MAC: Mines and Communities

Mine left, and water went with it

Published by MAC on 2008-10-07
Source: Cassondry Kirby-Mullins, McClatchy Tribune

Neighbors sue coal company, saying practices left their wells dry

CAMP BRANCH, KY. - A narrow, green, rubber hose winds its way through thick trees in an Eastern Kentucky hollow, past hives of swarming honeybees and around a rusted shed, then disappears into Vina Lucas' house.

It carries water from a natural spring into Lucas' five-room home.

Although the water has not been tested for toxics such as sulfur, iron and sewage and leaves a black film around her coffee pot each morning, the 73-year-old Letcher County widow still uses it for bathing, cooking and washing clothes.

"It's all I've got. Besides, the water hasn't hurt me yet," she said.

Lucas is one of about 100 people in the Camp Branch area whose water wells were contaminated or suddenly went dry in the late 1990s.

Many have filed lawsuits blaming Golden Oak Mining Co., which was mining coal under the community at the time.

Golden Oak has since closed the mine and filed for protection under federal bankruptcy laws.

5 families to split $650,000

Many of the suits were settled privately. Some are awaiting trial.

A Letcher Circuit Court jury recently awarded Lucas and four other families nearly $650,000 to be divided roughly equally among them. The amount included compensation for lowered property values and the company's failure to provide replacement water for the families.

During the trial, experts testified that the retreat mining by the company shifted underground water flows, causing wells and springs to go dry.

In retreat mining, pillars of coal are used to hold up the mine's roof.

When the mining is finished, the company pulls the pillars and grabs the useful coal, causing an intentional collapse.

While water contamination complaints relating to mining are common in Eastern Kentucky, rulings against the coal companies aren't, said Ned Pillersdorf of Prestonsburg, one of the attorneys for Lucas and the other families.

Part of the challenge lies in proving which mine caused the damage, Pillersdorf said.

Because mining is so common in Eastern Kentucky, there can sometimes be several mines near communities experiencing water problems.

However, in the Camp Branch case, the Golden Oak mine was the only active site nearby, and it had been more than a half a dozen years since another company had mined in the area.

Probe rules out mining

Maps used during the trial showed that those who had water problems were near the area where pillars had been pulled.

Pillersdorf said that one of the frustrating things for him in the case was the attitude of state investigators who seemed to favor coal companies.

A two-year investigation by what is now known as the state Energy and Environment Cabinet concluded that mining did not cause the water problems.

State findings questioned

Golden Oak's defense relied heavily on the state findings. Of more than 100 families who complained at the time, the state found that the mining contributed to water contamination or loss of water among only 10 families.

Pillersdorf said the state made the ruling without testing Lucas' well.

"The Cabinet should have been our witness," he said.

"If there is a lesson to be learned in this case, it is the idea that the Cabinet looks out to protect the environment is not true. Generally, it looks out for coal companies that harm the environment."

In a written statement, Department of Natural Resources spokesman Dick Brown said the agency has investigated numerous complaints and issued at least four detailed reports over the past 10 years.

In cases where Golden Oak was found responsible, he said, the department required that the company quickly provide affected families with temporary water supplies and then a permanent replacement water supply.

"To say that the state has done little to help these families is a gross misstatement and is simply not true," Brown said.

10 years and counting

Lucas says that her hose sometimes freezes in the winter and frequently gets clogged by crawfish or nesting copperheads.

During those times, Lucas carries as many as 10 buckets of water a day from neighbors' houses until the hose thaws or her son can clear it.

"I never know when I'm going to wake up and not have water," she said. "It's been like this since my three wells went dry about 10 years ago."

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