MAC: Mines and Communities

Mine Workers Chief Nabbed at Site of US Coal Slurry Spill

Published by MAC on 2002-03-15

Mine Workers Chief Nabbed at Site of US Coal Slurry Spill

Source: Environment News Service, (US)

"Worst environmental mess in 22 years"

INEZ, Kentucky, March 15, 2002 (ENS)

United Mine Workers president Cecil Roberts was one of 11 people arrested Thursday at the site of a huge coal sludge spill as they demonstrated against the environmental performance of Massey Energy.

Nearly 200 union members paced outside the gates of Martin County Coal, the Massey subsidiary whose impoundment failure 18 months ago sent an estimated 306 million gallons of water and black coal slurry into the Big Sandy River and its tributaries. The people arrested sat down and refused to leave the road outside Inez that leads to the mountaintop impoundment. Roberts and the 10 others arrested were freed after a brief period in custody.

"We are targeting Massey because of its corporate greed and callous disregard toward the environment, worker safety and the well-being of Appalachian coalfield communities," said Roberts, a sixth generation coal miner. The spill on October 11, 2000, created what West Virginia environmental enforcement coordinator Mike Zeto called "the worst environmental mess I have seen in 22 years."

Slurry from the impoundment broke into an adjacent underground mine, discharged to the surface, and impacted over 75 miles of streams in Kentucky and West Virginia, reaching as far as the Ohio River. Governor Paul Patton declared a state of emergency in 10 counties in northeast Kentucky.

The spill killed fish and contaminated drinking water. Lawns were buried over six feet deep in the gooey black sludge. This was the second breakthrough at the impoundment; the first occurred in 1994.

An investigation showed that the protective barrier between an underground mine and the Martin County coal waste impoundment as far thinner than regulators thought. In its report on the spill issued March 4, the Interior Department's Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement (OSM) concludes that the breakthrough "was caused by seepage and piping through the outcrop barrier at the corner of a 50 foot long entry in the underground mine beneath the impoundment."

In its separate report on the incident, the Federal Mine Safety and Health Administration said, "The failure of the Big Branch Refuse Impoundment and subsequent inundation of the 1-C Mine occurred because Martin County Coal Corporation failed to follow its approved Impoundment Sealing Plan, dated August 8, 1994, and subsequent modification, dated September 7, 1995. The plan specified a seepage barrier to be constructed along the perimeter of the impoundment where mining had occurred near the outcrop of the Coalburg seam. Martin County Coal Corporation's failure to follow the approved plan resulted in internal erosion ("piping") occurring at the location of the breakthrough, the OSM said.

Act of a savage god?

In a court document, a Martin County coal official had claimed the spill was "an act of God." "The audacity of Massey to initially blame the slurry spill on 'an act of God' was a prime example of the company's callous attitude," said Roberts. "The safety of that impoundment was questioned back in 1999, and Massey should have responded to those concerns. But it didn't respond, and thousands of citizens throughout Appalachia are still paying the price."

More coal sludge

Since the Martin County sludge spill, Massey and its subsidiaries have been cited for such environmental breaches as blackwater spills, improper maintenance of sediment control ponds, illegal structures and other violations. On June 19, 2001, the company spilled 30,000 gallons of polluted water from its Liberty Preparation Plant into the Pond Fork stream in Boone County, West Virginia.

At West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) hearings in December 2001, state regulators testified that Massey's Independence Coal operations on Robinson Creek exhibited "the worst environmental performance they had ever seen."

In January, the agency suspended a permit for Massey subsidiary Marfork Coal for 14 days because of repeated water pollution violations. In February, the DEP cited Massey subsidiary Green Valley Coal for "a substantial history of violations" at its coal waste disposal site in Greenbrier County, West Virginia, suspending its permit for 30 days. "Sadly," Roberts said, "Massey's environmental record is beginning to mirror its horrendous health and safety record at its nearly 70 active mines and surface facilities in Kentucky and West Virginia. Since May 1997," he noted, "there have been 12 fatalities at Massey mines."

The Office of Surface Mining report contains seven recommendations on technical considerations and improved processing to prevent future breakthroughs at other impoundments. Massey officials did not respond to requests for comment.

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