Project History

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The Sludge Safety Project was founded in 2004 by Coal River Mountain Watch (CRMW), the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition (OVEC) and Concerned Citizens of Mingo County. Coalfield residents and community activists were becoming increasingly concerned about the dangers of sludge impoundments after the Martin County Disaster in October of 2000.  OVEC responded to the flood of toxic sludge in Inez, Ky., and supported CRMW in their campaign against the expansion of the Brushy Fork Impoundment.  Residents of Delbarton,W.Va., became alarmed about the safety of an old impoundment and plans to build a new impoundment in their community.  They formed the Delbarton Environmental Community Awareness Foundation to educate their community and challenge the impoundment with support from OVEC.  While they were unsuccessful at stopping the impoundment, they pressured the County Commission into installing a "Reverse 911" system to warn residents in the event of an impoundment failure or other disaster. In 2007, Boone County residents also organized and won an emergency alert system for impoundments in their area.

In 2004, Mingo County residents and community activists decided coal sludge was such a critical issue for coalfield communities that they founded the Sludge Safety Project, the first organization to focus exclusively on the problem of coal sludge.  Concerns about an impoundment in another Mingo County community, Rawl, led to SSP's first organizing effort.  While working with community members about concerns with the impoundment, we found residents with red and black tap water and serious illnesses throughout the community.  Residents had been struggling for years to get a water line extended to them without success.   We also learned about slurry injection, specifically that Rawl Sales and Processing had pumped over a billion gallons of sludge underground near the community.  Over 700 area residents filed a lawsuit against Massey Energy, owner of the prep plant.  Working with the law firm Thompson and Barney and SSP, residents would go on to get comprehensive water testing and to win emergency water, a water line extension, and a settlement for $35 million in damages and life time medical monitoring for all plaintiffs. 

The project quickly realized the potential scope of this problem and volunteers assembled a database of injections across the state.  Residents of the Rawl area didn't want anyone else going through what they did and so, in 2006, brought their story - and their water - to the West Virginia State Capitol.  We advocated for a ban on all injections and impoudments, pointing out the industry had used alternatives in the past.  Legislators were shocked by the pictures and stories from Rawl.  The coal industry lobbyists were shocked when the Legislature passed Resolution SCR-15 in 2007 directing the state Dept. of Environmental Protection and Dept. of Health and Human Resources to study slurry injection and its effects on groundwater and community health. 

Also in 2007, CRMW staffer Patty Sebok began to raise serious concerns about the well water in her community of Prenter.  SSP organized some community meetings and started doing research.  We heard people's stories of widespread illness and saw their damaged applicances and black water.  It was the same familiar story from Rawl and sure enough, we discovered that a Massey Energy prep plant had injected huge amounts of coal slurry near the community.  SSP helped the community get water testing, supported efforts to extend a water line, and worked with residents to found the Prenter Water Fund, the "blue barrels" emergency water distribution service.  In 2008, hundreds of residents also filed suit against Massey for damages to their health and property.

Visit our friends at Journey Up Coal River for more of Prenter's incredible story.

After 3 years of intensive citizen lobbying and spreading awareness of slurry injection, the DEP surprised everyone by declaring a moratorium on new slurry injection permits when they released the SCR-15 report in 2009.  While the report was inconclusive and deeply flawed, it exposed a huge array of problems in the regulatory program.  Many new regulations and other measures were ordered and a temporary moratorium on issued new permits was put in place.  For now the moratorium stands and tough new regulations have helped lower the number of plants injecting slurry to around a half dozen.  The Sludge Safety Project continues to work in the state Legislature for a permanent ban on slurry injection.  In 2011, we came closer than ever with a bill banning injection getting committee votes in both the House and Senate.