Coal Tattoo

Remembering the Martin County slurry disaster

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:

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Hearing set on Marsh Fork coal dust case

This just in from Vicki Smith at The Associated Press:

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. (AP) — A Raleigh County judge will hold a hearing later this month on a medical monitoring lawsuit claiming hundreds of children were exposed to toxic coal dust from a Massey Energy Co. processing plant and silo next to Marsh Fork Elementary School.

Williamson attorney Kevin Thompson is suing Virginia-based Massey and three subsidiaries over alleged exposure from the silo that sits about 235 feet from the school near Sundial.

Judge Harry L. Kirkpatrick III granted class-action status to the case in December, but it fell into limbo because his ruling went to an incorrect address and was returned to the courthouse in Beckley. Thompson said he only learned of the ruling after filing a supplemental motion with the court in June, then calling to follow up.

The lawsuit, filed on behalf of Woodrow and Elva Dillon and their two children, accuses Massey and subsidiaries Goals Coal Co., AT Massey Coal Co. and Massey Coal Services Inc. of negligence and creating a public nuisance.

It demands unspecified punitive damages, as well as a court-administered medical monitoring program.

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The AP’s Vicki Smith has the jump this morning on the results of the final portion of the legislatively mandated study of coal-slurry injection practices in West Virginia.

I’ve posted Vicki’s story on our Mining the Mountains site, and you can read the final report from West Virginia University researchers here.

Here’s the bottom line:

The process for development of analyses of what is known about water contamination from coal slurry injection and known, probable, or potential effects upon human health involves a comparison of the known toxicity of coal slurry components “downstream” (either riverine or underground) water contamination, compared to known or suspected human toxicities from the peer-reviewed literature. There are innumerable considerations in this process, and no effort can be complete. For example, the current state of science measures inorganic compounds and elements better than organics, and provides a much richer data base on their health consequences. This is one of many immutable “data gaps” that we identified in this investigation. The absence of sufficient data implies a need to learn; it does not necessarily imply the absence or presence of a problem or a means to do assessments in the absence of data.

Vicki put it this way in her story:

Legislators have waited 31/2 years and spent more than $220,000 to learn whether coal slurry pumped into abandoned underground mines is dangerous to people who live nearby. The answer? No one knows.

A new 418-page report by researchers at West Virginia University concludes that while the wastewater from cleaning coal could potentially affect water supplies, wells and public health, there’s no proof it has or will.

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Slurry study finally being finalized?

A map of slurry injection sites from the Sludge Safety Project Citizens’ Report. (The graphic as I’ve posted it is not to scale).

Vicki Smith over at The Associated Press is reporting that the next phase of the legislatively mandated study of coal-slurry injection safety may be ready by next month.

I’ve posted a copy of Vicki’s complete story on our Mining the Mountains page here.  She reports:

A West Virginia University study on whether the underground injection of coal slurry is harmful to human health could be presented to legislators in July, and Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Randy Huffman is among those eager to see it.

Huffman said he expects the report to conclude that coal slurry contains chemicals people shouldn’t drink. What he wants to know is whether WVU researchers have done what his agency could not — establish the pathway from a sealed underground mine to human contact.

“If you make a determination as a health department that somebody is sick as a result of underground injection, you have to have some basic understanding of how the connection was made,” Huffman said. “I’m interested in knowing how that link will be established.”

It’s worth noting that the WVDEP’s portion of the study, released in late May 2009, was issued long after the deadline ordered by the Legislature — and this next portion of the study, by the health department, is also already way beyond its Dec. 31, 2008, deadline.

And don’t forget that the WVDEP study repeatedly pointed to the lack of data agency officials said they needed to answer questions about slurry safety — but that in most cases WVDEP had authority to demand such data from coal companies, but just never did so.


Photo by Britney Williams, courtesy Coal River Mountain Watch.

My buddy Davin White has the story in today’s Gazette about developments concerning a possible new school that would get Marsh Fork Elementary out of the way of Massey Energy’s nearby mining, coal processing and slurry disposal operations.

