In neighboring Kentucky on an October morning in 2000, the bottom of a waste pond near the town of Inez collapsed, pouring 250 million gallons (946 million liters) of slurry—25 times the amount of oil spilled in the Exxon Valdez disaster—into an inactive underground mine shaft. From there, the slurry surged to the mine's two exits and flooded two creeks hell-bent for the Tug Fork of the Big Sandy and the Ohio River beyond. Miraculously, there was no loss of human life, though 20 miles (32 kilometers) of stream valley would be declared an aquatic dead zone, water systems in ten counties would have to be shut down, and the black slick would eventually reach out toward the riverfront in Cincinnati. Lawyers for the Martin County Coal Company, a Massey subsidiary and owner of the impoundment, blamed the accident on excessive rainfall, which was simply another way of saying what had been said at Buffalo Creek. It was God's fault.
Fear of impoundment failures haunts the collective memory of West Virginians. "I'm convinced something awful's going to happen again," Freda Williams was saying the day I called on her at her tidy brick house beside a tributary of the Big Coal River, just south of Whitesville. One of the largest waste basins in the state, the Brushy Fork slurry lagoon, owned by Massey Energy, impounds some eight billion gallons of blackwater sludge about three miles upstream from Williams's home.
"What's going to happen to all that water if the dam breaks or the basin collapses into an abandoned underground mine?" By some accounts, should the Brushy Fork impoundment ever fail, a wave of sludge 25 feet (7 meters) high could roll over Whitesville in no time flat.
Two other Massey waste impoundments pucker the slopes of the Big Coal Valley. The one at Sundial looms directly above the Marsh Fork Elementary School, with an enrollment of 240 children, from kindergarten through fifth grade. Though Stephanie Timmermeyer, chief of the state's Department of Environmental Protection, has claimed that the Massey facility poses no threat to the schoolchildren, the agency's own rating system lists the dam as a Class C facility, meaning its failure could reasonably be expected to cause loss of human life.
Besides the raw scars of the mines themselves, the most startling features of coal country are not necessarily those blackwater basins but the mountain-topped valley fills that have buried hollows and headwater streams under millions of tons of broken rock. Critics fear some fills could eventually come tumbling down in landslides of unpredictable proportions. As one Kentucky attorney likes to put it: "A valley fill is a time bomb waiting to happen."
One of West Virginia's biggest time bombs reaches more than two miles down what used to be, when it was flowing free, the Connelly Branch of Mud River in Lincoln County. The fill represents part of a mountaintop the Arch Coal Company unhinged to create the 12,000-acre (4,800-hectare) Hobet 21 mine, one of the largest surface mines in West Virginia. But Hobet 21, now owned by Magnum Coal, has another distinction: For several years it's been home to "Big John," an earthmoving machine with a 20-story dragline and a bucket scoop that swallows over 100 tons of soil and rock in a single bite.