By Robin Hartman
As an Environmental Control Supervisor with the Division of Abandoned Mine Lands (AML), Scott Muncy walks the hills of eastern Kentucky daily, helping property owners with issues that sometimes arise on or near the state’s former coal fields.
“I get out here, especially in the spring when the trees are blooming, and I think, ‘Wow, they actually pay me to do this!’” he said.
Like so many of the critical services provided by Kentucky’s Energy and Environment Cabinet, Muncy’s work doesn’t stop as the country deals with the coronavirus pandemic. Abandoned mine sites can present hazards such as water-filled pits, open mine portals and conditions that make landslides more likely.
In March, the Prestonsburg field office, where Muncy is based, investigated 35 sites where potential slides or drainage issues may exist. Of those, 13 were listed as high priority, in imminent danger of impacting a residence, road or cemetery.
On the morning of Saturday, March 21, Muncy’s team received two emergency calls. Muncy headed to Pike County to investigate a slide at the home of Donna and Daniel Baker, which is located downslope of an abandoned mine. Heavy rains had encouraged an avalanche of soupy mud to slide down the embankment behind their home and onto their property.
After walking the steep hillside above the residence to inspect the slide, Muncy found a pre-1982 highwall which, along with mining maps of the area, qualified the site for AML funds, money made available for repairs to property impacted by abandoned mines before bonds were required. With the help of his teleworking administrative team in Frankfort, a contract was approved and work began at the site the next day.
It couldn’t have come soon enough. The Bakers’ son uses a wheelchair, and his only access through the back entrance was under three feet of mud. Fearful that additional sliding may occur, the family has temporarily moved.
“Scott and his team have been my saving grace,” Donna Baker said. “As soon as he got the report, he was here. They got a contractor here in record time and they’ve done everything they could possibly do. With our health concerns, and now with COVID-19, it’s been a real worry, but I could not have asked for a better response.”
AML Division Director Bob Scott said he was proud of Muncy for his effort to help the Bakers.
“And I’m proud of our entire team, which works hard for so many projects like this that AML encounters,” he said.
In the week after the contract was signed, Harris Brothers Enterprises, Inc. performed the labor-intensive work of removing the mud and soil, much of which required hand-shoveling.
“We have also had to maintain ditches above the yard level to keep the drainage off the work area,” Muncy explained. The team is making headway removing the mud and will install a small barrier wall and revegetate the area.
Meanwhile, the second phase of the project is already in the works. Contractors inspected the site and provided bids on a larger project to stabilize the entire area. Work is expected to begin in the next two weeks.
Even during the coronavirus pandemic, much of the work the Division of Abandoned Mine Lands performs is critical.
“We just adapt and make it work,” Muncy said.
Interactions with property owners can be modified by either keeping a physical distance or communicating by phone or email.
“I can lay the paperwork on the hood of the truck and step away so they can sign,” he said. One land-owner even signed with a disposable rubber glove.”
However the help comes, property owners are usually appreciative, he said.
“I’m certainly glad to help where I can, and I feel rewarded when a citizen is appreciative of the assistance we can give,” Muncy said. “It’s a very rewarding job.”
The Abandoned Mine Lands division has been doing award-winning work for years. The federal Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement (OSMRE) has awarded the division the Abandoned Mine Land Reclamation Appalachian Region Award three years in a row.
“OSMRE’s Abandoned Mine Land Reclamation Award is the highest honor a reclamation program can achieve,” wrote then-OSMRE Acting Director Glenda Owens in announcing the 2017 award. “Congratulations to you and your team on earning this distinction.”
The division received the award in 2017 for the Bell Central School High Priority (HP) AML Reclamation Project, in 2018 for the Joan Bernat Slide HP AML Reclamation Project at a historic coal camp town in Hazard and in 2019 for the Roger Cornett Slide in Perry County.
The 2019 award for the Roger Cornett Slide in Perry County stemmed from action taken by AML personnel took after a Friday night rain in April 2018, brought tons of mud, trees, and old coal down a hillside, threatening people’s lives and property.
“Kentucky’s quick response abated the threats to the residents and the safety of their property,” OSMRE wrote in awarding the project. Watch a video about the project here.
The Division of Abandoned Mine Lands (AML) works throughout the state’s coal fields to protect the public from health and safety problems caused by mining that occurred prior to 1982. Learn more here.