As Davin reports:

State School Building Authority members agreed Monday to give $2.6 million toward a new Marsh Fork Elementary School, which is located just a few hundred feet from a Massey Energy coal silo in Raleigh County.

But the project’s supporters need to come up with another $4 million by June — or risk losing the SBA’s $2.6 million pledge.


This just in from the office of Sen. Robert C. Byrd:

Washington, DC – U.S. Senator Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va., today said he welcomed as a “good start” the announcement by Massey Energy that they are pledging $1 million toward the construction of a new $8.6 million Marsh Fork Elementary School in Raleigh County.

Byrd last October blasted Massey Energy officials for their refusal to provide assistance to efforts to replace the existing Marsh Fork Elementary School because of potential health and safety concerns.  The Raleigh County School is adjacent to a coal silo constructed by Massey Energy, and sits at the foot of the company’s mountain top pond that holds back hundreds of millions of gallons of toxic coal slurry.

“This is a welcome and good start by officials at Massey Energy in announcing their pledge of $1 million for the construction of a new $8.6 million Marsh Fork Elementary School,” said Byrd.

“As Massey Energy moves to acquire Cumberland Resources through a stock offering, and helps pay for mountain top mining music concerts, I would hope that they will continue to keep the welfare of the young students at Marsh Fork Elementary in their hearts and in their minds.  These children are our future and it is my hope that all the necessary funds will be made available to construct a relocated Marsh Fork Elementary School soon,” Byrd added.

Massey pledges $1 million for Marsh Fork school

Photo by Britney Williams, courtesy Coal River Mountain Watch.

My buddy Davin White just posted a story on the Gazette Web site reporting that Massey Energy has pledged to contribute $1 million toward construction of a new Marsh Fork Elementary School in Raleigh County.

I’ve posted a copy of Massey CEO Don Blankenship’s letter to the school board here. Blankenship comments:

We’re proud of our longstanding partnership with Marsh Fork Elementary School and are pleased to partner with you to provide the students with a new school. We understand that you wish to replace the current school because it is over 70 years old and located in the floodplain. We hope our contribution will assist you.

Coal Tattoo has written about Marsh Fork Elementary many times before, describing its location adjacent to a Massey coal-processing plant and just down the hollow from a huge Massey impoundment. See previous posts here, here and here.

Davin tells me that the county has $1 million and also expects a $10,000 donation from the group Coal River Mountain Watch — so they’re asking for almost $6.6 million in state money. A decision by the School Building Authority is expected next month.

Remembering Buffalo Creek

(A dog sits in Buffalo Creek hollow in the aftermath of the 1972 coal-slurry dam disaster in this photo by longtime Gazette photographer Lawrence Pierce)

Thirty-eight years ago today, a coal-slurry dam on Buffalo Creek in Logan County, W.Va., broke. A wall of water and coal waste — 30 feet high and 550 feet across — burst from the impoundment, and rushed more than 15 miles down the hollow, toward the confluence of Buffalo Creek and the Guyandotte River at Man.

The disaster killed 125 people, injured 1,000 and left 4,000 homeless.

Here’s part of  “Disaster on Buffalo Creek: A Citizens’ Report on the Criminal Negligence in a West Virginia Mining Community,” which we posted online back in 1997 as part of Voices of Buffalo Creek, a series to mark the 25th anniversary of this terrible disaster:

For the Buffalo Creek disaster, like the recent coal-mine fire tragedies at Farmington, West Virginia, and at Hyden, Kentucky, could have been prevented — it need not have happened. Clearly and simply, people living downstream from the Buffalo Mining Company’s coal refuse dam at Saunders were the victims of gross negligence.

In Appalachian — sometimes known as “the last white colony of western civilization” — absentee owners of the region’s vast energy resources and their subservient homebred and imported politicians time and again are to blame for mass death and destruction. Time and again, those most at fault throw up smokescreens to obscure their responsibility .

