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EPA checks Marsh Fork Elementary for coal dust

EPA checks Marsh Fork Elementary for coal dust

Preliminary tests done by a Region III Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) investigative team at Marsh Fork Elementary found no signs of excessive dust or coal dust outside or inside the school. Raleigh County Schools requested that the agency do additional testing during August 15-17.

Their final report may take several more weeks to be completed, said team lead investigator Bill Steuteville, Region III EPA multi-media enforcement coordinator. Multi-media refers to soil, air and water.

A coal dust silo stands 225 feet from the school. Dust samples collected in the school in January by D. Scott Simonton, P.E., PhD showed coal dust in all seven samples. Simonton is vice-chair of the state Environmental Quality Board. Dr. Dewey Sanderson, Professor of Geology at Marshall University, analyzed the dust samples.

Particulates analyzed in January were coal dust. Size varied, but most were smaller than 10 microns, said Bo Webb, Coal River Mountain Watch member.

Wiley’s meeting with

Senator Byrd

Ed Wiley walked from Charleston to Washington, D.C. to raise awareness about safety concerns about the school, which is surrounded by mining operations.

Wiley walked through Morgan County in late August. He arrived at the nation’s capital last Wednesday and met with Senator Robert Byrd and Congressman Nick Rahall to talk about the school’s issues.

Issues include a toxic coal sludge pond above the school, reports that the pond dam is periodically leaking, numerous dam compaction rate violations, blasting at an adjacent surface mining operation, coal trains idling 150-200 feet behind the school spewing diesel exhaust, antifreeze sprayed on the coal to minimize dust and other toxic chemicals and heavy metal impurities involved in manufacturing.

Wiley’s concerns about trees rotting inside the sludge pond and breaking off and puncturing the dam appear to have been addressed. In 1972, a similar sludge pond dam failed at Buffalo Creek and 125 people died as black water flooded the valley.

The sludge impoundment dam is regularly inspected, said Jessica Whitehouse, West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection spokesperson. There is a permissible amount of seepage from the dam, she said. Inspectors are usually onsite to monitor the dam during periods of heavy rain, said Whitehouse.]

EPA testing

During the EPA testing at Marsh Fork Elementary, five real-time air-monitoring devices were placed at various distances upwind, downwind and crosswind from the coal dust silo said Steuteville. One air monitor was placed in the playground area. The devices registered particulate counts, temperature and humidity in the air over a five-hour period.

The tests were begun before a coal train was loaded and continued for several more hours after loading was over. No increase in particulates was attributed to loading, said Steuteville.

Found two urgent issues

The team identified two issues that needed immediate attention during their inspection of the mining operations and the school for dust and compliance.

Asbestos was found on a pipe inside a school basement crawlspace. The asbestos has been sealed off and will be removed at the end of the school year when students won’t be present. Asbestos is a common problem in schools built prior to 1980.

As requested by the EPA inspectors, the coal company is voluntarily removing two 1,000-gallon tanks of anhydrous ammonia that are situated around 600 feet from the school. Anhydrous ammonia is used to adjust the pH of the wastewater byproduct of coal manufacturing.

Anhydrous ammonia is considered an extremely hazardous substance under the Clean Air Act, said Steuteville. In an accident, it would send up a toxic cloud, he said. The coal plant is switching to a temporary caustic soda system in place of the ammonia, he said.

Steuteville examined the school grounds and every room in the school for signs of coal dust and excessive dust but didn’t find any. One gymnasium rafter appeared darker than expected. Their team also looked at every aspect of the mining operation and observed no dust except in a few situations. Excessive dust was not a problem onsite, said Steuteville.

The investigative team is now examining the size and components of coal dust particles and possible toxicity at low exposures, he said. Steuteville is researching the toxic effects of coal dust and black lung. There is limited research available, he said. Much more testing could be done and there are indications that it would be appropriate, he said

Coal dust can stay in the lungs

Dustless than seven microns gets in the lungs and can stay there, said Dr Alan Ducatman, Professor and Chair of the Department of Community Medicine at the West Virginia University School of Medicine.

“Smaller particles have a larger active surface area relative to their mass and are generally considered more dangerous,” said Ducatman.

White cells can clear carbon dust out of the lungs to some degree, but not completely, he said. That is why miners, smokers and some third world city dwellers have black carbon accumulations in their lungs. Coal dust can set off an inflammatory cascade that can lead to disease, he said. There would need to be a sufficient dose of coal dust, as is seen in miners, Ducatman noted.

