FRANKFORT — Carl Campbell, the state Commissioner of Natural Resources who was fired Tuesday without any explanation, said he “doesn’t have a clue why he was fired” and was only doing his job according to the law.
Campbell, 65, a non-merit or politically appointed employee, was not protected by the state merit system and was fired “without cause.” He was informed in person Tuesday by Holly McCoy-Johnson, director of the General Administrative and Program Support agency “that my services were no longer needed.” He was then given a one-paragraph letter signed by McCoy-Johnson saying he was being terminated immediately.
Campbell said he had planned to retire in March when he reached his 66th birthday.
Tom Fitzgerald, with the Kentucky Resources Council, said Campbell has “done a very good job under extremely difficult circumstances.” Asked if he knew of any reason Campbell’s performance might be considered unsatisfactory, Fitzgerald responded, “I’m assuming he’s been holding the line against companies who are politically active.”
Neither Dick Brown, spokesman for the Energy and Environment Cabinet, nor Gov. Steve Beshear’s spokeswoman Kerri Richardson had any comment on why Campbell was fired. Richardson would only say, “Personnel decisions are handled at the cabinet level.” Brown said deputy commissioner Larry Arnett will assume Campbell’s duties until a replacement is named.
Campbell oversaw surface mine reclamation, mine safety and licensing, including non-coal operations. He got generally good marks from both coal industry representatives and environmental interests.
Campbell said Wednesday he “always tried to be fair and consistent across the board. When I could I tried to help the coal companies get their permits and I tried to protect the environment. As far as I’m concerned, I did my job.”
In fact, Campbell said, he was scheduled Tuesday to travel to southeastern Kentucky to listen to concerns from Nally and Hamilton, a Bardstown-based coal company with surface operations in southeastern Kentucky under fire from environmental groups which have sued the company for alleged Clean Water Act violations. Campbell said the company thought the state was slow in releasing its reclamation performance bonds. He was fired just before he was scheduled to leave for that meeting.
Bill Bissett, president of the Kentucky Coal Association, said, “In my opinion, we had a good relationship with Mr. Campbell. Sometimes he agreed with us and sometimes we disagreed. But we appreciated that we had an open line of communication with Mr. Campbell. We knew where he stood.”
Ted Withrow, a retired state employee with the cabinet’s Division of Water and a member of the Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, met with Campbell earlier this year to discuss concerns about environmental issues and enforcement of mining and clean water laws.
“I found Secretary Campbell to be honest, a man who kept his word,” Withrow said. “When faced with doing what was the right thing to do this past August, when a family’s well exploded and continues to burn today, I had a meeting with Secretary Campbell and he declared the well mine-impacted. That gave families required access to drinking water which was then supplied to them. His integrity will be missed.”
Campbell may have run afoul of Cabinet Secretary Len Peters or others in the cabinet with a deposition in the wrongful dismissal case of another employee, Ron Mills. Mills worked for Campbell but was fired by Peters before Campbell was informed. An employee of Alliance Coal emailed news of Mills’ firing before Mills was actually informed of his dismissal. During a deposition in the Mills’ suit, Campbell was asked if Mills had performed his duties satisfactorily and Campbell said he did.
Campbell said his biggest disappointment is that Beshear didn’t intervene on his behalf.
“I supported him through the entire campaign, both the primary and general going back to 2007,” Campbell said. “I just tried to do my job and protect the environment.”
According to records of the Kentucky Registry of Election Finance, Campbell contributed $1,000 to Beshear’s 2011 primary campaign and another $1,000 to his 2011 general campaign. He also contributed to Beshear’s 2007 primary and general election campaigns. Employees of the coal industry also contributed heavily to Beshear’s campaign.
Fitzgerald also criticized Beshear for allowing Campbell’s firing.
“You would think at this point he should be working on his legacy,” Fitzgerald said. “I hope it it’s more than railing against the EPA for enforcing the provisions of the Clean Water Act.”
Beshear has repeatedly said coal can be mined while protecting the environment but he’s frequently been critical of federal regulations and enforcement. During his last State of the Commonwealth speech before the General Assembly, Beshear called for the federal government “to get off our backs.”