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!

Coal-sludge dam hazardous to school

Coal sludge dam hazardous to school

By Bo Webb and Vivian Stockman

NEAR their mining operations, often at the heads of hollows, coal companies construct dams from mine refuse. Behind the dams, they create slurry or sludge lakes, which store the liquid waste left over from washing and processing coal at coal preparation plants.

There are about 150 active coal-sludge impoundments and several hundred inactive or abandoned impoundments in West Virginia. Some impoundments sit near or above schools — such as the Marsh Fork Elementary School on W.Va. 3 in Raleigh County. About 270 children, from kindergarten through grade 5, are enrolled in Marsh Fork, which was built in the late 1930s, and then rebuilt in the ‘60s after a fire.

Coal mining operations began around the school in the early 1980s. In 1985, a sludge dam was built above the school. About 300 yards from the school, a coal-preparation plant was built. (Note that there are at least two lawsuits pending, filed by sick coal-prep plant workers against manufacturers of the chemicals used in coal-prep plants. The workers contend that those chemicals made them ill.)

A silo for storing and loading coal towers over the school, just 160 feet from the school’s air intake vents. These operations changed hands a couple of times; they are now owned by Massey Energy.

In late 2003, Massey filed for a permit from the state Department of Environmental Protection to surface and mountaintop mine 1,849 acres above the school and behind the sludge dam. The dam would not only hold waste from the prep plant, but it would also be used as a sediment pond for the surface mining operations.

This expansion of mining around Marsh Fork horrified some parents and the members of the citizen group Coal River Mountain Watch. The group has spoken with a worker who helped construct the dam. He details violations in construction that compromise the compaction of the dam face. This miner fears that an 80-by-40-foot section of the dam remains unstable to this day. The blasting associated with mountaintop-removal coal mining could possibly weaken the dam face and the impoundment floor.

In addition, several teachers and students report headaches and asthma (in at least one case, relieved when the student was transferred to a different school). Some, including teenage former students, have either contracted or died from cancer.

Coal River Mountain Watch worked to draw attention to the problem, holding local rallies, talking with the media, collecting 800 signatures on a petition, and contacting state agencies as well as the federal Environmental Protection Agency. The EPA has an ongoing investigation. On June 15, 2004, EPA arrived to start an investigation focused on the sludge dam, the prep plant, the coal-loading silo behind the school, the blasting, and all related mining activities near the school. The investigation is apparently ongoing.

However, Stephanie Timmermeyer of the state Department of Environmental Protection, insists that Massey is doing everything according to the regulations and that the dam poses no threat to the schoolchildren.

The DEP did note that the state Division of Health and Human Resources’ cancer registry determined that the area around the school does have a high rate of cancer, but that was due to tobacco use and old age. Coal River Mountain Watch followed up with Pat Colsher at the health agency. She said that, yes, the Sundial area is a cancer cluster, but no one could determine if it was tobacco-related or age-related without a thorough investigation. Coal River has since written two letters to Ms Colsher, asking for that thorough investigation, suggesting she obtain a roster of the school for the past 15 years, attempt to track down those folks and determine what health issues they may have. She has not responded.

Coal River also contacted [former] Gov. Wise about the situation. Timmermeyer responded for Wise, again stating that all the chemicals used at the mine site are approved by the EPA. A Coal River volunteer reminded the DEP chief that all chemicals used in the United States are approved by the EPA, including household cleaners — but that does not mean that your kid should inhale a bottle of Mr Clean.

Coal River Mountain Watch has contacted every agency it can think of, but the group just seems to get the runaround. The group, along with the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition and concerned citizens from Mingo County, has formed the Sludge Safety Project to work together for the implementation of safety measures for this and other coal-sludge impoundments looming above schools and communities.

Fortunately, coal-sludge impoundments are not necessary. Some coal companies are already using alternative, dry methods to dispose of coal waste. These methods are currently more expensive than ponds. However, considering that public health and safety are at stake, the extra cost is more than worth it.

Please visit the Sludge Safety Project Web site ( to learn more about our efforts.

What is a Coal Sludge Impoundment?

What is a Coal Sludge Impoundment?

Coarse waste rock is used to construct the dam at Brushy Fork
Coarse waste rock is used to construct the dam at Brushy Fork

Before being transported to market, coal must be washed to separate it from the surrounding soil and rock–the more impurities a company can remove from coal, the higher its market value and the lesser the transportation costs. The washing process generates huge volumes of liquid waste, while the mining process generates millions of tons of solid waste. The cheapest way for coal companies to deal with some of this waste is by constructing dams from the solid mining refuse (that is, rocks and soil) to impound the liquid waste. (In mountaintop removal coal mining, some of the solid refuse is dumped directly into valleys). Coal companies usually build these dams in the heads of hollows (valleys), close to their coal processing plants.

The dams and impounded slurry or sludge are often euphemistically referred to as “ponds,” but “toxic lake” is the accurate name, as coal sludge impoundments can store billions of gallons of liquid coal waste.

Coal companies say the sludge contains mostly water, rocks and mud.  But sludge contains carcinogenic chemicals used to process coal. It also contains toxic heavy metals that are present in coal, such as arsenic, mercury, chromium, cadmium, boron, selenium, and nickel.

Marfork Coal Co.'s (Massey Energy) massive Brushy Fork impoundment near Whitesville, WV, is designed to hold 9 BILLION gallons of sludge.
Marfork Coal Co.’s (Massey Energy) massive Brushy Fork impoundment near Whitesville, WV, is designed to hold 9 BILLION gallons of sludge.