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Coal Country
Page 3

An EPA official called the Big Branch spill "one of the worst environmental disasters in the southeastern United States." On the scale of spills, it was about thirty times the size of the 10 million gallons from the wreck of the Exxon Valdez . Aside from good local reporting, especially by Ken Ward Jr. in the Charleston (W. V.) Gazette , coverage of the spill had been sparse. Trying to make sense of it from a distance, I wondered mainly about the place: What could it possibly look like after suffering a wastewater-and-coal-slurry spill of 300 million gallons? Last fall, about two years after the event, I drove 600 miles from my house in New Jersey to eastern Kentucky to see.

I stopped first in Inez, the town the spill hit hardest. Visually, an Appalachian town gives an over-full, cubistic impression, concentrated as it is in its narrow valley among the hills. In quick succession, Inez reveals an abandoned house trailer leaking sooty pink insulation at sprung corners, campaign posters for the people running for district attorney and county jailer, well-kept one-story houses with big cars on asphalt aprons, dog pens, boat trailers, American flags, and a religio-patriotic sign or two ("jesUSAves," in red-white-and-blue embroidery, displayed in a front window), all passing in a rush of traffic that soon deposits the motorist back on a rural two-lane road again.

For years and years, Inez's city-limits sign said the town had a population of 600. Today that estimate is considered optimistic. Inez is the Martin County seat, and a distinguished sandstone courthouse from the 1930s stands in the middle of town. Check-cashing places, pawnshops, small businesses, and empty storefronts along Inez's principal street suggest in various ways the challenge of making a living here. A job notice on the bulletin board of the local ShopRite advertises for telephone solicitors: "Can you set on your butt and talk on the phone?" Most of its tear-off phone number tags are gone.

The land the spill once covered is now easy to see. Wherever the slurry smothered and killed, a smoothly spread, uniform grassy green now smiles. The spill came through town via Rockcastle Creek, whose shoreline is now green. The formerly slurry-blackened flats alongside Coldwater Creek, west of town, are also green, green, green, with a few wisps of straw here and there, and occasional black plastic soil barriers peeking up along the creek bank. The green is one we know and recognize. It's the same green as is found on the top of covered-over landfills and reclaimed strip mines, and on the shoulders of big highways, and around shopping malls, and by suburban office complexes and development of any kind: the familiar modern collaborator green that colors every place we decide, after bulldozing, to leave unpaved.

As a sign of a restored environment, the green doesn't impress Greg Preece. The Preece family has lived on Coldwater Creek for generations. "Spray enough hydroseed and mulch, the way they did here, and you can grow grass on a parking lot," Preece says. He and his wife and young son were in their trailer by the creek when the slurry came. Hard as it was to watch the ruin of the creek where he had caught minnows as a child, enduring the months of restoration work was perhaps even harder. Heavy equipment swarmed, "guzzler trucks" sucked up the slurry (to re-inter it in smaller pits called "slurry cells," up the hill and unfortunately not very far away), septic systems and sewage pipes were shattered, stench rose. Preece feared that he or his wife would get in a car wreck from skidding in the slurry that cleanup vehicles slopped all over the road. Eventually, at grudging coal company expense, the Preeces relocated to temporary housing. They have since sold their trailer and moved to another part of the county.

Like many of the local residents, Preece is mad at the coal company, but madder still at EPA. In the opinion of many, EPA worked not on behalf of the public, but for Martin County Coal. The coal company often said that the cleanup was costing them $40 million -- "I don't care if it's 40 million or 400 million, they made this disaster and they should fix it," Preece says -- and as part of the expense, the company paid EPA's operational costs. This meant that during the cleanup EPA seemed to be just another contractor hired by the coal company. Particularly aggravating to local residents was the fact that EPA established its headquarters on company property, behind security gates, accessible to no one but mine employees. At a hearing in March 2001, a resident told Art Smith, the EPA official in charge of monitoring the cleanup, that backhoe operators were merely turning over the earth and burying the sludge underneath. Smith said he wasn't aware of that. Preece told Smith that he had seen similar cover-up work himself. He added that Smith would have known about it if he were on site and doing his job. (Smith now says that the Martin County cleanup followed usual EPA procedures intended for efficiency and for saving taxpayer dollars. He calls the EPA failure to talk more with local residents a mistake, but one difficult to avoid in emergency circumstances. He does not believe that any cleanup workers deliberately buried slurry.)

Despite questions and objections from locals, the cleanup progressed according to coal company plans. About six months after the spill, most of the visible slurry was gone. Occasional touch-ups and stream bank maintenance continue today.

