Appalachia — the very word has come to symbolize the region’s rich heritage of bluegrass music, down home cooking, hard-working farmers and coal miners, a strong literary tradition, beautiful mountain vistas, and tight-knit communities.
For more than a decade, Appalachia has also become known for the atrocity of mountaintop removal mining. The impacts on communities from this form of mining are profound. It forces residents to contend with contaminated drinking water, sometimes daily blasting, increased flooding, and unsafe coal slurry impoundments.
Residents find little recourse due to ineffective regulations and, worse, government regulators unwilling to stand up to coal companies. Areas surrounding mountaintop removal sites experience high attrition rates as people continue to move away in order to protect the health and safety of their families.
“To a child of Appalachia, to see the mountains laid waste, whether by clear-cutting or strip mining, is to witness a dagger plunged into the very bosom from which you sprang and which has sustained you.” – Pamela Meade Sargent: U.S. Magistrate Judge
Poisoned Drinking Water
Communities near mountaintop removal sites frequently experience contaminated drinking water supplies. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency notes that iron and manganese concentrations surpass drinking water guidelines in at least 40% of wells on the Appalachian Plateau, and in about 70% of the wells near reclaimed surface coal mines of the region.
Coal slurry, the waste left after washing and processing coal with water and chemicals, is highly toxic and can leach into groundwater. Up to 60 different chemicals are used to wash coal — including the now-infamous MCHM that spilled from a decrepit storage take into the Kanawha River in January 2014 — as well as the heavy metals naturally present in the coal.
In Prenter Hollow, West Virginia, more than 300 residents filed a lawsuit against nine coal companies in 2009 for water contamination from coal slurry injected into abandoned underground mine shafts. Two studies released in January, 2012, upheld the residents’ claims by demonstrating a “clear hydrochemical pathway” from dumping sites to local water wells.
The health effects on the Prenter community from water pollution were devastating. One resident, Jennifer Hall-Massey, told The New York Times about the emergence of a “brain-tumor cluster” in which “six people in a neighborhood with ten houses were diagnosed with brain cancer,” four of whom later died.
Blasting and Flying Rock
The forceful blasting from mountaintop removal often occurs close to homes, and at all times of the day. Drinking water wells and building foundations crack from the sheer force of the explosions, significantly depreciating property values, which is oftentimes a family’s most substantial asset. Communities are blanketed in dust, and sometimes pelted by rocks ranging from pebble to boulder size.
Sometimes the “flyrock” injures, or kills. On August 20, 2004, a bulldozer pushed a boulder weighing half a ton from a mountaintop removal site in Appalachia, Virginia. The falling boulder crashed into the side of a residence, crushing 3 year-old Jeremy Davidson in his sleep.
Before coal companies remove a mountaintop, they strip the land clean. Without trees on steep mountain slopes, rainfall can quickly accumulate to dangerous levels, subjecting nearby communities to powerful flash floods. Some of the most devastating flash floods occurred in Mingo County in southern West Virginia in May 2009, when rising water forced residents from their homes and prompted then-Governor Joe Manchin to declare a state of emergency. It was the 19th flood in 11 years to hit Mingo County and surrounding areas of southern West Virginia’s coalfields.
Coal sludge, or slurry, is the toxic byproduct of removing coal from rock, and it contains dangerous heavy metals such as antimony, beryllium, cadmium, chlorine, chromium, cobalt, lead, manganese, nickel, selenium, arsenic and mercury.
Coal sludge is contained in massive impoundments whose notoriously leaky confines threaten a sudden collapse. If an impoundment fails, entire communities can be wiped out in a matter of minutes – buried beneath a wave of this toxic sludge.
In 1972, an impoundment failed in West Virginia’s Buffalo Creek Hollow, letting loose a 15-20 foot wave moving at an estimated speed of 7 feet per second which levelled town after town for 15 miles. Out of a population of over 5,000 people, 125 residents were killed, 1,121 were injured, and over 4,000 were left homeless.
In 2000, an impoundment failed in Martin County, Kentucky, spilling more than 300 million gallons of toxic sludge into tributaries of the Big Sandy River. The disaster—nearly 30 times larger than the Exxon Valdez spill— killed virtually all aquatic life for 70 miles downstream. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency called it the worst environmental disaster east of the Mississippi.
A Present-Day Threat
According to the U.S. Geological Survey, approximately 1,000 slurry impoundments are located in the coal-mining region of the Appalachian Basin.
On February 11, 2014, a coal slurry spill at a processing facility in Kanawha County, W.Va., released over 100,000 gallons of toxic material into Fields Creek, blackening the water for roughly six miles and polluting the downstream Kanawha River. This incident was not the first violation of water quality code at this particular plant. The operator, Patriot Coal, had received a citation by the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection as recently as November 2013 for allowing black liquid to discharge into South Hollow.
Who’s to blame?
Alpha Natural Resources
The coal industry has maintained a tight grip on Appalachia for decades, going back to the days of union-busting, often using violence. In recent years, coal companies have paid handsomely — in campaign contributions — to get and keep lawmakers on their side who either turn a blind eye to the community suffering, or prevent environmental regulators from doing their job.
Appalachian Voices led a team of organizations in uncovering tens of thousands of Clean Water Act violations by the three largest coal operators in Kentucky. We sued the state for failing to enforce the law, and secured a major settlement.
Alpha Natural Resources, one of the leading producers of metallurgical coal in the U.S., and the third largest coal supplier in the world, has also been culpable for serious pollution violations at its mines. In a settlement with the EPA in March 2014, the company agreed to pay a $27.5 million fine for discharging toxic waste into nearby streams. The EPA also required Alpha to spend an estimated $200 million on installing wastewater treatment systems and implementing comprehensive improvements to reduce discharges of pollution, signaling to other coal companies the federal government’s increasingly firm stance on violations of the Clean Water Act.
(Its subsidiary, Alpha Appalachian Holdings, formerly Massey Energy, was responsible for the failed dam in Martin County, Ky., that poured over 300 million gallons of toxic sludge into the tributaries of the Big Sandy River in fall 2000.)
However, the federal government’s regulation of surface mining in Appalachia has met constant pushback from coal industry advocates. Following the EPA’s 2011 veto of the permit for Spruce Mine No. 1 mountaintop mine in Logan County, W.Va., which would be the largest mine in the state, legislation was introduced in both the 111th and 112th Congresses to strip the EPA’s authority to veto mine permits under Section 404 of the Clean Water Act.
The entanglement of coal with Washington politics in the form of power plays and campaign contributions reduces the incentive for politicians to support economic diversification in Appalachia. Today, the mine-ravaged land – with barren terrain and polluted water – fails to attract outside investment besides coal.