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Coal Sludge Disposal Under Scrutiny in WV Legislature

Mine safety expert Jack Spadaro addresses WV lawmakers
by Stephen Wussow
West Virginia lawmakers were confronted Monday with hard evidence of harm inflicted upon rural West Virginians by coal sludge. A new scientific study documents dangerously polluted water around coal slurry injection sites in the Rawl area near Williamson. Residents have been saying for years that the coal industry practice of pumping toxic coal sludge into abandoned underground mines as a cheap disposal method has had devastating consequences for the health their community. In light of the new findings, concerned scientists, mining experts, and victims of poisoned water pleaded with the state joint judiciary subcommittee to support a moratorium and comprehensive study on the extent and the health consequences of coal slurry injection in the state.
A subsidiary Massey prep plant had been injecting coal sludge since 1977 into the abandoned underground mines under the Rawl, Sprigg, Merrimac, and Lick Creek communities, according to former Mine Safety and Health Academy superintendent Jack Spadaro. About 1.4 billion gallons of coal sludge have been pumped under the Rawl area, said Spadaro. Residents say the water noticeably worsened when Massey began blasting at a mountaintop removal site nearby around 1990. They’ve been trying to get clean water since.
Dr. Benjamin Stout, the Wheeling Jesuit University biology professor who conducted the new water quality study, found several dangerous metals and chemicals in Rawl’s well water, pollutants also found in coal sludge. Lead, manganese, arsenic, barium, selenium, iron, and beryllium lurked in much of the water area residents have been using to drink and cook. Although most residents now try to avoid the water, even residents who don’t drink the water are exposed when bathing or wearing clothes washed in the water.
Stout fears that hot water heaters may be concentrating heavy metals, exposing residents to “phenomenal” levels of dangerous pollutants. The water in one heater had a high concentration of arsenic and was almost one-half percent iron. “It was a very thick sludge at the bottom of the hot water heater,” he said. “When I talked to residents, they said their hot water heaters only last a few years.” “They have to have plastic water fixtures because the metal fixtures corrode too fast.”
‘‘I think without a doubt there is a connection” between the tainted water and the sludge injections in the area, said Marshall University environmental science professor and engineer Scott Simonton. Mines are not perfectly sealed tubes, they are connected to the water supply and to surface water.
Simonton held up a jar of the blackish water that came out of a faucet in Rawl, putrid globs swirling. “It’s awful,” he exhorted. “It’s the worst I’ve ever seen. I don’t think that anybody should drink it.” Visibly shaken, the lawmakers passed around the jar of acerbic liquid like a hot potato.
Donetta Blakenship (no relation to Don) moved to Rawl five years ago. Her family has been sick ever since. Liver failure has twice brought her to the brink of death. Doctors blame an excess of copper in her body from drinking the water, Donetta told the panel. “I don’t go around eating pennies,” she said, trying to smile. “I never drank. Thank God, I can say that. I never did anything to cause this.”
Someone else who understands is Debbie Sammons of Lick Creek. She described a terrible night when her son began vomiting uncontrollably. He later passed a kidney stone. He was six years old. She also blames the water for her miscarriage. Told to drink plenty of water during her pregnancy, Debbie followed the doctor’s orders. “I thought I was using water that God provided,” she grieved. ‘‘I probably killed my baby.”
Toxicologist Dawn Seeburger, who has been interviewing Rawl residents, laid out a long list of other health problems associated with the pollutants, including chronic diarrhea, thyroid failure, rotting teeth, neurological disorders, miscarriages, and lesions.
The health threat of coal slurry injections is not limited to the Rawl area, argued Jack Spadaro. “There are other Rawls,” an inevitabilty with 400 injection wells all over the state pumping millions of gallons of sludge a day. “The sad part about all of this is … we have an alternate system than pumping slurry blindly into the ground and into drinking water,” said Spadaro. “A dry filter process is economical and can be used in any coal preparation facility.”
Rural communities without access to municipal water supplies remain vulnerable, as sludge has been injected throughout rural southern West Virginia. According to Seeburger, sources of municipal water are also threatened by sludge pollution. Unsettled, the legislators displayed concern about the quality of water in their own districts.
If the West Virginia legislature is truly concerned with the quality of its drinking water and the health of its citizens, it will pass the moratorium on slurry injections and fund a full study of the impact this mordant practice has already had. The subcommittee will be hearing from industry and the WV Dept of Environmental Protection next month, but with word getting out about the tragedies perpetrated upon Rawl and other communities, Big Coal is feeling the heat.





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