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Illustration of tree and slurry
Coal Country

by Ian Frazier

At 12:30 in the morning of October 11, 2000, a mountain in eastern Kentucky burst open and let out a flood of mining waste bigger than the Exxon Valdez oil spill. Coal sludge damaged homes and killed everything in 20 miles of streams. Two years later, the land is green again but the bitterness remains.

It doesn't really have a name. It's what you get when you wash coal fresh from the mine. It's water, rocks, mud, coal particles, metals, miscellany. When the coal goes off to factories and power plants, it stays behind. To call it "coal wastes" is to overgeneralize. The rocks and heavier stuff sink to the bottom; aided by chemical coagulants, the smaller particles settle on top of them. As the water evaporates or is recycled to wash more coal, the volume of the waste grows. It forms a slurry, or a sludge. Those two words are the ones used most often to describe it. Some people who have experienced it firsthand call it a goo. Some compare it to black molasses, or a black extra-thick shake, or latex paint of a light-absorbing black. Every day, coal mining produces more of it. There are many billions of gallons of it waiting for eternity in the coal-mining regions of Appalachia.

Best not to think about it, and most of us don't. Indeed, Appalachia in general is set up in such a way that you don't have to. Public roads in the mining regions run through tree-lined corridors where the hillsides and hardwoods and pines look natural, undestroyed. They are only elements of a stage set. If we could rise a few hundred feet above our cars, we would see, extending behind the screen of trees in many directions, the strip mines, slag pits, bulldozed ramps, coal conveyors, and assorted other works of Big Coal. Here and there are irregularly shaped basins of lifeless black -- the slurry, or sludge, or extra-thick-shake molasses latex-paint goo. The basins are called slurry lagoons, sludge ponds, waste impoundments. Coal companies keep everyone but employees and rare visitors away from them. Deflected by the mine's fences and security gates, a passerby is unlikely to come upon them. Many people in communities within a few miles of them, just downhill and downstream, have never seen them.

One such community is the eastern Kentucky town of Inez. Glenn and Shirley Cornette, a retired couple in their sixties, live in a mountain hollow about 6 miles from town. Their trailer house and small farm are the last place on Coldwater Road before mine property begins. The mine, like many others in the county, is owned by a company called Martin County Coal.

At about 3:15 in the morning of Wednesday, October 11, 2000, the Cornettes received a phone call from the guard at the mine gate just up the road. He said there had been a break in the impoundment, and a leak, and they should bring their dogs inside. As far as anyone knows, the Cornettes were the only people whom mine employees warned; the company's president later said they didn't warn people because he didn't think that anybody was in danger. The Cornettes' daughter and son-in-law, Patty and Edward McGinnis, who live next door, were getting up so that Patty could go to work cooking breakfast at Grandad's Diner in Inez. Edward McGinnis saw a company employee near their trailer watching the rising level of Coldwater Creek. He told McGinnis that one of the slurry ponds was seeping a little bit, but it would be all right.

Photo of Coldwater Creek Some residents along Coldwater Creek going to work in the predawn dark didn't even notice the slurry sliding in its matte blackness beside the road. By daylight it was impossible to miss. People came out of their houses to watch it. Some stuck sticks or twigs in it, where they remained upright, moving along. By midafternoon the slurry had risen from the stream bed and across driveways and lawns. For seventy-two hours it continued to rise until black sludge filled the valley from side to side. Warmer than the cool October air, it steamed.

The first official announcements from the coal company and government officials said that a break had occurred in the wall of the Big Branch sludge pond, on coal company property near the headwaters of Wolf Creek. Beneath the impoundment was a shaft of an abandoned mine. At about 12:30 in the morning of the 11th, the earth separating the impoundment wall from the mine ceiling had given way. The mine shaft was almost a mile and a half long. Wastewater and slurry poured into it and flowed in two directions. Some came out a mine portal above a branch of Wolf Creek. Some came out far on the other side of the hill, from a portal above Coldwater Creek. Early estimates placed the spill's volume at about 250 million gallons. Later that number was revised to 306 million gallons.

Photo of a frogFor more than 20 miles of creekbed, all aquatic life in the spill's path died. Growing things along the banks were smothered under the slurry for an area of many square miles. People lost property: bridges, wells, gardens, cornfields, yards. Some houses became uninhabitable. The spill contaminated sources of drinking water for much of eastern Kentucky, affecting the water systems in ten counties. The governor declared those counties a disaster area. Reflecting later on the spill, victims of property damage realized they had been lucky. Had the spill gone in only one direction rather than dividing in two, they might have died.

The main reason that the spill finally stopped was the location of the impoundment break. Because it was fairly high up on the impoundment's side, when the waste fell below that level it ceased to flow. That was another lucky circumstance, considering the impoundment held 2.2 billion gallons. The Coldwater Creek portion of the spill fouled downstream waters from there to the Big Sandy River and on to the Ohio. The Wolf Creek spill also continued into those rivers. Ten days after the spill, the sight of black water in the Ohio River unnerved residents of Cincinnati.

Several Appalachian groups are working on the environmental problems of coal mining. The Appalachian Center for the Economy and the Environment, based in Lewisburg, West Virginia, brought two lawsuits over mountaintop removal mining that nearly shut the practice down. Other organizations include Kentuckians for the Commonwealth and the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy.

NRDC has been working for thirty years to reduce U.S. coal use and the environmental destruction caused by coal mining. The website carries frequent action alerts on coal issues and on the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act, two of the most critical laws for dealing with these problems. -- The Editors

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This article was made possible by NRDC's Josephine Patterson Albright Fund.

Ian Frazier writes essays and longer works of nonficton. His most recent book is The Fish's Eye: Essays about Angling and the Outdoors. He keeps a chunk of coal slurry on his desk in a sealed plastic jar.

Illustration: Melissa Szalkowski

Photos: Mark Cornelison

OnEarth. Spring 2003
Copyright 2003 by the Natural Resources Defense Council