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

Kentucky Coal Investigation

Air Date: Week of

The investigation of one of the worst environmental accidents in the United States has been marred by allegations of government obstruction and company malpractice. The whistleblower is Jack Spadaro, a former member of the team that investigated the October 2000 coal slurry catastrophe. Last summer he was placed on leave from his position at the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration. As Phillip Babich reports in this special investigative story, some members of Congress are looking into whether Spadaro is being targeted for his whistleblowing activities, and whether the government interfered in the coal slurry investigation.


CURWOOD: Last November, "Living on Earth" interviewed mine safety official Jack Spadaro. He's the whistleblower who alleges that officials from the Bush Administration obstructed the investigation into one of the worst environmental catastrophes in the history of the southeastern United States: The Martin County Coal slurry spill of October 2000.

Mr. Spadaro was placed on administrative leave last summer, and the U.S. Department of Labor has taken steps to fire him. But now some members of Congress are looking for answers about the role the government has played in his dismissal and about the coal slurry investigation itself. Phillip Babich has our report.


A "coal bucket" heading down a county road in Inez, Kentucky. (Photo: Phillip Babich)

BABICH: It's a crisp day in Inez, Kentucky. Trucks hauling coal – gray-stained rigs known as "coal buckets" – wend their way up a narrow county road in regular intervals.


BABICH: Their payload is from the Martin County Coal Company, just down the road. Monroe Cassady used to work for Martin County Coal in the preparation plant. That's where they wash the raw coal.

CASSADY: Yeah, they're running the coal, and you can see the smoke stack comin' out where the heat dryer and scrubber and everything's a'working. You can see the 'dozers in the coal pile, and coal coming out the stacker tubes. Yes, it's a typical day at a coal mine.

BABICH: In the preparation plant, the raw coal goes through a series of chemical processes to separate out dirt and rock. The excess material, water and chemicals – the slurry – is then pumped into an impoundment. The Martin County Coal slurry impoundment is 70 acres in size -- that's more than half-a-mile long, and about three-and-a-half football fields across. It has a capacity of more than 2 billion gallons. Part of the lagoon is situated above underground mines. In the early morning hours of October 11, 2000, the bottom of the slurry impoundment broke into one of the mines.

CASSADY: The slurry came down this stream right here, where we're lookin' at right here

BABICH: A torrent of sludge and water blasted through about two miles of underground mines until the flood punched out of a mine opening in the side of a mountain and began flooding Coldwater Creek. Another pressure build-up resulted in a second flood on the Wolf Creek side of the impoundment. Residents described the flood as a black lava flow, with enough density to raise bridges as it crested the creek banks. Again, Monroe Cassady.

Martin County Coal Company, Inez, Kentucky (Photo: Phillip Babich)

Former coal worker Monroe Cassady in front of Martin County Coal Company (Photo: Phillip Babich)

CASSADY: When it came out on one side of the mountain it shot plum across to the other side a'knockin' big timbers down. So with all that force a'comin' out you can just imagine what it would look like comin' through here. Nothin' but black, you know.

MAYNARD: It smelled terrible. It smelled like chemicals, like hydraulic. You know, nothing smells worse than hydraulic fluid.

BABICH: Janice Maynard lives on Coldwater Creek. The smells from the day of the accident are still fresh in her mind. So are some vivid scenes. One memory in particular is of five turtles lying on top of the slurry.

MAYNARD: When I saw all the big turtles on the surface there, you could see every one of them, their shells. Big, big turtles. And they were dead, though, you know.

An Inez resident scoops out slurry-contaminated water from an old drinking hole, which is still blackened three years after the October 2000 slurry spill. (Photo: Phillip Babich)

BABICH: More than 300 million gallons of the slurry fouled about 100 miles of waterways, causing severe property damage and annihilating wildlife. So what went wrong at Martin County Coal?

Jack Spadaro is an expert on coal slurry impoundments, and was on the federal investigation team that examined the Martin County disaster. It was a 1972 slurry dam accident at Buffalo Creek in West Virginia that has defined Spadaro's career in mine safety. One hundred and twenty-five people were killed and 4,000 left homeless in that accident.

At 23 years of age, Spadaro was tapped to be the staff engineer in the investigation of the Buffalo Creek disaster. He spent the next 30 years studying rock and earth structures and working as a government regulator. When he first heard about the Martin County catastrophe, Spadaro feared the worst.

