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Experience Hasn’t Mattered For Some Mine-Reclamation Inspectors

February 7, 1995

HAZARD, Ky. (AP) _ Judy Coots’ path to a job as a state mine-reclamation inspector didn’t start in a mine or at an engineering school.

It started in a bar.

It was there that Coots met John Smiley, assistant director of the state Division of Abandoned Mine Lands. And though her background was in bookkeeping and insurance sales _ in fact, she had never been to a mine _ Smiley ``just told me I had a job, me and this other girl.″

She eventually was hired to oversee reclamation work that cost more than $864,000 in federal coal-tax money. Her employers billed the state $29 an hour _ $43.50 on overtime _ under no-bid contracts for Coots’ services. She got $10 an hour, $15 an hour on overtime.

This would raise eyebrows even if the work Judy Coots was hired to do was unimportant _ but it was not. Inspectors keep tabs on construction companies paid to shore up collapsing mine shafts and sliding hillsides left over from old coal operations.

Abandoned mine lands projects ``mean the difference between life and death in Appalachia,″ said Will Collette, staff coordinator for the Citizens Coal Council of Washington, D.C. ``A badly done AML project usually at best means they’ve got to do it over again, and at worst could cost lives.″

Said Collette: ``It’s outrageous that people would be put on such critical work without qualifications.″

Outrageous, perhaps. But not illegal.

Kentucky, the nation’s No. 2 coal producer behind Wyoming, has no set standards for people hired by contractors to watch over its reclamation projects. And Smiley defends that lack of standards. He said abandoned-mine work is a good place for people like Coots to get their start.

``I don’t think it’s a bad place for somebody to get experience at all,″ he said. ``We’re not building anything.″

Smiley acknowledges referring a number of people _ many of them women _ for such jobs, even though they had no related experience. He also admits having an intimate relationship with one inspector, and helping Coots and others fill out their daily inspection forms.

The arrangements were uncovered during a three-month investigation by The Associated Press. The results of that investigation have officials rethinking the way inspectors are chosen.

The U.S. Office of Surface Mining requires extensive construction, engineering or mining background of its contract inspectors. Paul Rothman, Smiley’s boss, has asked for copies of those policies.

And Robert Uram, director of the federal agency, has asked state officials for explanations of Smiley’s activities and other practices.

``It’s obviously an issue that I’ll be following closely,″ he said.

The federal agency handles emergency reclamations; since 1982, the state has handled non-emergency projects. Federal coal taxes pay the tab _ $224 million in the past 13 years.

The state agency is not large enough to send inspectors to all the reclamation jobs in Kentucky. Over the past four years, more than half were inspected by state-hired contractors.

The AP found that Coots and at least eight other inspectors got their initial jobs in the field by doing surveys for Little T Inspection Services, a company with which Smiley has had close ties. It shut down in 1993, two years after it opened.

The AP obtained four checks drawn on Little T’s bank account that were written by Smiley. And his girlfriend, Hester ``Annie″ Bryant-Cornett, listed the company as a past employer on her resume.

She now is working as an inspector on a complex reclamation job that already totals more than $346,000 in construction and inspection costs.

Her job experience before she was hired by Little T? She managed a Bojangles fried chicken restaurant in North Carolina, according to the resume.

Smiley said he saw nothing improper about either his connections to Little T or his involvement with Bryant-Cornett.

He said his willingness to help inspectors fill out their reports is no reflection on their abilities _ ``I view that as my responsibility,″ he said, adding that he sits down with some at least weekly.

One inspector who had help from Smiley is Darlene Smith, who worked on the nearly $1.2 million Loftis reclamation project along the West Virginia border. Baker Engineering Unlimited Inc. billed the state $35 an hour for Smith’s services on Loftis, and $52.50 for overtime, plus meals and lodging.

Yet Smiley helped her with her reports. ``It’s not a matter of her being able to fill them out _ just different reportings I was wanting on there,″ he said.

Smith’s action raised another issue _ the question of whether the relationship between the companies fixing abandoned mines and the agency charged with making sure it is done properly was a bit too cozy.

Tom Buchanan, general superintendent for the construction contractor on the Loftis project, acknowledged having an affair with Smith during the work. A birth certificate obtained by the AP lists Buchanan as the father of a child Smith had while the project was still under way, though he denies it.

``Obviously, that woman should not have been on the same site ... and in fact being responsible or overseeing that,″ said Rothman, Smiley’s boss.

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