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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Coal Spill

Air Date: Week of

A reservoir burst this month, spilling millions of gallons of coal waste into rivers in Kentucky and West Virginia. Ken Ward, a reporter with West Virginia’s Charleston Gazette, talks with host Steve Curwood about what caused the disaster and why it could have been prevented.


CURWOOD: An estimated 250 million gallons of a thick lava-like coal mining waste is ruining drinking water supplies and killing aquatic life along 75 miles of the Big Sandy, the river bordering Kentucky and West Virginia. The disaster is also threatening the Ohio River and the city of Cincinnati. The coal mining waste, called slurry, broke out of a reservoir at the A-T Massey Company in Inez, Kentucky. Technicians say it will take at least six months to clean up the spill, but they're making no predictions about long-term effects. Ken Ward is covering the story for West Virginia's Charleston Gazette. He says in many ways this spill is the Appalachian version of the Exxon Valdez.

WARD: We had a photo the other day of a frog covered in black coal dust, and it was like the photos you'd see from the Exxon Valdez. And you'd see birds covered in oil and things. And it's very similar. But volume-wise, this is certainly bigger than that.

CURWOOD: Ken, how did this happen? What led to the spill?

WARD: As odd as it seems, coal companies build these dams on top of old underground mines. Old underground mines have a habit of doing what's called subsidence, which is where you've mined under something so the ground that was underneath isn't there any more to hold up the ground above, and the ground above collapses into the underground mine workings. In this case, what they believed happened is that the underground mine collapsed, water and slurry from the impoundment poured into the underground mine workings and broke out of the hillside in two spots into these streams. The force, the energy force from the weight of all of this water when it breaks through like that, is so powerful, it will just break through the side of a hill and flood whatever happens to be on the other side of that hill.

CURWOOD: Ken, this is not the first time this has happened in West Virginia. There was another big one. What was it called, Buffalo Creek?

WARD: In 1972, in a place called Buffalo Creek in Logan County, West Virginia, about an hour or so south of Charleston, a Pittston Coal Company dam broke and sent millions of gallons of water and slurry pouring through that valley. A hundred and twenty-five people were killed, 500 or more homes were destroyed, hundreds and hundreds of people left homeless. It was a complete and utter disaster for that community.

CURWOOD: Now, you wrote an article in the Charleston Gazette in 1997 that basically predicted that an accident the size of this Massey disaster could happen. Why did you come to that conclusion?

WARD: Well, we were doing a series of articles for the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Buffalo Creek disaster, and we wanted to go and see if these dams were still a problem. And in 1997, when we were doing this, there had been two of these breakthroughs in Virginia. And we found out that the agencies that were supposed to regulate these things, the Mine Safety and Health Administration and the Office of Surface Mining, didn't really know at that point what the potential for this to happen was. And it had clearly happened in Virginia in two instances, that caused some pretty big environmental problems. So we thought that it was pretty serious and needed to be looked at some more.

CURWOOD: So, you wrote this article. Your article suggests that it could likely happen again. What happened after you wrote the article?

WARD: After some inquiries from us and after these two incidents in Virginia, MSHA decided that it was going to do a study of this potential. And they went out and looked at all the impoundments that they were aware of. That's where they came up with the figure that there were 225 that were built above underground mines. From those, they went out and looked at mine plans and permits and things, and concluded there were 45 that had what they called a high potential to cause this sort of a problem.

CURWOOD: So, as we speak today, there are what, 45 other places where it very easily could happen.

WARD: Certainly. And MSHA, further, as part of their study, they were supposed to take the dams that had a high risk of having this happen and go out and require mine operators to either prove that their dams were safe, or to take additional steps to make them safe. In at least half of the instances where MSHA concluded that there was a problem and the company should do something, nothing has been done yet.

CURWOOD: What has the federal response been so far in the wake of this disaster?

WARD: The Mine Safety and Health Administration, which is run by a fellow named Davit MacAteer, has already announced that it's going to do another nation-wide investigation of these dams and try to make sure that they're all safe. There is a Congressman from Kentucky, Hal Rogers, who is trying to get a two million dollar appropriation from Congress to have the National Academy of Sciences study not only the safety of the dams that exist, but also study whether there is an alternative way for coal companies to dispose of their slurry so that they wouldn't have these dams in the first place.

Probably the most outrageous response to this thus far has been that of the federal Office of Surface Mining, which is part of the Department of the Interior. You know, that agency was formed because of and after Buffalo Creek, but yet it has done almost nothing nationwide, or particularly in the coal fields of Appalachia, to regulate these dams, and thus far has really done nothing since the Inez Kentucky accident, to go out and make sure that other dams are safe.

CURWOOD: Ken Ward is a reporter with the Charleston Gazette. Thanks for taking this time with us today, Ken.

WARD: Thank you, Steve.



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