October 11, 2000 one of, if not the largest, environmental disaster in
the history of North America occurred deep within the Appalachian Mountains
of Eastern Kentucky (USA). This happened when a coal waste impoundment,
owned and operated by Martin County Coal Co. (owned by A.T. Massey Coal
Co. which is owned in turn by the Flour Corporation) broke into abandoned
underground mines and spilled in excess of 750 million gallons of coal
slurry into nearby streams and rivers. Even though it was many times greater
that the infamous Exxon Valdez disaster, and directly affected many towns
and villages, the mainstream media, national environmental organizations,
and political entities paid little or no attention. Why?
THE CENTRAL APPALACHIAN COALFIELDS
The Coalfields of the Central Appalachian Mountains include portions of
the U.S. states of Kentucky, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Virginia and
the entirety of West Virginia. Some of the world's richest natural resources
are concentrated within this region. Coal, oil, gas, water and timber
are abundant. Also within this region resides some of the nation's poorest
This region came to national attention in
the 1960's because of the degree and extent of poverty there. Little relief
has come to the people of the region since the infamous "War on Poverty."
At that time one in three persons in the Appalachian coalfields lived
in poverty 50% higher than the national average. Currently the poverty
rate is 49% higher than the national average. Presently, the high school
completion rate is only 51%. Other statistics are similar.
There are several reasons for this disparity.
First, the region has been artificially divided in ways that divide and
separate the residents of the area from one another. These barriers have
been very effective in prohibiting collective organizing and action. Perhaps
the most effective barriers are simply state lines. This relatively small
area is in portions of six states, resulting in different agency structure,
laws, contact points, etc. Central Appalachia falls within three separate
regions of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA), which complicates
environmental permitting and enforcement. All of this is in spite of the
fact that the residents of the Central Appalachians share a rich and unique
culture, a common single industry dominance (coal) that shapes the economic
and political scene, a more or less common ancestry, and a common history
of independence and strong family values.
A second reason for the socioeconomic woes
is the stereotyping which has been internalized by some of the residents,
to the point that many believe that the only way to escape their plight
is to leave the region and/or deny and erase their culture and heritage.
Gallons of ink and reams of paper have been consumed writing about the
"quaint" people of the Central Appalachians. Within mainstream American
society, ethnic and racial jokes and stereotypes are no longer permissible
- with one exception. Television series such as "The Dukes of Hazzard,"
"The Beverly Hillbillies," and "Green Acres," cartoons
like "Snuffy Smith," and the movie Deliverance still
thrive. In order to expedite the extraction of resources, the people too
must be exploited. In order to make this acceptable, they are dehumanized
and made to appear "different" from the rest of the nation in a way that
validates their exploitation.
The October 11th spill began when an underground coal mine collapsed and
the contents of a 72-acre "pond" containing coal slurry approximately
the thickness of wet cement poured from the "pond" into the mines and
gushed out two openings into nearby Coldwater Fork and Wolf Creeks. The
slurry then made its way into the Tug Fork river and on to the Big Sandy
River. It eventually emptied into the Ohio River near Ashland, Kentucky.
The spill was so devastating that Kentucky
Governor Paul Patton was forced to declare a state of emergency for ten
counties. The spill forced the cities of Inez, Kentucky; Louisa, Kentucky
and Kermit, West Virginia to close water intakes and rely on supplies
provided by trucks and temporary pipelines operated by the national guard
and citizen volunteers.
Martin County schools were canceled for
one month. Restaurants, stores, and businesses were forced to close their
doors. Many residents were forced to evacuate their homes and seek temporary
shelter wherever it could be found. This is an area that relies heavily
on underground aquifers as a source for potable water. These private wells
and springs are no longer usable by residents.
Now, several months after the original incident,
the adverse effects are very prominent among the residents of the region.
- Many residents have red blotches, called
"sludge bumps" by neighborhood children, spread across their bodies.
- Those who have dared to blame the coal
company or file suits for property and health damages are subjected to
harassing phone calls.
- There are telltale black rings on trees
where the sludge reached its peak and the spill has left similar scars
on the people whose lives were disrupted.
- Roads and bridges were rendered impassable
and remain insufficient.
- One can throw rocks in the creek and watch
as a plume of black follows the impact.
- One resident's backyard still looks like
a reclaimed strip mine site, very poor quality rocky soil and a thin cover
of grass growing in little bits and pieces. There were still some bald
spots in the yard. The yard is still rippled with the treads of bulldozers
and heavy equipment.
