Coal Tattoo

Remembering the Martin County slurry disaster

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In this Oct. 16, 2000 photo, 250-million gallons of coal slurry floods Coldwater Fork, which was spilled after the bottom fell from a 72-acre retention pond upstream several days earlier in Martin County, near Inez, Ky., flooding 28 miles of two streams. The Martin County spill prompted the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration to stiffen its sludge pond review process with closer attention paid to underground mining issues, spokeswoman Amy Louviere said in a statement, The Associated Press reported Sunday, Oct. 10, 2010. (AP Photo/Lexington Herald-Leader, David Stephenson)

The Associated Press did a fairly long story remembering the coal-slurry spill at Massey Energy’s Martin County Coal operations, which occurred 10 years ago today. Reporter Dylan Lovan tied the disaster to the ongoing tragedy in Hungary, where a flood of toxic mud from an aluminum waste impoundment has killed at least eight people, injured hundreds more and forced hundreds from their homes:

In parts of eastern Kentucky, the pictures coming out of Hungary of the red sludge that roared from a factory’s reservoir, downstream into the Danube River, are all too reminiscent of what happened a decade ago this week.

A layer of dark goo still sits under a creekbed on Glenn Cornette’s land, the leftovers from when a coal company’s sprawling slurry pond burst, blackening 100 miles of waterways and polluting the water supply of more than a dozen communities before the stuff reached the Ohio River.

A torrent as wide as a football field and 6 feet deep covered Cornette’s property in Martin County, near the West Virginia line and about 175 miles east of Louisville. It killed all manner of plants and cut off his access to the street.

“It just looked like pudding or something,” Cornette said recently.

Interestingly, our friend Ellen Smith from Mine Safety and Health News just recently received more information from the federal government in her continuing fight to ensure that the record of what happened at Martin County is clear:

In this Oct. 19, 2000 photo, clean-up crews work to remove sludge from the Coldwater Creek area south of Inez, Ky. Here, they are working to find and re-establish this residence’s driveway so the family can move back home. The Martin County spill prompted the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration to stiffen its sludge pond review process with closer attention paid to underground mining issues, spokeswoman Amy Louviere said in a statement, The Associated Press reported Sunday, Oct. 10, 2010. (AP Photo/Lexington Herald-Leader, Sam Riche)

In 2003, Smith requested the Department of Labor Office of Inspector General’s investigation report of the Mine Safety and Health Administration’s handling of the Martin County Coal Corp. spill in Kentucky on Oct. 11, 2000. A former administration employee had alleged that the agency was trying to cover up the disaster, and the Office of Inspector General launched an investigation, Smith said.

The Martin County Coal spill, billed to be 25 times larger than the Exxon Valdez oil spill, according to news reports, occurred when more than 300 million gallons of coal slurry, a toxic waste product, broke through the bottom of a reservoir in Martin County, seeping into more than 100 miles of rivers and impacting properties in Kentucky and West Virginia.

Smith initially received the report with more than 50 percent of the content redacted, including names and a section of mine seals below the impoundment. The mine seals failed when the sludge broke through them into an abandoned mine below the reservoir, and Smith considered at least 40 other U.S. reservoirs at risk too, she said. She shared the report on a 2004 episode of “60 Minutes.”

Smith decided to wait until a new presidential administration took office to file a new request for the redacted names and section on mine seals, she said. On the day Barack Obama took office, Smith filed another federal Freedom of Information Act request for the Department of Labor’s report, which she received three days later.

The report she received in response contained 20 instances in which either the Freedom of Information Act exemption cited was changed or a new exemption was added to the list that Smith compiled in a Feb. 2, 2009 appeal letter sent to the Department of Labor’s Office of the Solicitor. The redactions mainly concerned intra-agency memorandums and government officials’ personal information and privacy, which are covered by Exemptions 2(b), 5, 6 and 7(c) to the FOIA.

It’s also worth remembering that Massey Energy avoided a major financial hit form this slurry spill, and we’re still waiting to see federal government reports (from the U.S. Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement, see here and here) regarding the potential for slurry impoundments build near underground mine workings in West Virginia to “break through” into those underground tunnels.

Residents inspect damage in a yard in Kolontar, Hungary, Friday, Oct. 8, 2010. Government officials lowered their estimate of the size of Monday’s catastrophic spill. They said the reservoir break at an alumina plant dumped up to 700,000 cubic meters (184 million gallons) of sludge onto three villages. (AP Photo/Darko Bandic)

Meanwhile, in Hungary, The New York Times reports:

The managing director of the company whose reservoir unleashed a lethal torrent of red sludge on three villages last week has been arrested, the Hungarian prime minister announced before Parliament on Monday.

He will be charged with criminal negligence leading to a public catastrophe, and if convicted could face a sentence of up to 10 years, according to a government spokeswoman.

An aerial view of rescue team members crossing a pontoon-bridge replacing the original bridge washed away by a sludge flood in Kolontar, 167 kms southwest of Budapest, Hungary, Friday, Oct.8, 2010, after four days earlier a dike of a reservoir containing red mud of an alumina factory in nearby Ajka broke. Rescue services say they have found two more victims of Hungary’s catastrophic flood of red sludge, bringing the death toll to seven. (AP Photo/MTI, Balazs Mohai)