By Ronnie Ellis / CNHI News Service
His house sits on land owned by his family for more than 200 years, yet Ricky Handshoe says, “I’m basically homeless.”
Handshoe visited the state capitol Tuesday looking for help from Larry Bond, chief of staff to Gov. Steve Beshear, on the same day President Barack Obama said it is time to deal with changes to climate caused by carbon emissions.
That prompted nearly every politician in the state to bemoan “Obama’s war on coal.” But to Handshoe, coal has waged war on him.
It’s a complicated story as all stories about coal in Kentucky are complicated.
Much of the pollution which has destroyed two streams on Handshoe’s property in Hughesville in Floyd County and endangers his and his daughter’s health comes from mining sites located on the family’s property, in some cases leased to the coal companies by Handshoe’s father before he gave the property to his son.
At least some of it comes from old “house mines,” mines dug decades ago by residents of the area for fuel to heat their homes.
Handshoe has friends and family who work in the coal industry. He knows the local economy depends on coal. He believes in property rights — but then asks: “What about my property rights?”
Two streams on his property have been ruined by runoff from separate mining sites — perhaps from old, abandoned underground mines which for years posed no problem but began spewing poisoned water after the surface mining operations and reclamation began.
State officials say it’s nearly impossible to determine whether the abandoned mines or the surface operation is responsible in one case. The federal Office of Surface Mining says a surface mine operation didn’t cause the problem in the other.
Both surface sites are owned by the same company, Laurel Mountain, a subsidiary of James River Coal whose employees contributed to Beshear’s gubernatorial campaigns.
The state cited Laurel Mountain last year for failing to properly maintain a sediment pond at the head of one of the creeks on Handshoe’s property. A couple of months later, the state recognized the same company for “outstanding reclamation” at another site in a neighboring county.
After years of complaining to the Cabinet for Energy and Environment about the pollution to the streams, Handshoe last year noticed striations and discoloration on his fingernails; a neighbor suffers the same symptoms on his toenails. Handshoe developed rashes on his torso and lost sensation in his fingertips. His daughter’s hair began falling out.
Handshoe’s drinking water comes from a municipal utility. He doesn’t drink the water from the streams nor will he allow his skin to come into contact with it.
But his physician ordered him not to eat anything — animal or vegetable — which comes from his land. He’s undergone a series of medical tests which so far haven’t provided a cause of his symptoms. His doctor said it may be years before some effects of the pollution show up in his body.
Finally, he moved temporarily to Bowling Green, living in his brother’s house and traveling back to Floyd County several times a month to check on his property. Since the move, his symptoms have mostly disappeared.
His daughter has stopped losing her hair but she wants to go home and resume classes at Hazard Community College. She plans to marry, and Handshoe is trying to move his trailer in Hughesville to a site in Leslie County where his future son-in-law lives so the couple will have a safe place to live.
He isn’t sure where he’ll live. His brother plans to sell his house and Handshoe isn’t comfortable in suburban Bowling Green anyway.
“I’m not used to going outside my house and people are looking at you all the time,” he said.
But going back is not an option.
“I’m basically homeless,” Handshoe said. “I’m not going back there and be poisoned but I am worried about my neighbors.”
He sees no way to sell his property.
“How do you sell it?” he asked. “If you sell it, you’ve got to tell people about (the pollution).”
He said Bond listened sympathetically, reviewing photographs and medical information Handshoe brought and promised to look into his concerns.
He’d asked to meet with Beshear who a couple of years ago visited Handshoe’s property, but Beshear couldn’t find time in his schedule.
In a chance encounter while waiting to meet with Bond, Handshoe told Lt. Gov. Jerry Abramson about his problems.
Abramson listened intently, shaking his head at some of the things Handshoe told him.
Abramson said the fact that Bond agreed to hear his concerns indicates the governor’s administration views his problems seriously.
Handshoe, however, said his problems have worsened since Beshear visited two years ago and he received no concrete assurances from Bond.
He headed back to Bowling Green, uncertain what is next or where he will live.
He just knows it won’t be where he always wanted to live, on the land on which his family has lived for 200 years.