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Coal companies have taken an unusual stand in Kentucky by urging lawmakers to pass legislation that would increase the fees they pay to apply for mining permits.
The move would cost coal companies an additional $800,000 a year. But the money would be used to help pay the operational costs of the Kentucky Division of Mine Permits, including the hiring of staffers to speed up the permitting process.
"This legislation is a clear public-private partnership to make certain the state has the funds it needs to accomplish its mission," said Kentucky Coal Association President Bill Bissett.
The measure, which cleared the House last month, was approved by the Senate Appropriations and Revenue Committee on Tuesday. It wasn't clear when the full Senate would vote on the bill.
The environmental group Kentucky Resources Council warned that expediting the permit process would result in the opening of more mines, which could overwhelm the state inspectors responsible for enforcing safety laws and regulations. Tom FitzGerald, head of the group, called for the lawmakers to find a way to pay for a corresponding increase in mine inspectors.
Larry Arnett, deputy commissioner in the Kentucky Department of Natural Resources, said the coal industry recognized the need to bolster staffing so that permit applications could be processed faster.
Under current law, coal companies pay a fee of $375 for the applications. The legislation would set new fees ranging from $750 to $2,500 for each application, depending on whether the companies are looking to expand a mining operation or open a new one.
Arnett said the Division of Mine Permits, though short staffed, processes hundreds of applications each year. Last year, he said, the agency handled 554 applications.
With the additional revenue, Arnett said, the Division of Mine Permits will add staffers whose only responsibility will be to review permit applications to eliminate a backlog. Overall, the number of employees in the agency would rise from 96 to 106.
"I think there was a recognition by the both the industry and state government that there was an increased need for staffing, and the industry was willing to step up and do their part," Arnett said.
Coalfield lawmakers painted the legislation as a jobs bill. The sponsor, state Rep. Jim Gooch, D-Providence, said the backlog of permit applications is delaying the opening and mines and the creation of jobs.
State Sen. Ray Jones, D-Pikeville, said some miners have been forced into unemployment because of delays in the permitting process.
"If we want to get the economy back, we have to get these people back to work," Jones said.