have been killed. He waited, feeling helpless, trying to anticipate what people would need when it was all over.
“Neighbors were trapped, and nobody could get to them,” he said. “You say a prayer and hope they’re OK.”
Afterward, Tackett’s team trained more swift-water rescue teams. And in flood-prone areas, the county has helped elevate some homes.
But preparation only goes so far. If another flood like Harless Creek happened, Tackett said, the rushing water would still keep rescuers out. It would destroy everything in its path. Again.
Whether people lived or died would come down to luck and how well they could fend for themselves.
Rachel Leven and Zach Goldstein reported this story for the Center for Public Integrity. Joe Yerardi with Public Integrity and Sydney Boles with Ohio Valley ReSource contributed to this article. Public Integrity is a nonprofit, nonpartisan investigative newsroom in Washington, D.C.