FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) — Government inspectors have been keeping a close eye on coal operators through aerial surveillance in central Appalachia, a region that's been the center of debate over so-called mountaintop removal mining.
The Kentucky Division of Mine Reclamation and Enforcement has spent more than $477,000 over the past four years for helicopter flights over coal mining operations, according to documents obtained by The Associated Press.
A review by the AP found that the agency has been spending on average nearly $2,000 on each citation issued to mining companies for violations spotted from the air through an initiative started by the federal government's Office of Surface Mining.
The flyovers came as a surprise to mining industry leaders, including Kentucky Coal Association President Bill Bissett, who not only complained about their "covert" nature but also questioned their effectiveness.
"Is it not better," he asked, "to have a regulator on the ground rather than 1,000 feet in the air?"
The agency defended the practice of flying inspectors over surface mines in a helicopter equipped with video cameras.
"We feel the helicopter's value as an enforcement tool is a necessary component of our overall enforcement program and we would suffer greatly if we did not use it," said spokesman Dick Brown.
News of the government flyovers was also a revelation to Haven King, a political leader in coal-rich Perry County and an outspoken critic of what he sees as regulatory overreach.
"That amazes me," King said. "There is a war against coal in Appalachia. They're going to shut coal mining down, and they're doing it through policy, not law."
Kentucky Department of Aviation documents released to the AP under the open records law show that mine inspectors, state police, even wildlife officers routinely use the state's fleet of eight helicopters and four planes to look for errant coal operators, scout for clandestine marijuana, even watch for hunters and fishermen skirting regulations.
Flight logs show hundreds of such missions over the past four years.
News of Kentucky's use of aerial surveillance could fuel a growing public outcry about government agencies "spying" on an unsuspecting populous.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has been under fire in recent weeks for flying over Midwestern ranches looking for improper disposal of cow manure.
Like the ranchers who object to that program, coal industry representatives said they have nothing to hide. But Bissett, whose organization represents most of the state's largest mining companies, said he was unaware of the flyovers.
Tea party activist David Adams charged that the state is wasting money on the flyovers "to spy on Kentuckians just trying to make a living. What's next? Ticketing highway drivers by satellite?"
Jim Waters, head of the government watchdog group Bluegrass Institute for Public Policy, said he doesn't believe the advantages of flyovers are worth the cost, especially during a time of economic recession when the state is cutting a wide array of government services.
"What does the taxpayer get out of that investment?" Waters asked. "If we cannot show how this benefits us as a commonwealth, then I think it is wasteful spending. We've got coal miners losing their jobs, yet we're spending all of this money to further regulate the mining industry."
Last year, the Division of Mine Reclamation and Enforcement wrote 1,248 citations that resulted in nearly $10 million in fines. That averages to about $8,000 in penalties per citation written, though it wasn't clear how many of the 244 citations from flyovers resulted in fines.