Length of time for inflammatory response is dose-dependent and complex, being affected by peak dosages, which are more dangerous, said Ducatman. Exposure to coal dust or asbestos can lead to pulmonary fibrosis, he said. He doubted if children would get sufficient coal dust dosage in their school life to get fibrosis. Whether diesel exhaust was in the breathing zones of the children would have to be examined.

“Diesel exhaust has numerous toxicities, including carcinogenesis. It is not a desirable exposure,” said Ducatman.

Exposure levels to coal dust and diesel exhaust at Marsh Fork Elementary have not been determined. Ducatman was doubtful if the level of either would be above environmental thresholds. He wondered how many parents would be content with children getting below threshold exposures and whether that meant it was a safe place to go to school.

Ducatman advised a formal health assessment, which could be done by West Virginia University or Marshall University in conjunction with the Bureau of Public Health. Diesel components, sulfur oxides, nitrogen oxides and school particulates could be measured, said Ducatman.

Breathing tests would be a good idea, but children’s ages would have to be kept in mind. Inflammatory markers in the blood could also be examined, but a comparison group would be needed, he said.

“It is much easier to fix things like this before they happen,” Ducatman said.

Officials say school is safe

Air quality tests conducted last August at Marsh Fork Elementary tested for humidity, temperature, carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide and comfort levels, said Bill Elswick, the state education facilities supervisor. These tests are conducted at every school, he noted. Humidity rates were high, but resolvable with the normal operation of HVAC units once school began.

“From our tests, there’s no reason why kids shouldn’t be attending that school. If we find any reason to the contrary, we’ll address it immediately,” said Elswick.

State School Superintendent Steve Paine feels the Marsh Fork Elementary situation is a matter for the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection and the federal Environmental Protection Agency to determine what additional tests need to be done. School officials don’t have the expertise to determine if there are serious issues at Marsh Fork, he said.

They’ve seen no indications yet that the school needs to be closed, Paine said. He, Elswick and Raleigh County School Superintendent Dr Charlotte Hutchens are waiting for the final EPA report and for advice about further testing.

Wiley won’t quit

Ed Wiley won’t quit until they get a new school built above the coal mining operations. Their Pennies of Promise campaign has raised over $3,600 so far toward a new school.

Wiley said that four teachers and three children at the school have died of cancer. There’s also a child on a breathing machine and a lot of kids sick with respiratory problems, severe headaches and other complaints, he said.

Wiley urged people to call or write Governor Joe Manchin, Senator Robert Byrd and Senator Jay Rockefeller, to give donations or hold fundraisers for a new Marsh Fork elementary school and to get involved.

“Stand up. This could happen in your backyard. If we fail to take care of our children, we have failed as Americans,” said Wiley.

Wiley and the crew were thrilled with the support they received in Morgan County. Events were organized in Paw Paw, Largent, Great Cacapon and Berkeley Springs during Wiley’s walk here. Around 40 people attended Wiley’s presentation at The Red Guitar on Sunday, August 27.

Local follow-up meeting

A follow-up meeting about Marsh Fork Elementary and the surrounding mining issues is planned for Sunday, September 24 at 4 p.m. at The Red Guitar.

Ed Wiley walks to save children

Ed Wiley walks to save children


WASHINGTON, Sept. 18 (UPI) — Former coal miner Ed Wiley ended his 455-mile walk from West Virginia to Washington with a plea for better legislation to protect children in coal-mining areas.

“My concern is the children,” he said last Wednesday during a news conference on Capitol Hill where he ended his walk.

Wiley is campaigning to save the lungs and lives of approximately 220 schoolchildren in the Coal River Valley, in the Appalachian Mountains, who are being made ill by mountaintop removal coal mining. The practice, which is rife in West Virginia, has been criticized by many environmentalists.

The children at Marsh Fork Elementary School, in sundial, W.Va., aged four to 11, take their classes 150 feet away from a coal preparation plant, and 400 feet below a coal-sludge dam holding back 2.8 billion gallons of toxic waste, according to a news release from Wiley.

A Mine Safety and Health Administration report, released under the Freedom of Information Act, has shown this dam to be leaking.

“This thing will break,” Wiley said of the dam.

If it did break, the children would have approximately 17 seconds to live, Wiley’s Indy media Web site said.

An independent study published by Dewey Sanderson, professor of geology at West Virginia’s Marshall University, determined that coal dust was present in all the air samples he collected from the elementary school.

“I ran my fingers along the wall at the last hearing that was at the school, about a month ago,” said Hillary Hosta, a campaigner with West Virginia’s Coal River Mountain Watch. “And they turned black with dust.”

There has been a campaign to move the school to a safer location since May 24, 2005, when two Coal River Valley residents were arrested while attempting to deliver their list of demands to the superintendent of the coal processing plant. According to the Coal River Mountain Watch, the group’s campaign has been “systematically ignored by every government agency approached.”

