The questions about foxes guarding the henhouse began with Gov. Matt Bevin’s appointment of coal executive Charles Snavely to head Kentucky’s Energy and Environment Cabinet, which is supposed to be guardian of the commonwealth’s glorious natural resources. Snavely said in a speech not long after taking over that he would make sure his cabinet is “not a hindrance to any industry.”
The cabinet’s early track record largely suggests it instead will be a hindrance to advocates for the environment and perhaps even to public access and understanding of critical issues.
Making good on the Bevin campaign’s flogging of the Republican’s “war on coal” message, Snavely ousted the assistant secretary for climate policy and offered an out-of-the-chute challenge of federal climate regulation.
Snavely also fired and did not replace the respected executive director of the state’s Environmental Quality Commission, a decades-old body established by the General Assembly to provide independent advice, then questioned whether the commission was outdated.
We could almost overlook the sweeping of several million dollars in money paid by nature lovers for license plates to support conservation programs, since it was continuing a deceit started by the Beshear administration, except for Gov. Bevin’s disingenuous proclamation of no sweeping in his budget speech.
To its credit, the cabinet quickly acted after the Courier-Journal disclosed it learned that landfills in Greenup and Estill counties — including one near a school — were accepting fracking waste with low levels of radioactivity despite a state law prohibiting it. The cabinet sent violation notices to the landfill operators and state health officials ordered the company they say hauled the fracking waste into Kentucky to stop or face $100,000 per incident fines and potential criminal charges.
Tom FitzGerald, director of the Kentucky Resources Council, called it a “good sign to see both agencies coordinating their response and using their regulatory and statutory powers to get a handle on this situation.”
Snavely also agreed to recall an oil and gas work group to see whether the state needs any new regulations to keep dangerous radioactive drilling waste out of Kentucky landfills, after having previously expressed doubts.
The cabinet also jumped to action on the issue of lead in water, though with some prodding from an EPA requirement that every state report within 30 days its plans for addressing a growing concern highlighted in a recent USA Today Network. That investigation, which followed the public health crisis in Flint, Michigan, found that about 2,000 U.S. drinking water systems had tap tests above the EPA’s “action level” limit of 15 parts per billion.
The state agency combed through records of all 409 Kentucky public water systems subject to the federal lead rule and found that over the past four years, utilities had tested and reported approximately 10,380 water samples for lead at households and businesses. Only about 1 percent exceeded the EPA action level.
And the cabinet’s water division director, Peter Goodmann, bravely— considering Kentucky’s official disdain for the EPA — told the CJ that EPA rules for lead in drinking water were not sufficient.
The cabinet created a work group on lead to review existing regulations and potentially recommend changes, but its first meeting last week was held without public notice in apparent violation of Kentucky’s open meetings law. The cabinet initially told the CJ that future meetings also would be closed to the press and public but eventually declared they would be open.
We may not see any action to clear Kentucky’s air of coal-fired power plant emissions soon, but let’s clear the air of the smog of secrecy and disdain for public involvement.