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Ky. officials defend handling of expensive, incomplete eastern Kentucky flood cleanup

Kentucky Transportation Cabinet Secretary Jim Gray and deputy engineer John Moore gave updates and defended their contracting process to lawmakers nearly a year after flooding in eastern Kentucky.
Justin Hicks
Kentucky Transportation Cabinet Secretary Jim Gray and deputy engineer John Moore gave updates and defended their contracting process to lawmakers nearly a year after flooding in eastern Kentucky.

Kentucky officials defended the state-managed cleanup of eastern Kentucky’s devastating flooding during a legislative meeting on Tuesday, and largely avoided addressing miscommunication and ballooning costs that have taken place during the process.

Recent stories by theKentucky Center for Investigative Reporting have shown that the debris cleanup process cost vastly more than Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear initially estimated and waterway cleanup was left incomplete.

Kentucky Transportation Cabinet Secretary Jim Gray did not respond to specific findings in the reports but said he had read them. He defended the agency, saying it was responding to cries for help from overwhelmed counties.

“I think we have to look at all of this with the spirit of, of course, how can we improve, always. But these disasters that we’ve experienced are not normal,” Gray said. “So we had to come at this with the resources and the talent that we had available. And that’s exactly what we did and I’m very proud of that.”

After the hearing, House Transportation Committee Chair John Blanton, a Republican, said he hadn’t yet read KYCIR’s most recent reporting.

He said parts of the cleanup deserve further inspection but wants to get everyone involved the “benefit of a doubt.”

The Transportation Cabinet awarded every step in the year-long cleanup process to a Florida-based company, AshBritt, without re-bidding the contract.

When asked whether the Transportation Cabinet should have done that, Blanton said the process deserves to be reviewed.

“Obviously I would have to go back and review the procurement guidelines, but I would think that is something that would need to be done separately,” he said.

Blanton also said that, on the surface, he could understand why political donations to the Kentucky Democratic Party from the debris company, AshBritt, would make an “average person question” the debris contracting process, but added that it does not necessarily indicate wrongdoing.

John Moore, a deputy state highway engineer in the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet, told lawmakers roughly 160,000 tons of debris were collected from the roads and 330,000 tons were collected from waterways in the region.

Crews are still collecting debris from private property but Moore said he expects that phase to “finish up within the month.”

Moore estimated the total cost of cleanup, monitoring and disposal to reach about $200 million dollars. He said that bill is currently being paid by the Kentucky Emergency Management agency, but officials expect most of it to be reimbursed through the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the EKSAFE fund, which was set up by Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear and the Republican-led legislature to support the recovery.

Gray characterized the cleanup efforts within the total recovery for the region as “not the beginning of the end, but the end of the beginning.”

Justin is LPM's Data Reporter. Email Justin at jhicks@lpm.org.

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