There is, however, a wider issue beyond simply this school, as many of Wiley’s supporters are anxious to point out. Hosta explained to United Press International that “the school is essentially a microcosmic example of a larger swath of problems that are happening all throughout Appalachia that are inflicted by coal companies onto communities.”

According to the Energy Information Administration, the U.S. Energy Department’s data arm, in 2005 West Virginia produced 153.7 million short tons of coal, more than any other state. Coal production also creates nearly 19,000 jobs in the state. Coal is vital to West Virginia’s economy and to America as a whole, and so it is impossible to see coal production as simply a curse.

Mountaintop removal coal mining is a relatively new practice. It can destroy up to 1,000 feet of rock to reach the veins of coal underneath and can cause leaking toxic waste and damaging coal dust. Coal must be cleaned and washed with chemicals before it goes to market, to draw out the mercury, arsenic, and lead. This process leaves behind a poisonous sludge that builds up in nearby lakes, such as the one looming 400 feet above Marsh Fork Elementary.

There are 155 of these “Sludge Camps” in West Virginia. There are also nearly 400 permits to inject that sludge into underground mines, which have been known to contaminate wells.

Under the Clean Water Act (1977), the Environmental Protection Agency has the power to regulate against the contaminating of the water supply, but it has not to date brought any action against the Goals Coal plant above Marsh Fork Elementary School. Local officials affirm that the air in the school meets safety standards and say the dam is safe. But locals are not convinced.

Rep. Frank Pallone, D-N.J., speaking at the Capitol Hill news conference, called it “preposterous” that the EPA allows the situation with Marsh Fork Elementary to continue.

If it were allowed under the Clean Water Act, Pallone said, then the Clean Water Act must be changed. He instead supported the more stringent Clean Water Protection Act. Republicans, he said, “really haven’t done anything but tear down environmental laws.”

Prior to the news conference, Wiley met with Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., to talk about Marsh Fork Elementary school. He said Byrd “had tears in his eyes,” and had promised to “leave no stones unturned.”

While there was still clearly hard work ahead, Wiley’s walk will put pressure on the local government to help raise the money to build a new school for the children away from the coal mine.

Appalachian activist Debbie Jarrell said: “Even though the area we live in is called ‘The Coal Fields,’ there is more to where we are at than coal. We have a community there, we have a family there, we have our hopes and our dreams and our visions just like any other people have. We are not just coal fields.”

Mountaintop removal

Mountaintop removal

Mountaintop removal: Mining practices must change or the ecosystem will be destroyed

The Central Appalachian region, consisting of eastern Kentucky, Southern West Virginia and southwestern Virginia, is one of the most biologically diverse parts of North America. The forests in this region constitute the largest unbroken forest east of the Mississippi River. It is home to approximately 250 bird species, 150 tree species, and countless animal, plant, and aquatic species.

Since the early 1970s, approximately 380,000 acres in West Virginia, 320,000 acres in Kentucky and 90,000 acres in Virginia have been strip-mined for coal. Mountaintop removal operations have become the predominant form of strip mining in this region. Mountaintop removal requires the use of large valley fills for disposal of soil and rock removed from the tops of the mountains to allow access to the coal seams. Many of these valleys fills contain millions of tons of soil and rock and are dumped with little regard to effects upon aquatic, animal or plant life, or the human beings downstream. Some valley fills contain over 300 million tons of mining debris and extend downstream from their headwaters for as far as six miles.

More than 1,900 miles of streams have been buried or severely degraded, in fact completely obliterated, by the valley fills. These mine waste fills are the largest earth structures in North America.

Since 2001, there have been at least seven periods of severe flash flooding in the region that can be directly attributed to increased runoff from mountaintop removal operations and other types of strip mining operations. Flash flooding occurred on July 8, 26, 28 and 29, 2001, in Southern West Virginia and eastern Kentucky. Flash flooding occurred again on May 2 and July 19, 2002, and the next year on June 16, 2003.

There have been fatalities. As far back as June 1, 1997, two people died in the Clear Creek area of Raleigh County as a result of flash flooding caused by runoff from a mountaintop removal operation. On July 8, 2001, three people drowned in flash flooding related to strip mining operations, and on May 2, 2002, at least seven people died as a result of rapid runoff and flooding caused by mountaintop removal.

As recently as August 2004, young Jeremy Davidson, a 3-year-old boy who lived near the community of Appalachia, Va., died when a boulder weighing several tons was dislodged by a bulldozer constructing an illegal haul road to a strip mine. Jeremy was asleep in his bed when he was crushed by the boulder. The road construction was being conducted in the early morning hours in a steep-sloped area so as to avoid detection by government regulators.