There is a basic question raised anew by Buffalo Creek, the latest assault by the coal operators in their long slaughterhouse in death, injury and disease: Whether the people of Appalachia and West Virginia can any longer afford this senseless destruction of their lives, their land, and their democratic institutions; or whether the ownership and operation of coal mines should be brought under democratic control to benefit all the people. All to clearly the tragedy of Buffalo Creek has torn away the mask, revealing the ugly truth that powerful coal interests dominate the government, the environment, and the West Virginia way of life to the detriment of all citizens. Discussion and action are needed now to transform King Coal, the tyrant, into Citizen Coal, the servant of all — before and not after another Buffalo Creek disaster.


More on Brushy Fork: Where was WVDEP?


Photo of the Brushy Fork impoundment, by Vivian Stockman, with flight services provided by SouthWings.

We’ve got more in today’s Gazette about the recent violation cited by WVDEP at Massey Energy’s Brushy Fork coal-slurry impoundment.

After writing yesterday’s brief post, based entirely on the WVDEP news release, I was able to get a copy of an Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement report on the problem and talk with Tom Clarke, director of WVDEP’s Division of Mining and Reclamation.

I’ve posted a copy of the OSMRE report here and the WVDEP Notice of Violation here.

The situation yesterday struck me as a little odd … Here you had WVDEP issuing a press release about a violation, but at the same time downplaying the violation — insisting it wasn’t serious at all and nothing for folks who live downstream from Bushy Fork to worry about.

Now, WVDEP issues hundreds — maybe thousands — of NOVs to the coal industry every year. And not very many of those NOVs get their own news releases. Typically, WVDEP news releases are more along the lines of, “Make It Shine Applications Now Available” or “Capitol Market Hosting Christmas Tree Recycling.”

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After OSMRE probe, WVDEP cites Massey dam

Southern West Virginia Citizen groups have been after the state Department of Environmental Protection for a long time to address concerns they have about Massey Energy’s Brushy Fork impoundment in Raleigh County.

So, it certainly got my attention when a WVDEP news release showed up in my Inbox just a little bit ago with the headline, “WVDEP Issues Notice of Violation to Massey Energy’s Marfork Coal Subsidiary.” The release announced:

The West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection has issued a notice of violation to Massey Energy’s Marfork Coal subsidiary for failure of an upstream expansion of its Brushy Fork Impoundment to meet the engineering factor of safety of 1.5 required for coal dams.

And, it assured the public:

The violation is limited to the area of the upstream expansion on the pool side of the dam. The existing structure at Brushy Fork, including the downstream face of the dam, complies with the required factor of safety.  There is no risk to the community downstream of the impoundment.

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Manchin on Marsh Fork Elementary


With politicians suddenly falling all over themselves to say something about Massey Energy and Marsh Fork  Elementary School, I thought I’d check in with my friend Gov. Joe Manchin on this issue.

Recall that I asked the governor back in July 2005 if he would feel comfortable sending his grandchildren to the school, located just down the hollow from a huge slurry impoundment. Manchin answered:

I don’t know enough. I haven’t been there. I don’t know enough about the site.

So, I contacted Matt Turner, the governor’s communications director, and asked him to put the question to Manchin again. Here’s what he told me via e-mail:

I don’t think you can question Gov. Manchin’s record when it comes to the health and welfare of our state’s children — their health and safety are always the top priority.

That said, the governor would never send any child to a school that isn’t safe, sound or sanitary. We rely on experts to examine building conditions and to make those determinations.

Well, another county heard from … Sen. Robert C. Byrd’s strong statement yesterday seems to have made other elected officials in West Virginia stop and think about whether they like the idea of more than 220 Raleigh County children attending school less than 300 feet from a huge coal processing plant and just downhill from a gigantic slurry impoundment.

rockychange.jpgSen. Jay Rockfeller issued the following statement this afternoon:

“The hazards around Marsh Fork Elementary have been weighing heavily on the minds of parents in the Marsh Fork community for some time. Protecting our children is our first and most fundamental obligation, and it is right to expect the company to help pay for the solution.”

Read Massey’s response to Sen. Byrd’s statement here, and  a statement from Congressman Rahall here.

rahall_photo.jpgCongressman Nick J. Rahall, a Democrat whose district includes Marsh Fork Elementary School, weighed in this morning on whether Massey Energy should help fund relocation of the school away from Massey’s coal processing plant and huge slurry impoundment.

