In Kentucky, coal mines that were operated by now-bankrupt companies are racking up violations of regulations that are meant to protect the public and the environment from destructive impacts of strip mining – and the state regulator is left with little power to enforce the law. As of February, there were 817 notices of noncompliance – about twice as many as in 2013, when there were 28% fewer active mining permits – according to an investigation by Inside Climate News, which found that more than half of the violations stem from mines that were operated by now-bankrupt companies.

Companies are required to reclaim surface mined sites as they move into mining new areas, by backfilling and grading, eliminating waste, planting trees and grass, and treating toxic runoff – returning the land to its approximate original contour – and are supposed to secure bonds to cover the costs of reclamation in the event of bankruptcy. But because the primary mechanism of enforcement is withholding permits, bankrupt companies are simply leaving the state holding the bag, to the tune of as much as a $2.4 billion liability.

“This is completely out of control,” Courtney Skaggs, a senior environmental scientist with the Kentucky Department of Natural Resources, wrote to the department’s commissioner, Gordon Sloane, in December. “This is going to blow up in someone’s face.” (Inside Climate News)