Toxic Lakes of Goo and You

Members of Coal River Mountain Watch, concerned coalfield residents and the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition are working together on a “Sludge Safety Project,” The Mary Reynolds Babcock Foundation is funding the initiative.

Focusing on West Virginia, the project’s goals are to push for state policy changes that will better protect coalfield residents and people living further downstream from coal sludge impoundments. We are demanding a moratorium on new impoundments and the closure of the most dangerous existing impoundments.

There are hundreds of coal sludge impoundments throughout Appalachia. Near their mining operations, often at the heads of hollows, coal companies construct dams from mine refuse. Behind the dam, they create slurry or sludge lakes, which store the liquid waste leftover from washing and processing coal. Solids settle to the bottom of the pond, while water clears enough at the top to be reused or discharged. The companies say the slurry contains mostly water, rocks and mud.

But we know otherwise. The sludge contains a witch’s brew of carcinogenic chemicals used in coal washing and processing. Slurry also likely contains arsenic, mercury, chromium, cadmium, boron, selenium, nickel, and other elements that are present in coal.

In 2003, Senator Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) said, “Breaks in coal slurry impoundments can threaten the lives and health of area residents, destroy homes and businesses and contaminate water supplies. This dangerous potential looms over coal mining regions in West Virginia and throughout Appalachia.”

In 1972, a coal waste dam failed at Buffalo Creek, W. Va. A 30-feet high wall of water surged down the creek, killing 125 people, destroying over 1,000 homes and leaving 4,000 people homeless. The avoidable disaster promoted the passage of the 1977 Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act.

While today’s impoundments aren’t likely to suffer catastrophic failure of the dam face, they remain very dangerous. Citizens worry that the impoundments could fail, releasing a tidal wave of sludge onto downstream communities, as happened near Inez, Kentucky in October, 2000. Across the coalfields, smaller “blackwater” spills occur frequently, fouling both streams and groundwater.

Coal sludge impoundments are not necessary. Some coal companies are already using alternative, dry methods to dispose of coal waste. These methods are currently more expensive than the sludge “ponds.” However, if you live in the shadows of these massive impoundments, you likely feel that this extra cost is more than worth it when compared to the costs of potential disasters.

We hope readers of the Appalachian Voice will join the Sludge Safety Project in educating policy makers and the dangers of and alternatives to coal sludge impoundments.

Visit to find out how you can help.

For more information about the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, vissit:


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