When Ron Mills was fired last month as head of Kentucky's Division of Mine Permits, he said it was partly because he wouldn't allow coal mining companies to dig on land to which they don't have a right. Now, a Kentucky newspaper has uncovered an email that indicates Mills may have been telling the truth, and raises serious questions about the relationship between private energy companies and their government regulators.

The Lexington Herald-Leader has obtained an email written by an Alliance Coal executive that announced Mills' firing moments after the firing happened. The email also predicted who would replace Mills later that day as the person responsible for issuing mine permits in the state.

"Ron Mills will be asked to resign this morning and will be replaced by Allen Luttrell on an acting basis," wrote Alliance Coal manager of permitting Raymond Ashcraft, according to the Herald-Leader. The email was sent at 9:24 a.m. on Nov. 13.

"Minutes earlier, Mills said in an interview Sunday, he was pulled aside in Frankfort and fired as director of the Division of Mine Permits. Later that day, his deputy, Luttrell, was named as his acting replacement," the Herald-Leader reported.

At issue is a policy known as the "two-thirds rule," which allows mining companies in Kentucky to mine on land even if they don't have the right to access part of the land. Under the rule, companies can get a mining permit so long as they have the right to access two-thirds of the land they plan to mine.

Mills, as well as some Kentucky environmentalists, argue the rule is illegal. As head of permits, Mills had rescinded the rule in 2008, but according to a report at the Louisville Courier-Journal earlier this month, members of the administration of Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear, a Democrat, overruled Mills last year and allowed the policy to continue.

Now, in the wake of the revealed email, environmentalists are asking questions about the amount of influence that mining companies have over the regulatory bodies that are designed to keep them in check.

The Herald-Leader reports:

Gov. Steve Beshear and the Kentucky Democratic Party are among the beneficiaries of several hundred thousand dollars in political donations made by executives and employees of Alliance Coal, based in Tulsa, Okla., and its political action committee. Beshear went to Union County in September to stand with Alliance Coal executives as they celebrated a new mine.

Mills said he heard for months that Alliance Coal and the governor's office were pushing for his ouster because he opposed those permits. It's now clear the company was better informed about his fate than he was, he said.

"Ashcraft seemed to know before I did that I was going to be fired," Mills said.

"Obviously, somebody in the administration felt compelled to call him and tell him," Mills said. "But why? Why are they calling coal companies about their decisions to hire and fire the people in my position?"

While Mills has in the past suggested that Gov. Beshear had a hand in his firing, the state's energy and environment secretary, Len Peters, says he alone was responsible for Mills' firing. Peters says Mills wasn't fired for opposing the "two-thirds rule," but rather because "he just did not meet my expectations as a manager."

Mills says he never received a complaint about his management capabilities prior to being fired, the Herald-Leader reported.