Sediment loading of streams, particularly in the Kentucky, Cumberland and Big Sandy river basins in Kentucky, and the Guyandotte, Coal and Tug river basins in West Virginia, has accelerated at an alarming rate in the past 25 years. This is due to increased runoff from the unstable, eroding slopes of a valley fill and poorly graded mountaintop removal areas.

The sediment load in areas downstream from mountaintop removal operations can now be measured in the millions of tons. It is estimated that about 1,200 miles of streams downstream from mountaintop removal operations have been severely damaged by sedimentation and heavy metal deposition.

Flooding of the main stem rivers and the Ohio River itself can be attributed to this sediment increase, which reduces stream and flood control reservoir capacities. It is estimated that some flood-control reservoirs in eastern Kentucky, particularly Fishtrap Lake on the Levisa Fork of the Big Sandy River, have lost as much as 60 per cent of their storage capacities.

In October 2000, I was asked by the assistant secretary of labour under President Clinton to participate in an investigation of the Martin County coal slurry spill that occurred on Oct. 11, 2000. The conflicts involved in that investigation have been well documented by the press and even on national television.

My only purpose in raising the alarm about this investigation as I did was to make certain that the mining company and the agencies responsible for enforcing mine health and safety and environmental laws be held accountable for their failure to do so. More than 100 miles of streams were polluted by the Martin County spill. All life forms in and along the streams and rivers were obliterated. Approximately 1.6 million fish were killed. More than 27,000 people had their public and private water supplies contaminated. When I objected to weakened investigation reports and less-than-appropriate enforcement actions, I was immediately attacked by administrators in the Labor Department appointed by the Bush administration. They tried to fire me but failed because of the public uproar.

The fact remains, however, that Massey Energy, the company responsible for the spill, and which has one of the poorest environmental records in Appalachia and a less-than-desirable mine health and safety record, has gotten away with what the EPA called the worst environmental disaster in the southeastern United States. Massey has been able to do this because corporate executives have direct access and influence with top officials of the Mine Safety and Health Administration and other government agencies. According to Common Cause, Massey Energy contributed $100,000 to the National Republican Senatorial Committee while it was being investigated for the slurry spill. Massey Energy was ultimately fined $5,600 for the Martin County spill.

There are approximately 650 coal-waste dams in the United States. Most are located in Central Appalachia. About 225 of the coal slurry impoundments are sitting on top of abandoned underground mine workings where the potential exists for additional breakthroughs such as that which took place at Martin County.

Unless the mining practices I have described are controlled far more strenuously or curtailed, by the year 2012 more than 2,500 square miles of Appalachian mountains, forests and streams will have been utterly destroyed. At least 3,500 miles of streams will have been covered up completely. One of the most precious ecosystems in the world will be completely lost, forever, and the people living immediately downstream from these massive mining operations will be forced to leave their homes and communities just to survive.

Spadaro is a West Virginia mining engineer long involved in conflict with the Bush administration. This is excerpted from his speech to the Kentucky River Watch conference on Feb. 5.

Marsh Fork Elementary

Marsh Fork Elementary

Marsh Fork Elementary, Massey Energy’s Shumate Coal Sludge Impoundment and Goals Coal Prep Plant

The Marsh Fork Elementary School in Raleigh County with the light green lawn and white buildings is in the foreground at the left. Just behind the school is a blue bend in the Marsh Fork of the Little Coal River. Across the river to the right is the coal silo–just 150 feet from the school. Though not readily visible, train tracks run beside the silo. Concerned parents worry that coal dust and the chemicals used in processing coal and loading it from the silo onto the train are drifting onto school grounds. Prove this yourself–walk barefoot through the playground and take a look at your toes.

Marsh Fork Elementary, Massey Energy's Shumate Coal Sludge Impoundment and Goals Coal Prep Plant

Across the river and left are the blue buildings of the Goals Coal Processing Plant, a subsidiary of Massey Energy. To learn more about the dangerous chemicals used in coal prep plants, see the Why Worry section of this website. Above the prep plant, a road zigzags up the face of an earthen dam holding back billions of gallons of coal sludge in Massey’s leaking Shumate impoundment. A worker at this site, now alleges he is gravely ill from the chemicals used on site. He says portions of this dam were not constructed properly and Mine Safety and Health Administration records support his statements. Beyond the impoundment –that black lake of toxic goo–another Massey Energy subsidiary, Independence Coal, is starting an

1,849-acre strip mine. How crazy to have blasting at this strip mine above an impoundment held by a violation-prone earthen dam–just 400 yards from an elementary school!