- According to the U.S. Agency for Toxic
Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) analysis, "in some samples of
the source coal slurry material, copper, vanadium, manganese, barium,
arsenic, and cobalt were above levels of health concern". The report also
indicated a slightly elevated level of copper in the raw (untreated) water
at the Martin County Water Plant in Inez. The report also states "in some
forms, barium, arsenic, and vanadium can produce health effects by skin
contact. In most cases, these effects can occur after prolonged exposure
lasting a year or more. Like most heavy metals, all of these compounds
effect the digestive system, the kidneys (except manganese), and the liver
(except vanadium). Many of these compounds produce effects on the central
nervous system and some of them produce effects on the cardiovascular
system". Arsenic, cobalt and barium can also produce swelling of the eyes.
The concentration of arsenic found in the slurry can also cause skin irritation.
Exposure to high levels of cobalt can also lead to skin rash.
- There is still a considerable amount of
sludge left in the "reclaimed" backyards and the creeks.
- At Wolf Creek, the creek that got mostly
watery slurry, it appears that the cleanup operation there is finally
over. The hydromulch and the heavy equipment are mostly gone, and all
along the denuded creek banks there is a swath of bright new green grass
and a few weeds, but little other plant life in many stretches. There
are thousands of new stumps along the creek where the riparian vegetation
has been removed for the cleanup operation, and the creek bed is full
of silt. Basically Wolf Creek will just be a muddy trench baking in the
sun for the next ten or fifteen years until the trees can grow back.
- Although the large blobs of sludge are
gone, there is still a lot of black silt in the creek bed and along the
banks. Martin County Coal has installed black plastic fences about 18
inches high along both sides of Wolf and Coldwater Creeks to reduce the
amount of soil erosion, but this seems kind of absurd and ironic in light
of the amount of silt already in the creek, and the level of damage that
has already been done to the creek by the spill and the cleanup operation.
Martin County Coal initially refused to respond to questions about the
spill. They simply provide a news release that blamed the spill on a "sudden
and unexpected" collapse of the underground mine roof. They placed company
guards on the state highway leading to the site of the disaster and refused
entry to any one, with the exception of regulators and one company led
group of news reporters. Regulatory agencies would simply state that the
cause of the disaster was "being investigated". Industry officials were
silent. However, as the magnitude and effects of the disaster became publicly
known, silence and simplistic statements were no longer acceptable. The
public demanded actions.
Kentucky Department for Surface Mining Reclamation
and Enforcement issued four notices of noncompliance to Martin County
Coal for violations. They accused the company of "engaging in an unsafe
practice by allowing substandard water and slurry" to flow from the impoundment
into the underground and creating an "imminent environmental damage."
Martin County Coal was ordered to "immediately
cease all substandard discharges" and "...re-establish access to all driveways
and any county and state roads blocked by slurry." They were also ordered
to replace all fish and other aquatic life killed and to rebuild roads
and bridges damaged by the spill. Governor Paul Patton of Kentucky declared
a state of emergency for 10 Kentucky counties stating the spill was, "endangering
the public health and safety, and could result in potential environmental
Martin County Coal began dredging the slurry
from streams and placing it in newly constructed temporary "ponds" on
top of a nearby mountain. The company also sent two tractor-trailers filled
with gallon jugs of water to the town of Louisa, Kentucky. They also obeyed
an order from the state and removed their armed guards from the state
highway allowing public access leading to the site of the spill.
The Unified Command (State Federal Agencies
dealing with the disaster) admitted that the Martin County Coal Company's
president edited news releases issued by them. They agreed to cease that
Martin County Coal's president Dennis Hatfield
met at least four times with members of the effected communities and promised
that the company would "...get it back to normal." He publicly apologized
for the incident saying, "We very much regret that this has happened.
It is a mess. It's a disaster. And we're just trying our best to get things
back to normal. We've made mistakes," Hatfield said, "I'd be the first
to admit that. We've messed up a bunch of times." However, two months
later, in response to five civil lawsuits for damages against Martin County
Coal, the company made two defenses claiming:
- That the slurry spill "was the direct,
sole and proximate result of an act of God, the occurrence of which was
not within the control of Martin County Coal", and;
- That any alleged negligence by the company
occurred more than five years before the October 24, 2000 filing date
of the suits and therefore is barred by statutes of limitation. The U.S.
Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (the same Agency that
would later acknowledge hazardous levels of chemicals in the slurry) met
with residents and assured that there was no health hazards. One resident
was quick to point out that each member of the state and federal experts
assembled to make the statement, had bottled water in front of them.
