CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. According to the advocacy group American Rivers, 13 major waterways in America are highly endangered. And in many cases energy is to blame. Hydropower, natural gas exploration, and waste from power plants are the main causes. Number seven on the endangered rivers list is the Big Sandy River that flows between Kentucky and West Virginia. Six months ago an impoundment of coal slurry near Inez, Kentucky, burst. Two-hundred-and-fifty gallons of mud, water, and coal waste went flying into the headwaters of the Big Sandy. The mucky sludge spilled over the river's banks, ruining property and killing aquatic life along a 70-mile path. Clean-up efforts are still ongoing, but there are hundreds of other slurry impoundments in the area. So an investigation is underway about the safety of this disposal method. West Virginia Public Radio's Jeff Young reports.
YOUNG: Residents of Martin County are thankful the tons of black water and sludge that poured through their streams did not take any lives. But the October eleventh disaster still disrupts life every day. At Union United Baptist Church, members feel they've lost a special place of worship.
NICHOLS: I would say we're Baptists, and the water is very important to us here.
YOUNG: Pastor Woodrow Nichols says more than half Union United's roughly 50 members were baptized in the waters of Wolf Creek, which runs just behind the church. Even winter's ice didn't stop them. But Wolf Creek now runs a slatey gray. Its sandy banks are black with coal waste, and Pastor Nichols must take his baptism services elsewhere.
NICHOLS: We depend on this. This is our way of life. It's - this church. Financially, we could afford a baptistry any time we wanted it, but we choose the creek. We like that.
(The congregation sings: Take my hand, precious Lord...." Fade to machinery)
YOUNG: Federal environmental regulators keep watch as the Martin County Coal Company's cleanup continues. Here a "backhoe makes its way up Wolf Creek. The machine's shovel scrapes the stained banks into the water. The idea is that large pumps will later suck the waste from the stream's bottom into another waste impoundment.
YOUNG: The waste comes from coal mine preparation plants like this one, where all mined coal is washed and separated from waste rock to make it more marketable. The wastewater, rock, and sludge from that process are stored in large lagoons behind dams built for mine refuse. The impoundment at Martin County Coal covered 72 acres and was built to top an abandoned underground mine. When that mine shaft collapsed, the slurry lagoon was like a tub with its plug pulled. The waste emptied into the mine shaft, then shot from its two portals into the streams. At one point the coal company had 500 workers and a cleanup effort that parent company Massey Energy estimates will cost $46 million. Bill Marcum is spokesman for Massey Coal Services.
MARCUM: Clean-up is going very well. We committed from day one, Martin County Coal committed to an efficient and effective cleanup. And I believe and we believe that they've done that and are continuing to do it, and do a good job of it. We're probably somewhere, I would hazard, between 80 and 90 percent, maybe closer to 90 percent on our way.
YOUNG: But many residents are not satisfied with the cleanup. They still see black stains where the clean-up crews have already done their work. The cleanup forced some homeowners to leave for months. Many returned to find their properties altered, shade trees cut and yards looking like reclaimed strip mines. Wolf Creek resident Ray Webb doubts the streams his family once fished and swam will be restored in his lifetime. Webb's family has lived on the same plot of land for three generations, but Webb watches the sludge and black water climb toward his garden with each rainfall and thinks of moving.
WEBB: Look here. You see this? And when the water gets up, it's going to be up here in my garden. And in my yard. And it is terrible what they've done. You can't see a thing they've done here. In fact, it looks bad right now. It's about two inches thick right there. I've been down there lots of times checking on it.
YOUNG: So you're looking at moving.
WEBB: Oh yes, we want to move. We've already been looking. I wouldn't want anywhere close to this place.
YOUNG: It's got to be tough, though, leaving a place where you've lived all your life.
WEBB: Yeah, 67 years. My dad lived 74 years and my mother lived 92 right here. Ninety-two years right there in that house. Yeah, it's tough to leave. A lot of sentimental.
YOUNG: Residents like Webb fear the soil may be contaminated, and they don't trust the water coming from their faucets. Some report discolored, foul-smelling water from wells. Others report rashes after bathing. Monroe Cassady says residents do not believe coal company and federal health agency officials who test the water and tell them it is safe. He's formed a nonprofit community group to test the area's water.
CASSADY: The community people and community are proud of their community. They're just dissatisfied with agencies that are supposed to be protecting the community, and there's no trust in them. We certainly, from past experience in watching the agencies work with Martin County Coal, we certainly would not, under no circumstances, believe them.
YOUNG: Residents are not alone in that distrust. Jack Spadaro is a 35-year veteran of mine safety inspections who recently quit his post on a U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration investigative team. Spadaro feared the team's final report would whitewash the causes of the Martin County disaster.
SPADARO: Some of the management and some of the very top management instructed us to change and narrow the scope of our investigation, so that we wouldn't write anything that would be critical of the agency. Several sections of the report were being altered to really obscure the agency's responsibility, and to confuse, as far as the responsibility of the operator, Martin County Coal.
YOUNG: Spadaro says a full investigation should address why regulators did not make the coal company implement safety measures after a similar but smaller failure at the same impoundment seven years ago. He says regulators and the company relied on inaccurate information about how much rock separated the old mine shaft and the floor of the waste lagoon. The coal company disputes that. More than 200 other impoundments around the U.S. are also resting on top of old underground mines. A federal review of the nation's 650 mine waste impoundments is underway, and a panel appointed by Congress is studying their safety. Some activists in the region are calling for a moratorium on new slurry impoundments and a fresh look at safer alternatives. For Living on Earth, I'm Jeff Young in Inez, Kentucky.
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