Mine safety official Jack Spadaro in his home in Hamlin, West Virginia (Photo: Phillip Babich)

SPADARO: I was concerned that we were having, thirty years after Buffalo Creek, a failure of this magnitude. And, I knew what kind of tragedy could result if we didn't do a good job of investigating and finding out what really caused this.

BABICH: Federal regulations require at least 150 feet of rock and dirt lie between the bottom of a slurry impoundment and an underground mine. Spadaro's investigative team discovered only 15 feet.

WILSON: Frankly, I was surprised that they were operating, because I kind of thought that they stopped operations after the previous failure.

BABICH: Larry Wilson was a lead federal mine safety engineer following a rupture at the Martin County Coal impoundment in May 1994 that dumped 100 million gallons of slurry. He surveyed the damage and made a list of nine critical recommendations, including fortifying the impoundment and underground mines before Martin County Coal could continue to dump slurry there.

WILSON: I didn't think they would be able to continue operating unless they did seal these things, pretty much knowing full well that they wouldn't seal them because it would cost too much to do so. I guess I was trying to back-door into making sure that the site was never used again.

BABICH: Massey Energy, the parent company of Martin County Coal, did not respond to repeated requests for an interview. But Bill Caylor, president of the Kentucky Coal Association, which represents the state's coal operators, says Massey did all it could to prevent another accident.

CAYLOR: It's really easy to say on hindsight, ‘oh, we should have known.’ At the time they thought they were doing things correctly. I don't think anybody felt like they were not reacting properly.

BABICH: But documents obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests show that district officials for the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration, MSHA, and Martin County Coal, did not comply with Wilson's recommendations even though the company continued to use the impoundment and add to its capacity. MSHA officials declined to comment for this story. Wilson's June 1994 report was unearthed in late-2000 when then-head of MSHA Davitt McAteer, a Clinton appointee, ordered a complete review of his agency's files on Martin County Coal.

MCATEER: By virtue of the fact that we had a second failure, it means that our response wasn’t adequate. There was no question that the district managers could have been more stringent and more demanding of the company to take further steps to increase the impoundment safety and security.

BABICH: Spadaro and other investigation team members felt they were beginning to collect enough evidence to issue Massey Energy citations for willful and criminal negligence. Both the Wilson memo and a critical independent engineering report were red flags to Spadaro that Martin County Coal was at fault.

SPADARO: The company knowingly continued to pump slurry into a reservoir that was underlain by mine workings. And there was a thin soil and rock cover that was known because there had been a previous breakthrough. And the company submitted drawings that misrepresented the underground conditions.

BABICH: In addition, it looked as though the team's own agency, MSHA, a wing of the Department of Labor, was going to be held accountable as well. But that all changed when George W. Bush moved into the White House.

BUSH: [FROM INAGURATION] I George Walker Bush do solemnly swear…that I will faithfully execute the office of President of the United States…

BABICH: Within days of President Bush's inauguration a new team leader, Tim Thompson, was brought in to head the Martin County Coal investigation. According to Jack Spadaro and other members of the investigation team who spoke on condition of anonymity, Thompson dramatically narrowed the scope of the investigation. Witnesses were dropped. MSHA's culpability in the matter was taken off the table. What's more, says Spadaro, Thompson was in close contact with President Bush's new MSHA chief, Assistant Secretary of Labor Dave Lauriski, particularly when mine safety engineer Larry Wilson's 1994 recommendations were discussed.

SPADARO: And he would come back and he would say, we're going to take this section of the report out. We're not going to have any reference to the 1994 recommendations by the technical support division.

BABICH: By April of 2001 Spadaro was fed up with what he saw as an emerging cover-up. He tendered his resignation from the accident investigation team and filed a complaint with the Department of Labor's Office of the Inspector General, alleging that Bush administration officials were obstructing the team's work.

Spadaro also spoke out publicly when MSHA released its final accident investigation report in October 2002, which cited Martin County Coal for two minor violations with fines totaling $110,000, and left MSHA district officials completely off the hook. One of those citations was dropped, and the penalty on the other was reduced. Massey is now looking at a $5,500 dollar fine.

The final accident report said the cause was an inadequate berm of coal refuse around the perimeter of Martin County's impoundment.

SPADARO: There was a lot of pressure on all the folks on the team to kind of go along with the program, and get this report out and make it as smooth as possible. And, don't argue about the causes of the accident.