Here is Rahall’s statement:

I certainly agree with Senator Byrd. Massey Energy should take this significant step of helping to replace the Marsh Fork Elementary School so that these children no longer have to fear the threat of adverse health effects of nearby coal operations.  It would go a long way toward improving the good will of the public toward that company and the coal industry.

Read Sen. Robert C. Byrd’s statement on this issue here and Massey’s response here.

Byrd blasts Massey ‘arrogance’ at Marsh Fork


And for the sake of the kids, they should address these serious environmental concerns at Marsh Fork Elementary immediately.

– Sen. Robert C. Byrd

This just in from Sen. Robert C. Byrd, responding to the news that Massey Energy declined to help fund a new school so Marsh Fork Elementary students in Raleigh County can move away from Massey’s Goals Coal operation:

“Such arrogance suggests a blatant disregard for the impact of their mining practices on our communities, residents and particularly our children.  These are children’s lives we are talking about,” said Byrd.

“If Massey were not operating near Marsh Fork Elementary, we would not be debating what to do about moving these young students someplace safer.  This is not the taxpayers’ burden to remedy.  This is Massey Energy’s responsibility to address.”

Byrd added that, “Let me be clear about one thing – this is not about the coal industry or their hard-working coal miners. This is about companies that blatantly disregard human life and safety because of greed. That is never acceptable.”

“At a time when coal is under such close scrutiny, coal companies operating in West Virginia should be working together to put their best foot forward. For the sake of the entire coal industry, Massey Energy should strive to be a better and more responsible corporate citizen.  And for the sake of the kids, they should address these serious environmental concerns at Marsh Fork Elementary immediately.”  

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Here’s an idea: Move Marsh Fork Elementary School


Photo by Britney Williams, courtesy Coal River Mountain Watch.

  I don’t know enough. I haven’t been there. I don’t know enough about the site.

That’s what Gov. Joe Manchin told me in July 2005 when I asked him if he would want his grandchildren to attend Marsh Fork Elementary in Raleigh County, the school located less than 300 feet from a Massey Energy coal processing plant and just down the hollow from a huge coal-waste impoundment.

The governor had just emerged from a meeting with Ed Wiley, whose granddaughter attended Marsh Fork Elementary and who launched a solo sit-down protest at the Capitol to try to urge Manchin to do something about the school.

Manchin promised at the time that he would look into the problem and explore moving the school. The Marsh Fork issues has been in and out of various courts since then. But basically, the issue of actually doing something to get the kids out of the way of this huge coal operation seemed forgotten about by anybody who could do anything about it. (See here, here, here and here for previous coverage).

But now, a report in the Beckley Register-Herald (See also the Associated Press rewrite of the Register-Herald story here) says  the Raleigh County Board of Education is considering asking for state money to build a new school — and that they might ask Massey Energy for financial assistance for the project:

[School Board President Rick] Snuffer says building a new Marsh Fork Elementary “would correct a lot of political problems in the county.”

“I just look at this as a way to fix an issue,” he continued. “We’ve been told everything’s safe, but if we have an option of building a new school and get it out of the way, I guess for me it’s a win-win situation. What’s the negatives on building a new school down there?”

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EPA releases ‘integrity’ studies of coal-ash dams


The U.S. EPA just released the first in a series of “structural integrity assessment” of coal-fired power plant ash dams located across the nation’s coalfields and beyond … and you can check it all out here, or look at a summary spreadsheet here.

EPA’s data release includes contractor reports on the dams at 17  sites in 7 states. All are ranked as “high hazard potential” structures, meaning that their failure could cost human lives.

Bottom line:

The assessments have rated the structural integrity of seven impoundments as “satisfactory,” nine units as “fair,” and one unit as “poor.”  None of the units assessed received an “unsatisfactory” rating.  According to dam safety experts, only impoundments rated as unsatisfactory pose immediate safety threats.

EPA says it is going to post the same reports on other impoundments as that material becomes available to the agency. Definitions of the terms “satisfactory,” “fair,” and “poor” are available here.