Greg Preece said that many of those affected by the spill were burned out on talking about it. Also, he said, the people around Inez are often shy. Rather than pursue them for interviews, I drove aimlessly around the county for a while. A turn up a side road put me suddenly face to face with a new 1,800-inmate federal prison rising Alcatraz-like on a base of landfill over a reclaimed strip mine. Just completed, the prison was still empty; when I rolled down the window its tan-and-gray walls behind terraced rows of razor wire gave off a hopeful, fresh-paint smell.

Just past the prison, on another part of the covered-over strip mine, I came upon the Big Sandy Regional Airport. Outside the small terminal building a flagpole flew several flags, including the American, and the black-and-red corporate banner of A. T. Massey Coal. I went in and met the airport manager, an affable man named Gary Cox. Before taking the airport job Cox had worked twenty-six years for Martin County Coal. That company had saved the county from poverty when this was one of the poorest places in the U.S., he said. He praised the decency of his former co-workers and spoke of Massey's president as a public-spirited man who had helped keep the airport open by directing his corporate aircraft to buy their gas there. Cox deplored the spill but did not seem to hold it against anybody at all. "I don't know where we'd be in this part of Kentucky without the A. T. Massey Company," he said.

Photo of Mickey and Nina McCoyEventually I called Mickey McCoy, whom Greg Preece had suggested I talk to. McCoy was once mayor of Inez, and with his wife recently testified in Washington against the destructive practices of Appalachian mining, so I figured he wouldn't be shy. He agreed to meet for breakfast at Grandad's Diner. He had a piratical look, with dark shirt, hair, beard, and eyes. Randolph McCoy, a principal in the Hatfield-McCoy hill-country battles of the late 1800s, was a distant relative. For breakfast McCoy ordered the special, which he pronounced "spatial," drawing out the word savoringly. He teaches English at the local high school, where his wife, Nina, teaches anatomy, physiology, and biology.

We had fun talking, and when he left for work he invited me to come for dinner at his house. Nina and their fourteen-year-old son, Josie, drove by my motel in the evening to show me the way there. Nina's maiden name was Dull, and perhaps in reaction her personality is the opposite. Auburn-haired and vivid, she speaks in a manner that highlights the important parts of what she's saying as if with a slash of yellow marker. We talked in the kitchen as she made dinner, and after Mickey came home we sat down to eat and they talked some more.

Nina: "The story of this spill just goes on and on. After it, what worried everybody, and what keeps worryin' everybody, is the water supply. Our tap water comes out of the Tug Fork of the Big Sandy River, and we don't know if chemicals left from the spill are contaminating it. At a meeting with the EPA a while ago, a lady from Inez stood up and asked them to test the water, and the EPA's answer was, 'We've not been asked to test the water.' The lady said, 'You don't understand -- I'm askin' you!'"

Mickey: "Meanwhile the EPA team is up there on the dais drinkin' bottled water."

N.: "An independent test had said that there were six heavy metals, including cadmium and arsenic, in the drinking water, and finally the EPA said, 'We'll check into it.' And we still don't know if our water's safe or not."

M.: "An EPA lawyer at that meeting told everybody, 'Listen, people, coal mining is a dirty business, and you-all better get used to it.'"

N.: "People around here hear you criticizing the coal companies, and they start moaning, 'But what'll we do if the mines shut down? What'll happen to those jobs?' I sympathize to a certain extent, but I also tell them, 'Lots of places in America don't have coal, and don't have coal companies, and they manage to support themselves OK.'"

M.: "'Jobs' is a sacred word. It's a word like 'shareholders.' To some people, I'm the turd in the punchbowl because they think I don't believe in jobs."

N.: "And how good a job is it, anyway, if you have to risk the lives of the same people you employ?"

M.: "If people are all scared about jobs, that gives the coal company more power and makes it seem more important than it is already. That's what happened with this cleanup -- the coal company announced what it planned to do, and the government and everybody basically just rolled over and said, 'OK.'"

N: "A coal company is a coal company. It'll do what it has to to make money. But when the EPA joins up with them -- when you see EPA lawyers and coal company lawyers leaving public meetings together -- that's when you despair."

Appalachian mining produces plenty of lawsuits. The McCoys are part of one, brought by a group called Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, against "mountaintop removal" mining; that suit does not involve the spill of 2000. Recently a group of Inez homeowners settled a property-damage suit deriving from the spill. Other spill-related suits against Martin County Coal have yet to be resolved. As for the drinking water supply, EPA's Art Smith says state tests showed the spill did no long-term harm.

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.

Photo: Jeff Rogers

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