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A socialist newsweekly published in the interests of working people
Vol. 64/No. 42November 6, 2000

Coal barons' greed unleashes pollution disaster in Kentucky
BECKLEY, West Virginia--A major environmental disaster has been unleashed in Eastern Kentucky as a result of the reckless profit drive of the coal mining barons.

Just across the border with West Virginia, near the town of Inez, a 72-acre mine sludge pond broke October 11 sending 250 million gallons of water and 155,000 cubic yards of coal wastes down two mine shafts under the pond and from there into two watersheds.

Two streams, Coldwater Fork and Wolf Creek, which feed into the Big Sandy River basin, were fouled. The Big Sandy is a main tributary of the Ohio River and is upstream of two major U.S. cities, Cincinnati, Ohio, and Louisville, Kentucky, as well as a number of smaller cities and towns on the way. Water supplies in many smaller communities have already been affected.

About 10 percent of the pond escaped when water broke through a hole caused by subsidence, a sudden roof fall, in a worked out part of the Martin County Coal mine. The pond holds 2.25 billion gallons. Workers plugged the hole after four and a half hours, preventing a much larger catastrophe.

Martin County Coal Corp., is a subsidiary of the infamous union-busting outfit, A. T. Massey, which defeated a strike by the United Mine Workers of America in the mid-1980s. The pond that broke was filled with a molasses-like slurry that was formed by washing coal at the nearby preparation plant. In addition to coal dust, the slurry contains clay; heavy metals such as arsenic, mercury, lead, copper, and chromium; and other chemicals used in the preparation process.

In 1994 leaks were discovered in the impoundment. The safeguards Massey put in place, reinforced seals on old workings, proved disastrously inadequate. The pond was inspected as recently as September 22 of this year by Mine Health and Safety Administration (MSHA) inspectors who found no cause for concern. MSHA is reviewing its inspection procedures.

Residents of the area say that if the gooey mixture had gone into one stream instead of two, the spill might have been akin to the 1972 Buffalo Creek disaster in West Virginia that killed 125 people and destroyed as many as 500 homes when a coal-holding pond broke over the top of a hollow, sending down a tidal wave over nearby residents. In the Buffalo Creek disaster only half the volume of black water was unleashed as in this most recent incident.

Following two smaller breaks in coal slurry ponds in Virginia in 1997, resulting in the death of a woman inside her home, MSHA undertook to check and categorize the hazards posed by existing ponds. The Martin County Coal pond was regarded as posing a moderate threat. Seven others in Kentucky were classified as posing a high risk.  
Many left homeless
While no one was killed in the recent Kentucky catastrophe, many people have been left homeless and there has been considerable property damage. Area health officials estimate that the spill has affected 4,500 people in 1,500 residences along the river, said Maleva Chamberlain, a spokeswoman for the state Division of Water. Gil Lawson of the state Cabinet for Health Services said 27,623 people were without water in two water systems in Louisa and Martin County.

Large numbers of fish and other aquatic life have been killed. Other wildlife dependent on the rivers and streams has also been adversely affected. Residents have told reporters for the major dailies in Kentucky that they have seen many fewer deer in the area, for example.

Some early estimates are that cleanup efforts will cost nearly $60 million. Initially, state and federal officials announced the sludge plume had broken into the Ohio River on October 17. But rising river waters resulting from heavy rains upstream slowed the migration of the sludge downstream for several days. As the Ohio's waters receded it moved into the Ohio again.

Ashland, Kentucky, which draws its water supply from the Ohio River through a pipe two and a half miles from the confluence of the Ohio and Big Sandy rivers, is the first sizable town that could be affected. As of this writing, city officials are hoping river currents will take the pollution to the Ohio side of the river, bypassing their inlet pipe. Observers reported October 21 by the time the sludge plume had migrated three miles downstream in the Ohio River it was no longer visibly dispersing the pollution into the river.

Fred Stroud, an on-site coordinator for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, estimated the cleanup could take four or five months.

Dan Kash, who is active with the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, told the Lexington, Kentucky, Herald-Leader the cleanup will require far more equipment than what the company has so far deployed. Kash, who is also a former inspector with the Kentucky Department for Environmental Protection, explained, "That's laughable, there's no way they ever can put a dent in it with what they're using."

More such disasters are waiting to happen. There are 653 containment ponds like this one that exist in the United States. Some 220 are built over underground mining operations, posing a threat to miners working underground, to nearby communities, to the environment, or all three.

Nearly 60 of these are in Kentucky. Such impoundments are an environmental time-bomb waiting to explode. The billionaires who own the coal companies should be held liable and foot the bill for cleaning up the mess and for doing whatever it takes to end the danger posed by these ponds to coal miners, mining towns, as well as farmers and workers downstream.

J. Rose is a meat packer in the St. Louis area and a former coal miner in southern Illinois.

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