The one dam ranked as “poor” is the “1964 Pond” located at Progress Energy’s Asheville Power Station in Buncombe County, N.C.  If you take a look at the report EPA released on it, note how much information is marked as “redacted,” or hidden from the public.

Breaking news: Mingo judge tossed from slurry case

thornsbury_michael.jpgMingo County Circuit Judge Michael Thornsbury has been ordered by the state Supreme Court to step down from hearing a lawsuit against Massey Energy over alleged pollution of drinking water by the injection of the company’s coal slurry.

In an order signed Monday, Acting Chief Justice Robin Davis cited Thornsbury’s previous representation of a Massey company in a case brought by a resident (who is also a plaintiff in the slurry case) over blasting at one of Massey’s mines.

Lawyers for Mingo County residents who are suing Massey raised this issue in a supplemental motion asking Thornsbury to rescuse himself, after the judge initially refused to step down over alleged conflicts of interest in the case.

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Clean water coming to Prenter, W.Va.

This just in from The Associated Press:

PRENTER, W.Va. — Clean water is on its way to the Boone County town of Prenter.
Gov. Joe Manchin will be on hand Tuesday as West Virginia American Water breaks ground for a new line that is expected to supply 155 households by March.
The $2.2 million project is funded by a federal Small Cities Block Grant, the Boone County Commission and the water company.
Residents of Prenter and Seth are suing eight coal companies they believe poisoned their wells by pumping coal slurry into old underground mines. They claim cracks in the earth allowed the slurry to migrate and pollute the aquifer.
For months, many residents have been hauling clean water home from a pay station at a church. Others rely on free fill-ups of the 50-gallon barrels at their homes.

And there’s this commentary on the development from the Appalachian Voices’ Front Porch blog.


UPDATED, 9 A.M. TUESDAY: Here’s the link for a more complete report in this morning’s Gazette.

Updating from the AP story first posted here about an hour ago … I have a copy of the motion seeking to force Mingo County Judge Michael Thornsbury to step down from the big Rawl Sales slurry case, and I’ve posted that document here (careful, it’s 12 MB).

The initial AP story focused on an allegation that Thornsbury is friends with Don Blankenship, president of Rawl Sales’ parent company, Massey Energy. That particular allegation doesn’t show up until Paragraph 16 of the motion (See page 5). It’s only natural for it to draw the most attention, considering the controversy over Blankenship’s relationships with former West Virginia Supreme Court Justice Spike Maynard and current Chief Just Bent Benjamin.

But the motion, filed Friday by lawyers for hundreds of Mingo County residents who say Massey polluted their water, focuses instead on the relationship between Thornsbury and a local doctor appointed by the judge to oversee a medical monitoring fund set up as part of the case.

Recall  that this is a case about whether Rawl Sales and Processing’s injection of slurry into underground mine workings polluted water supplies for hundreds of families, making people sick and creating the potential for further illnesses down the road.

We’ll get back to the part about Blankenship … here is the crux of the other allegations:

Judge Thornsbury appointed Dr. C. Donovan Beckett as administrator of multi-million dollar medical monitoring trust  created by the Court’s Certification of a Medical Monitoring Class Action on behalf of all current and former residents of Rawl, Lick Creek, Merrimac and Sprigg, along with Community Trust Bank, Inc., as the trustee.

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This just in from Vicki Smith at The Associated Press:

The plaintiffs in a lawsuit that claims Massey Energy poisoned hundreds of wells with coal slurry are demanding the judge step aside because he’s friends with Chief Executive Don Blankenship.

In a motion filed in Mingo County Circuit Court, they also complain Judge Michael Thornsbury hired his business partner and former campaign manager to administer a medical monitoring fund, and that he’s created bias among the courthouse staff.

The plaintiffs say Thornsbury has committed cronyism at its worst and must withdraw from the case.

The judge’s secretary said Monday the complaint has several false allegations and Thornsbury will respond in writing, probably by Wednesday.

Massey spokesman Jeff Gillenwater says the company also will respond in court.