By: Ned Pillersdorf
March 26, 2013
Imagine the judicial political attack ads that would occur if a Kentucky judge did the following: A criminal defendant who was previously found guilty of destroying the property of his neighbors was ordered as part of his sentence to pay restitution to repair the damage he caused.
Years went by and the defendant ignored the judge’s orders. Fed up, the victims sat in the courtroom wondering whether the judge would actually force the defendant to pay for the damage that was done. Instead, the judge announced that he was going to decline to enforce his previous restitution orders, and told the victims that they were going to have to wait until and see if perhaps the taxpayers or perhaps a “public funding source” would pay for the damage.
In other words , rather than may make the private wrongdoer pay for the damage, ask the taxpayers to foot the bill.
Far fetched scenario? Actually it’s not. What I have previously described is what is currently happening to about fifty families who live in the Premium area of Letcher County.
Approximately five years ago the Kentucky Energy and Environment Protection Cabinet in response to complaints about the sudden deterioration of well water supplies in the Premium area, sent investigative crews to determine why the water wells in Premium suddenly disappeared or became discolored and undrinkable. The verdict was the same in all instances. Sapphire Coal, which had several mining operations in the community, had destroyed the water systems.
Sapphire, to its credit, did not challenge the findings of the investigation, and agreed to provide temporary water supplies to those in the community. If you drive around Premiuim today you will see large cream colored tanks full of water.The water in the tanks is undrinkable. The folks describe the water as “fire hydrant water.” Sapphire also agreed to deliver bottled water, which they still do today.
Sapphire also agreed to provide a permanent source of water within two years as part of the administrative orders issued by the Cabinet. These orders, which the residents received, look very real and seem authentic, but they are not. Sapphire and the Cabinet have decided to pretend the orders don’t exist. The residents describe the orders as “decorative,” something they can hang on their walls, but have no meaning.
Today, there is no permanent source of water. The orders issued by the Cabinet giving Sapphire coal two years to provide a water supply have come and gone three, four and five years ago.
In early February I was contacted about representing the folks in Premium. Driving through the area, you are struck by the combination of mostly humble dwellings (Letcher County is one of the most impoverished counties in the nation), abandoned mine sites, and the large plastic water tanks that dot the community.
When I contacted the Cabinet on behalf of the residents as their unenforced orders, the Cabinet did not directly respond to me. The following is what I read in the Feb. 27 edition of the Whitesburg Mountain Eagle Newspaper: Asked by a WYMT reporter for comment on the lawsuit and accompanying documents that show state regulators determined that Sapphire was responsible for destroying the water wells, Brown admitted the Energy and Environment Cabinet has given Sapphire a number of extensions on deadlines to fix the water supplies so the problem could be solved when public water lines are extended into the area.
“Forcing Sapphire into expensive and protracted litigation while the company awaits word of possible public funding for a permanent water supply solution, a project that should be underway soon, is counter-productive, in the department’s opinion,” Brown said in a written statement.
Yes, the Cabinet’s response is exactly like the imaginary judge that I previously alluded to who would let the taxpayers “through possible public funding” pay for the damage that Sapphire has done. According to the Mountain Eagle, Sapphire Coal is currently owned by Ukranian billionaire Rinat Akhmetov, whose $16 billion fortune placed him at No. 39 on Forbes Magazine’s March 2012 list of the world’s richest people.
Alas, another reason why the Cabinet won’t enforce their own orders, they don’t want to upset anyone who lives in the Ukraine. Let the folks in Letcher County suffer instead.
Maybe the Cabinet and their Ukranian friend should come to Premium and drink the well water. They would deserve the consequences.