A review by the AP found the agency has been spending on average nearly $2,000 on each citation issued to mining companies for violations spotted from the air through an initiative started by the federal government’s Office of Surface Mining (OSM).

The flyovers came as a surprise to mining industry leaders, including Kentucky Coal Association President Bill Bissett, who not only complained about their “covert” nature but also questioned their effectiveness.

However, the state disagrees. “We feel the helicopter’s value as an enforcement tool is a necessary component of our overall enforcement program and we would suffer greatly if we did not use it,” said KDMRE spokesman Dick Brown.

Last year, the state agency wrote almost 1,250 citations that resulted in nearly $10 million in fines. That averages to about $8,000 in penalties per citation written, though it wasn’t clear how many of the 244 citations from flyovers resulted in fines.

“The helicopter was never meant to pay for its use by generating penalties from the violations that are written from its use,” Brown said. “That line of reasoning quickly gets into the overall enforcement program paying for itself by generating penalties—a bounty system.”

Brown said OSM provided the money for the Division of Mine Reclamation and Enforcement to purchase the helicopter that his agency routinely uses. But the agency reimburses the Department of Aviation for operation expenses.