In the end of July, Appalachian Voices was contacted by Ted Withrow of Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, who reported a family in rural Pike County, Kentucky, with possible methane contamination of their drinking water well, as indicated by flames shooting more than a foot out of the top of the well. The fire had been reported to local media by friends of the family. The contamination was believed to be the result of underground mining activities by the nearby Excel Number 2 Mine. As we looked into this case further to see how we might help, we realized the problem was more wide-spread and long-term than we originally thought.
Appalachian Voices initially provided heavy metal testing for four families – the Howard family, whose well was on fire, and three nearby families. Next, through the generous donation of 30,000 bottles of water from Keeper Springs Natural Spring Water and Nestle Pure Life Purified Water, KFTC and Appalachian Voices were able to provide safe drinking water to each affected family – 13 families in total.
Upon delivery of the water, we spoke with multiple affected families and collected additional water samples for volatile organic compound testing. We learned that some families had already been purchasing bottled drinking water for 8 years. In a country where we often assume our access to clean drinking water is a right, it was astonishing to realize that this right had been stripped from these families for so long. The families reported recent health problems, including hair loss, skin rashes, and burning sensations while showering. Several families also reported sounds of explosions and rocks falling underneath their homes. Pontiki Coal (an associate of Excel Mining, both subsidiaries of Alliance Resource Partners) reported operating an underground coal mine beneath these homes between 1985 and 1987. We heard anecdotal reports from the residents of recent underground slurry injection, a common use for abandoned underground mines, in the immediate area. The site of the coal waste injection was allegedly far from the road and difficult to relocate, as it may have been covered with brush by heavy machinery. Appalachian Voices is continuing to investigate the possibility of slurry injection in the area, though potentially illegal, unpermitted injection would be difficult to verify after the fact.
We learned of an ongoing history between the families and Pontiki coal. The Howard family had two wells drilled by Pontiki Coal. The first well was determined to be unusable and eventually exploded, burning down the pump house on May 1, 2011. Pontiki Coal had drilled new wells for at least two other families, but these wells were also determined to be unusable by the families. Following the well explosion, Pontiki Coal wanted to cap the burning well, but the family initially refused, fearing this would increase the chance of a methane explosion at their home. The well was tested for methane by Pike County Emergency Management, Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA), Kentucky Division of Mine Reclamation and Enforcement (DMRE), and Pontiki Coal on May 3rd and May 10th, 2011, with results ranging widely, from 9.0% to 92.2% methane. The Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet tested the composition of the gas emitting from the well and determined it to be similar to that of coal bed methane, a form of natural gas from coal beds, indicating that the gas was likely caused by mining activity. The coal seam in this area is also known for high methane concentrations.
Of the four wells tested for heavy metals by Appalachian Voices and KFTC, two came back with elevated levels of iron and manganese – the levels were above the EPA secondary maximum contaminant levels for drinking water. Not surprisingly, manganese and iron are two metals commonly associated with water pollution from coal mining. The Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet also inspected and tested several wells. The Cabinet declared the burning well “mine impacted” due to the methane presence. The Cabinet’s inspection also indicated elevated iron and manganese levels in the Howard’s well, but sulfate levels below those commonly found in mine impacted water. The Cabinet tested the wells of at least three other families for heavy metals. Though they found elevated levels of iron and manganese at a second home and elevated manganese levels at a third home, neither of these wells were declared mine impacted, apparently because the wells contained neither methane nor sufficiently high sulfate levels, nor were they on fire.
Despite only one well being declared mine impacted, it appears all families will soon receive a permanent water solution. With assistance from Excel Mining, the families should be able to connect to Martin County water lines. Though the families live in Pike County, the Martin County lines are closer to the homes – approximately 1.1 miles. Martin County Judge Executive Kelly Callihan met with Excel Mining representatives, persuading the company to pay for the water line extension and water meters. The families will have to pay for lines from the main meter to their homes. Shane Watts, General Manager for Excel, said, “We’re just trying to be good neighbors.” While we thank Excel Mining for addressing this issue, we are disappointed it took intense media coverage of the flaming well and the water donation before they found a permanent solution. According to Ronnie Ellis’s story, neither the families nor the Department of Natural Resources have received any notice of the pending water line extension or funding for the project. Appalachian Voices will continue to monitor this situation to be sure that a permanent solution is implemented. In the words of affected resident, Denise Howard, “When I see it running through my faucets, I’ll believe it.”