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Trouble in Coal Country
Comments () | Published September 1, 2008
West Virginian Terry Keith (at left) with her four grandchildren and daughter-in-law Christina. Keith, who often babysits the children, used tap water in the triplets’ formula until she realized it could be contaminated by coal waste. She still cooks with it because it costs too much not to. Photograph by Matthew Worden

Until the meeting, Lambert had always thought discolored water came with living in a state that had poor infrastructure. When she was growing up in the coal camp, everyone drank water that smelled bad. That’s iron or sulfur, people would say—it won’t hurt you.

But things were different now, she realized. Too many people were sick. The past few summers, Lambert had noticed a red, filmy liquid oozing from the ground when she gardened. Vegetables were rotting as soon as they were canned.

Lambert didn’t like the idea that people were thinking “poor old dumb hillbillies” like her wouldn’t know any better.

Coal companies have two common methods of disposing of the liquid waste generated during a mining operation. The waste, called slurry, is a mixture of water, particles, and chemicals formed when coal is washed. Metals in the slurry—which may include mercury, arsenic, selenium, and chromium—vary depending on the type and age of the coal. Companies store the slurry in impoundments, where it’s intended to stay, or inject it underground into abandoned mine sites.

In 1972, a slurry impoundment collapsed above Buffalo Creek in Logan County, West Virginia, flooding nearby communities with more than 130 million gallons of waste and killing 125 people. Nelson and others are trying to get an elementary school in Raleigh County relocated because it’s 400 yards from a mining site, down the hill from an impoundment. If the dam bursts, Nelson says, the children could die.

It’s slurry injection that has Lambert concerned. Until the early 1990s, coal companies didn’t need a permit to inject slurry underground, so it’s hard to know how much care was paid to where they put it. Only recently has the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection started studying the impact of slurry-injection sites.

“The premise was that we’ll inject into these mines because they’re enclosed spaces, so they’ll hold waste and it won’t matter,” says Bobby Mitchell. “Everybody was fine with that for a while.”

Then the blasting started. Soon after a mountaintop-mining operation started near Seth, Lambert and her neighbors noticed changes in their water. They say the explosions are fracturing layers of earth underground, allowing slurry to seep into their wells.

Ben Stout, an aquatic biologist at West Virginia’s Wheeling Jesuit University, tested water in Mingo County, about an hour southwest of Boone County, and found evidence of heavy metals, including manganese and lead; a few wells contained aluminum and arsenic.

“Short of crawling in there, you can’t trace it back directly—it’s underground,” says Stout. “So we’ve gone around and sampled wells and streams to see if we can trace the pathway. It looks like these folks have coal slurry in their water supply.”

A lawsuit is under way in Mingo County: More than 700 plaintiffs allege that they’re sick because of slurry in their water, which their lawyer, Kevin Thompson, says is coming from underground mine injection sites near their homes.

Says Stout: “The thing about Mingo County that spooks me is that those wells were good. Water doesn’t get much better than an undisturbed Appalachian spring. Slowly they turned bad.”

Stout gets calls from Boone County all the time, but he can’t help everyone. The state needs a place, he says, where people can send their water to find out if it’s safe: “We have 110-plus billion gallons of slurry tucked away in West Virginia. What happens is it becomes the custody of the citizens of the state. It’s part of our legacy.”

West Virginia’s Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) has earmarked money for residents affected by pollution from “prelaw” abandoned mines. Those are mines built before the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act of 1977, when the government started regulating and monitoring strip-mine activity.

Prior to that, coal companies didn’t have to clean up after themselves: They could dispose of slurry without accounting for it, sometimes in creeks and streams. They weren’t required to reclaim the mountaintops they’d disturbed; now companies seeking mining permits have to present plans for reusing the land.

Because many of the companies that operated prelaw mines are out of business, the DEP oversees the sites. If there’s proof that a community’s water supply is being contaminated by old mines, the department uses earmarked funds to build new water lines. The challenge for residents such as Lambert is proving that mining is to blame.

A few weeks after they gathered at the church last fall, Lambert, Nelson, and others traveled to the state capital for a meeting at the governor’s office. They showed their water samples and photographs to an aide and to Stephanie Timmermeyer, secretary of the DEP. They asked for emergency water.

Timmermeyer explained that a study was under way. Until the investigation was complete, she said, there was little she could do—the DEP is responsible only for water issues directly related to mining.

Timmermeyer, who resigned recently, says engineers are focusing on abandoned mines as a possible cause for the contamination. They’re also looking at active mining sites nearby: If a coal company knowingly damages someone’s water supply, that company has to provide an alternative source of water.

Randy Huffman, the former DEP mining director who succeeded Timmermeyer as secretary in May, says the department is still trying to understand what slurry does underground, but he doesn’t think the blasts from mountaintop-mining sites are sending liquid waste into water wells—as Lambert and her neighbors believe.

“We’ve done research on the impact of blasting,” says Huffman. “The shock waves—the sound waves that come off of a blast—typically radiate laterally, and you don’t get the downward force. You don’t get the impact directly underneath.”

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Posted at 12:00 AM/ET, 09/01/2008 RSS | Print | Permalink | Washingtonian.com Articles