BABICH: Some eight months later, on June 4, 2003, Spadaro was placed on administrative leave. Right now he is awaiting final word as to whether he will retain his job as Superintendent of MSHA's training facility. His superiors are accusing him of a raft of misbehaviors – unrelated to the investigation – including "abusing his authority" and "failing to follow instructions." Spadaro says that he's being targeted for his whistle blowing activities.

SPADARO: I've been in government 27 years, in federal government, and I was in state government five or six years. This is the most lawless administration I've ever seen. They run roughshod over anybody who might try to get them to obey the laws.

BABICH: The Department of Labor Inspector General exonerated MSHA of any wrong doing in its handling of the Martin County Coal investigation. But whole sections of the IG's report are blanked out, and some say it raises more questions than it answers. Some members of Congress are trying to get to the bottom of the whole affair, including the pending dismissal of Jack Spadaro.

OWENS: It's a political item which has come down from the top.

BABICH: U.S. Representative Major Owens of New York and two other Democratic members of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce are taking a closer look at Jack Spadaro's case. They've requested that U.S. Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao provide them critical documents and information to help them assess whether Spadaro is being wrongly terminated. So far, says Representative Owens, their investigation has been “stonewalled.’

OWENS: Somebody had to get to the secretary, or the secretary had to receive that order from some political forces that did not want to see this happen for their own various reasons, in terms of cowing to Martin County Coal Company. Or they felt some kind of indebtedness to them.

BABICH: Department of Labor spokesperson Ed Frank denies that Secretary Chao has had a hand in the Spadaro case or the investigation. He says that the Department is in the process of getting the documents to Representative Owens.

FRANK: The Secretary played absolutely no role in the personnel issue with Mr. Spadaro, who is a mid-level employee in West Virginia. And the Department's fine against Martin County Coal is the largest that's allowed under federal law and the facts of the case.

BABICH: While it's unclear whether Bush Administration connections to the mining industry have anything to do with the investigation or personnel actions taken against Spadaro, it's probably worth noting that Massey Energy is a major contributor to the Republican Party.

And, President Bush's top leadership at MSHA is stacked with former mining executives. Assistant Secretary Lauriski was an executive with Energy West Mining. Deputy Assistant Secretary John Correll, worked for Amax Mining and Peabody Coal.

One MSHA investigator told me, "The investigation didn't have to do with just Martin County Coal. The bigger question is, should slurry impoundments be allowed over old mines? That would have been addressed in our report.” With an estimated 240 such impoundments across the country, the coal industry had a lot riding on MSHA's report.


BABICH: The question of safety seems very real when you stand below a slurry dam. A typical rock and earth structure, about 250 feet tall, stretches to the top of a valley mouth to hold back slurry at Independence Coal, another Massey subsidiary based near Whitesville, West Virginia. A truck driving across the top of the dam looks the size of a toy Hot Wheels vehicle. Directly across a creek is an elementary school where 200 students are enrolled. Freda Williams, an organizer with the advocacy group Coal River Mountain Watch, shudders at the thought of a slurry accident here.

WILLIAMS: I would really hesitate to say what would happen to all those students because no one knows what to do. They only thing you know to do is run.

BABICH: This impoundment is just one concern for communities in and around Whitesville. What looms most ominously for them are plans to make the largest impoundment in the country at Brushy Fork. It now holds 5 billion gallons of slurry, and, according to Coal River Mountain Watch, it's scheduled to hold up to 9 billion gallons. Its dam is 950 feet tall and it sits on top of underground mines. With such a massive impoundment in their backyard, Freda Williams says it's important for regulatory agencies to be vigilant.

WILLIAMS: We just want the coal mining to be done legally and responsibly. We’re not against coal mining.

BABICH: And that's been Jack Spadaro's philosophy since his early days at Buffalo Creek. His fate is now in the hands of his bosses at MSHA, who are weighing the superintendent's appeal of his termination notice. Spadaro doesn't expect any sympathy, though. He's levied charges that MSHA's top officials are handing out lucrative no-bid contracts to friends and associates. For Living on Earth, I'm Phillip Babich.

CURWOOD: Support for our story on Jack Spadaro and the Martin County Coal slurry spill was provided by the Fund for Investigative Journalism.

[MUSIC: Mark Isham “Coalwood” OCTOBER SKY SNDTRK (Sony Music - 1999)]



"Dirty Business"

"Wrongful Termination of Coal Mining Official?"



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