During a public conference Wednesday at Southeast Kentucky Community and Technical College in Cumberland, officials with the state Department for Natural Resources addressed residents' concerns with proposed mining operations some fear could compromise Lynch's water supply, a decades-old reservoir.
A handful of residents spoke up, asking questions about how their water supply would be replaced if damaged and why a permit is even being considered for operations that could compromise some of the area's purest water. Others sat quietly in the theater of the Godbey Appalachian Center as state officials took note of residents' concerns.
"There are individuals that know a lot more about local conditions and circumstances much better than we do," said Paul Ehret, director of the Division of Mine Permits with the Department for Natural Resources. "What we attempt to do at these meetings is take in local comment, because very often we will find out about things the way they are in the local area, which is not necessarily spelled out to us."
Approximately 1,454 acres in Lynch and Benham have already been approved for mining operations. In an amendment filed by the company proposing the mining, Harlan Reclamation Services LLC, an affiliate of Black Mountain Resources LLC, an additional 3,794.52 acres are requested. That would include Lynch's water reservoir.
The city of Lynch first learned of the proposed mining operations last year, when the coal company's initial plans included operations beneath homes and buildings. But the council immediately contacted the Division of Mine Permits and drafted a petition.
At Wednesday's meeting, maps were displayed outlining underground acres already approved for mining operations and portions being proposed. Another map displayed the city's layout and proposed operations regarding homes and other structures. Along with KY 160 and property belonging to Black Mountain Resources and Arch Coal Company, it appears that at least one home in Lynch would be mined beneath.
Ross Kegan, vice president of operations at Black Mountain Resources, said there's "a lot of variability" in the depth of the mining being proposed, which would reportedly range from 110 feet in some areas to 500 feet in others. Kegan was present at Wednesday's conference.
"I can tell you that I understand the fears that you have," said Kegan, a former councilman in nearby Jenkins, where similar water concerns arose years ago when surface mining operations took place above the town's lake water supply.
Kegan said there is plenty of coal - the local economy's "livelihood" - to be mined in Lynch.
"It's a reserve that has some importance in our country's future," Kegan said. He said company officials wish to mine the coal, but "wish to mine safely."
"The very last thing that we want to happen is to have the water in the Lynch reservoir find its way into our mine," he said, citing cost concerns and interference with production for his own company.
Lynch Mayor Bob Collier said disruptions in Lynch's water supply would not only hurt residents but also negatively impact the economy "in the whole entire area."
"We all go to Cumberland to get our gas and our groceries, and we don't want to be buying bottled water to take a bath in," Collier said.
On behalf of the Kentucky Resources Council Inc., a Frankfort-based company assisting the city of Lynch in its review of the proposed mining operations, Collier shared existing issues that "must be resolved prior to the issuance of any permit amendment," including subsidence and water protection.
The Kentucky Resources Council, Collier noted, is requesting that a second permit conference be scheduled after Harlan Reclamation Services has revised the permit application to include information responsive to those concerns.
Lynch City Council member Anne Carr also spoke up Wednesday, asking if state mining officials have "determined whether the replacement supplies proposed by Harlan Reclamation would be adequate and comparable in quantity and quality to the water in the Darby reservoir."
Ehret said the company has not provided a plan, but that his department has written the company a "deficiency letter" indicating what issues still need to be addressed.
"We won't issue a permit unless we're satisfied that the water supply would be protected," said Ehret. "However, the backup on that is, that even if we grant that they have to come in with a plan for the replacement of the water exactly as it's been described. Therefore, if anything goes wrong, they have to have a plan they can implement immediately to replace the water that was lost."
Ehret said the mining issue has drawn as much interest as any he's been involved with.
"Obviously, this one's very controversial," he said as he explained the permit process. He said "the way the permits come in the door are not necessarily the way they leave," noting that Harlan Reclamation Services is in "the middle" of its permit review process.
"Even after the permit were to be issued, if in fact it is issued, if it's something highly important, we don't ignore those types of things," Ehret said.
Kegan also noted at Wednesday's meeting that an unofficial map has been presented to the city council in Lynch suggesting a postponement of mining operations beneath the city's water reservoir.
"It's really an idea map. It's not something that we've submitted. The issue was whether or not to permit the area under the reservoir now or permit it later," Kegan said. He also addressed the what-ifs.
"If something were to happen and the water leaves the Lynch reservoir and drops down into our mine, the water's not gone, it's just in a different place than it was, and our first line of defense would be to install a pump to pump it back up out of the mine. ...
"So there are avenues that we see would be legitimate to provide good quality water to Lynch, and we have a way to go in our permit application in getting those sources adequately identified," Kegan said. "We're going to do everything possible to make sure the Lynch water is protected."
Public conferences like Wednesday's can be requested by an individual or group within the 30 days of public comment that follow a company's advertisement announcing its intent to mine.
Residents who left contact information at Wednesday's conference will receive a notice of the Division of Mine Permit's decision, which may also be petitioned for an administrative review or hearing if a citizen or group is aggrieved by that decision.
"Our hope is to catch everything on the front end, but if there's something that comes in after the process has happened, we can't say that's too bad. That's not how it works," Ehret said. He could not offer a time frame of when a permit decision will be made.
"The main concern is the water," said Hal Woods, a longtime resident and city councilman in Lynch. "We're looking at a whole community here. We just want a little security. This is our home. I've been here 70 years, and I sure ain't going to leave because I ain't got a drink of water."
Harlan Reclamation Services' current permit number is 848-5411.