Head Kentucky Regulator Left Coal Industry Group on Day of Appointment
The new head of the state’s Energy and Environment Cabinet, Charles Snavely, has been on the job for a little more than a week. It’s also been about that long since he served as an official on the state’s coal association governing board.
In February, Snavely was appointed treasurer of the Kentucky Coal Association, a membership group that lobbies Frankfort for less environmental regulation on the industry. Until inquiries from WFPL News prompted a change on Friday, Snavely was listed in that role on the organization’s website. Now, the position is listed as vacant, although Snavely is still included in the organization’s official filing with the Kentucky Secretary of State.
KCA President Bill Bissett said Snavely resigned the post the day he was appointed secretary of the Energy and Environment Cabinet. He said as treasurer, Snavely’s duties included signing checks and attending board meetings.
Energy and Environment Cabinet spokesman Dick Brown said Snavely was unavailable for comment Friday.
Snavely hasn’t kept his professional career under wraps; on the contrary, he was hired for his experience in the coal industry. In a news release announcing his appointment, Gov. Matt Bevin cited Snavely's 35-year career in the coal industry as his main qualification for the job.
“[Snavely's] professionalism and leadership experience in the industry are well-known. Charles understands the balance we must maintain between the commonwealth’s need for low-cost, reliable energy, and the need for clean water and air for all Kentuckians," Bevin was quoted as saying in the announcement.
Snavely's official biography on the cabinet's website also mentions his decades of experience in the coal industry and a past role as chairman of the coal association's board of directors.
Ron White of the Center for Effective Government — a Washington, D.C.-based watchdog group — said it’s disconcerting that Snavely could go directly from an official role in an industry advocacy group to a job regulating that industry.
“It’s not unusual, frankly,” White said. “But it’s often not quite this blatant.”
Snavely’s career has included stints at mining companies in West Virginia and Kentucky. He worked for several Massey Energy subsidiaries in the early 1990s. He also headed Bell County Coal Corporation, which was owned by James River Coal, for a decade.
In 2005, he began working for International Coal Group. He eventually became executive vice president of mining and stayed with the company until June 2011. When ICG was acquired by Arch Coal that year, Snavely became Arch's president of eastern operations. In that role, he was responsible for many of the company's coal mines in Appalachia and Illinois. Snavely retired from that role in January 2014.
As secretary of the Energy and Environment Cabinet, Snavely will oversee the regulation of his former industry, as well as several others. He’ll be in charge of the departments that regulate mine safety, mine permitting, oil and gas development and environmental protection.
“On the face of it, it raises grave concerns about his willingness to really aggressively and appropriately undertake his duties in his new political position,” White said.
The Kentucky Coal Association has sometimes worked in concert with the Energy and Environment Cabinet, especially when opposing federal environmental regulations. Of the six white papers the KCA has on its website, half are dedicated to opposing the Environmental Protection Agency’s regulations and stopping the so-called "War on Coal."
Bissett said Snavely’s recent involvement in his organization doesn't cause any conflicts of interest with his role in the Bevin administration, which includes enforcing state and federal environmental laws.
“I don’t think my membership has a problem with following the law, I think their concern is far more that there’s certainty, that there’s a clear understanding and communication with regulators, whether it’s at a state or federal level,” Bissett said, adding that both Bevin and his Democratic opponent, Jack Conway, made it clear on the campaign trail earlier this year they are supporters of the industry.
Snavely was ICG’s executive vice president of mining operations in 2010, when a coalition of environmental groups announced their intention to sue the company. They accused ICG of flouting environmental regulations by filing blatantly fraudulent water pollution reports, which had gone unnoticed by state regulators. The company, environmental groups and the Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet reached a settlement on the matter in October 2012, and ICG paid $575,000 in civil penalties.
The company’s problems weren’t limited to its Kentucky operations. Earlier this year, the EPA announced a $2 million consent decree with Arch for alleged violations of the Clean Water Act at ICG subsidiaries in Kentucky, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Maryland and Virginia.
Despite Snavely's recent affiliations, one of the state’s most influential environmental attorneys said he’s hopeful Snavely will be an effective regulator.
“My sense in talking with the secretary is that he fully understands that he has a very different role to play, and he’s going to be implementing the current administration’s policies with respect to energy and the environment,” said Tom FitzGerald of the Kentucky Resources Council.
This story was produced by Erica Peterson, a reporter with 89.3 WFPL, our news partner.