Consider, for example, the Big Coal River community of Sylvester, where fewer than 20 of its 195 longtime residents are employed in mining or related services. And consider Sylvester resident Pauline Canterberry. She lives in a small house just a quarter mile down State Route 3 from a coal-washing plant operated by the Elk Run Coal Company, a subsidiary of Massey Energy, West Virginia's premier producer. Canterberry has been waging a decade-long battle with Massey and state and federal regulators over the volume of coal dust wafting from the Elk Run facility and sifting under the sills of Sylvester's homes. She has personal reasons for being concerned about the quality of the air. Her father, Ernest Spangler, died in 1957 from silicosis. His job had been putting out mine fires with buckets of pulverized rock dust. Then in 1991 her husband, John D. Canterberry, died of black lung disease after years of working in underground mines.
"When I was young, Sylvester was the place to be," Canterberry said. "Everyone wanted a home here because the town was so clean. It wasn't a company town. But then Massey came into the valley, and it's been downhill ever since—in more ways than one. Now they'll take 300 feet (90 meters) off the top of a mountain just to get at a few feet of coal."
After a long succession of petitions and hearings, 150 Sylvester residents prevailed in their case against Elk Run, forcing the company to pay the litigants economic damages of nearly half a million dollars and requiring it to maintain a dust-trapping dome over its processing plant and to limit the number of coal trucks passing through town to an average of 20 a day. Despite these concessions, Canterberry and some of her activist neighbors are worried about Massey's plans to expand its Elk Run operations. (Massey representatives did not return repeated phone calls requesting information on its record at Sylvester.)
Several years ago the director of the state's Division of Mining and Reclamation issued a memorandum showing that for the years 2000 and 2001 Massey incurred 500 violations, more than twice the number accumulated by the state's next three largest producers combined. Sixty-two of those violations, most involving excessive coal dust emissions, were attributed to the Elk Run Coal Company at Sylvester.
I grew up beholden to West Virginia bituminous coal. My parents' house in Cincinnati was heated by it until they switched to oil in 1945. The coal came down the Ohio River by barge, and every wintry month or so a dump truck would deliver a big pile beside our garage. I remember helping my father cart it to the furnace inside, and the grating screech of his shovel on the cellar floor. And I remember the trail of black soot and the coal dust on my shoes. I was grateful for the warmth the coal gave us, but I hated it too because it was dirty. This was before public health and clean-air regulations obliged the mining industry to wash coal and, in Appalachia at least, dispose of the dust, dirt, and wastewater in impoundments, often perched precariously on the sides of the mountains.
There are some 500 of these impoundments in Appalachia today, more than half in Kentucky and West Virginia. Variously referred to as slurry ponds, sludge lagoons, or waste basins, they impound hundreds of billions of gallons of toxic black water and sticky black goo, by-products of cleaning coal, mostly from underground mines but also from surface mines. Mountain folk residing downhill from these ponds worry about what a flood of loose sludge might do—and has already done in a number of tragic cases.
In Logan County in the winter of 1972, following two straight days of torrential rain, a coal-waste structure built by a subsidiary of the Pittston Coal Company collapsed and spilled 130 million gallons (492 million liters) into Buffalo Creek. The flood scooped up tons of debris and scores of homes as it swept downstream. Survivors recalled seeing houses bob by, atilt in the swift current, the doomed families huddled at their windows. The final count was 125 dead, 1,000 injured, 4,000 made homeless. The Pittston Company called the disaster an "act of God."
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."
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