COAL SLURRY "PONDS"
Coal slurry is a thick mix of water, coal waste, rock and chemical used
to "clean" the coal. It contains many heavy metals such as arsenic, mercury
and lead, but is not classified by the state and federal governments as
hazardous since it is supposedly not buried in landfills nor discharged
into public waters. Extremely large amounts of slurry are produced in
the processing of coal prior to shipping. Coal companies dispose of the
slurry by pouring it into huge impoundments built behind dams made of
bigger chunks of preparation plant waste or by injecting it into old,
abandoned underground mines. Over time, solids in the slurry settle to
the bottom and the liquid remaining on top is discharged into the nearest
stream. Today there are an estimated 1000 such slurry ponds scattered
throughout the coalfields. The largest concentration of these is in the
Appalachian Mountains of West Virginia and Eastern Kentucky.
The history of coal waste impoundments is not a good one. In 1972, a slurry
dam operated by Pittston Coal on Buffalo Creek in Logan County, West Virginia
collapsed. Flooding killed 125 people and destroyed 500 homes.
In 1981, a similar dam in Harlan County,
Kentucky broke killing one person and destroying much of the community
of Ages. In 1996, a CONSOL Energy coal waste dam at the company's Buchanan
No. 1 Mine near Oakwood, Virginia leaked into old underground mine workings
and blew out the other side of the mountain. Coal slurry gushed into a
tributary of the Levisa Fork of the Big Sandy River at a rate of up to
1000 gallons per minute. The 25-mile spill blackened creeks and killed
Also in 1996, an Arch Mineral Corp. impoundment
in Lee County, Virginia broke with similar results.
A.T. Massey Coal's track record is less
than spectacular. In 1994, Martin County Coal was fined for a similar
collapse that spilled blackwater "in amounts too great to be measured"
- into area streams. Since 1986, the company has been fined for nine separate
spills from sediment ponds and waste impoundments. In West Virginia, Massey
subsidiaries have been repeatedly cited by state and federal regulators
for spills from their mining operations along the Coal River in Boone
and Raleigh counties. USEPA recently settled spill cases against Massey
subsidiaries Elk Run Coal Company and Goals Coal Company.
It should not have come as a surprise that
this particular structure failed. Three years ago, U.S. federal Mine Safety
and Health Administration investigators inspected the Martin County Coal
Corporation dam. They found that a manmade barrier between the impoundment
and underground mine works may not have been designed to withstand water
pressure from the slurry. They concluded that a breakthrough at the impoundment
could endanger miners and public safety.
In 1994 a federal engineer investigating
yet another coal slurry spill from a Martin County Coal impoundment warned
that seals separating the impoundment's floor from an underground mine
were inadequate. In that same year, another engineer with the Mine Safety
and Health Administration warned that area mine maps, used to gain approval
of the structure "appear to be inaccurate. Therefore, a very conservative
design is warranted. If the water in the impoundment broke through, it
is very possible that they would fail and a loss of life could occur.
In spite of this, Martin County Coal was permitted to expand the impoundment
later in 1994.
A veteran mine-safety expert resigned from
the federal team investigating the disaster because of his belief that
the group's final report will be a whitewash. A mining engineer with 35
years experience in mine safety said in a letter, "I do not believe the
accident investigation report, as it is now being developed, will offer
complete and objective analysis of the accident and its causes." Bill
Caylor, president of the Kentucky Coal Association, an industry group
of coal-mining companies responded to citizen's allegations of property
damage and health effects by stating, "Martin County Coal is a good company
with a good reputation. This is a way for residents to get their property
bought in an economically depressed market. They are smelling home cooking
on a local jury." He responded to a suggestion that such impoundments
be banned by saying, "Banning coal impoundments would eliminate mining.
If you can't dispose of coal economically, you can't sell your product."
To think that there are approximately 1000
of these impoundments tucked away in the mountains of Central Appalachia
is frightening. They have a long history of failing. The agencies whose
duty is to regulate these and protect the public and the environment have
a long history of protecting the companies instead. The news media whose
duty it is to expose these have a long history of ignoring such events
in this region (one paper actually reported that it was fortunate that
this event occurred in an "uninhabited area"). The people are economically
and politically powerless.
These events will continue to occur and
worsen until the rest of this nation refuses to accept the exploitation
of the people whose only offense is to be born in a region rich in culture
and history, but poor in power and money. I don't think that will happen
because those who could help us bring about change would rather see us
die than to give up their inexpensive energy sources.
And after all, God should know better.