henever large and creepy semisecrets emerge fully into the light, a first reaction is surprise. In the days after the spill Martin County Coal seemed as shocked by it as anyone. Company president Dennis Hatfield called it "a disaster," said how sorry the company was, said the company would spend millions to clean it up. Along with the concern and apologies, the company's attitude seemed to be, "Who knew?" In a local newspaper the week after the slurry appeared, Martin County Coal attributed the accident to a "sudden and unexpected" collapse.
In truth, the collapse was neither. Earlier events at the Big Branch impoundment had led up to it; engineers had feared it and warned of it. And from a larger perspective, the Big Branch accident could hardly be called unexpected. Anyone familiar with the recent history of coal-waste storage could have predicted with fair certainty that such an accident was going to happen in mining country somewhere, sometime.
An informed person might recall, for example, a coal-waste disaster in Great Britain some years back, in the Welsh mining village of Aberfan. On the morning of October 21, 1966, a big pile of coal waste near the mouth of a mine broke free and slid down the mountain into the village. Moving with great force and speed, it destroyed houses and part of a grade school; 144 people died. The British government held a long and detailed inquiry into the disaster and concluded that human bungling, mismanagement, and failure to heed warnings caused it.
The Aberfan disaster got attention worldwide. In America, the U.S. Department of the Interior took notice of it, and in 1967 warned officials in coal country of the threat posed by waste impoundments. In West Virginia, Interior singled out thirty dangerous impoundments, including one on the middle fork of Buffalo Creek, in the western part of the state. For ten years Buffalo Mining, a subsidiary of the Pittston Corporation, had been dumping coal wastes in the hollow. The impoundment dam was made of bigger pieces of waste, called slag, and held a mass of waste and water stretching up the hollow for more than a quarter of a mile. People living in little towns in the valley below had been evacuated several times for fear of a break in the dam. Many were sure it was unsafe, and some had complained to the governor and the county prosecutor, to no effect.
On February 26, 1972, the dam broke, instantly sending 132 million gallons of coal waste down the valley. The flood picked up thousands of tons of debris as it rolled, erasing buildings, snapping bridges, and completely or partly destroying towns. Witnesses saw whole houses go tumbling by on the torrent, the people inside them standing at the windows inaudibly screaming. Some of the 125 people who died were never found; others were barely recognizable as human, shredded and soiled like something retrieved from a drain. The Pittston Corporation called the disaster "an act of God," but a jury disagreed. Pittston eventually divided a $13.5 million settlement among about six hundred survivors of Buffalo Creek.
State and federal legislation following the disaster tried to limit the environmental damage of strip mining and the hazards of waste impoundments. But in the coal boom of the 1970s more strip and underground mines riddled Appalachia, and waste impoundments proliferated. Meanwhile there was a slurry spill here, a release of "blackwater" into a stream there, new regulations notwithstanding. America wanted cheap energy, as always, and looked the other way.
Kentucky is one of the top three coal-producing states. About half of what it ships is "steam coal" -- soft coal of a heat content too low for making steel, but good enough for generating electricity. Kentucky's coal fuels power plants all over the eastern United States. Coal mining employs more people than any other industry in the state. Among the companies that mine Kentucky coal is the A. T. Massey Coal Company, the fifth-largest coal producer in the country, with headquarters in Richmond, Virginia. In the early 1970s, companies owned by A. T. Massey began extensive mining operations in Martin County, near the West Virginia border. Martin County Coal was the largest of these.
Local people remember the boom years fondly. Anyone who wanted could get a job, and unemployment went from 25 percent to 3 or 4 percent, they say. "First a guy would get a job at the mine, and after that he'd get himself a trailer, a four-wheel drive, and a color TV. After that he'd get either a boat or a wife," a county resident recalled. Intense gratitude toward the coal companies may be found in the county to this day.
Martin County Coal dealt with coal waste in the usual fashion -- by scooping, filling, and dumping to make impoundments. The company put its largest, the Big Branch impoundment, in a mined-over area in the interior of the county. Company maps showed an inactive mine shaft from some years before running beneath the impoundment. Federal guidelines call for a safe margin of solid earth or rock between the bottom of an impoundment and the top of a mine shaft. According to the maps, the distance in this case was about 70 feet. After the accident, engineers examining the impoundment came up with different estimates of the actual distance -- 27 feet, 15 feet, or less. None of them said it was anything close to 70 feet.
The Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA, pronounced em-sha) is the federal agency that sees to the safety of coal waste impoundments, among other responsibilities. By the early 1990s, Martin County Coal had filled the Big Branch impoundment with hundreds of millions of gallons of water and slurry and was adding more. In May of 1994, some of it leaked. Tens of millions of gallons of wastewater escaped into the mine shaft and from there spilled into Wolf Creek. Afterward, an MSHA engineer named Larry Wilson investigated. He said that the barrier between the mine shaft and the impoundment might be as little as 2 feet, and that the company should fill the mine shaft entirely. A cave-in could result in a serious flood possibly even causing loss of life, Wilson warned.
Martin County Coal never responded to Wilson's recommendations. MSHA, for its part, never followed up to make sure it did. No remedy as ambitious as filling in the mine shaft was ever tried. Instead, the company reinforced the impoundment walls with debris from a nearby strip mine and strengthened the concrete seals between the impoundment and the mine. In 1999 MSHA noted that water was still leaking from the impoundment, and MSHA engineer Gharib Ibrahim said that the roof of the mine might collapse. Still, in that year MSHA gave Martin County Coal permission to increase the amount of waste in the impoundment. Attention at the time focused mainly on the impoundment's dam, which was sound. After all, it had been the dam that failed at Buffalo Creek, less than 50 miles away.
The leak continued, the earth above the mine ceiling eroded. On October 11, 2000, all but the direst of Larry Wilson's predictions came true.