After mountaintop removal coal mining began near their eastern Kentucky home, the Halberts saw their water quality and quality of life plummet. Three years later, they continue to seek answers.
By Molly Moore
Ginger and Mark Halbert have a knack for fermentation, and their flavorful pickled corn is so popular among friends and family that the couple crafted a plan in 2011 to bring their recipe to local and regional stores. They certified the recipe, and started the process of transforming Mark’s mechanical shop, which is attached to their home, into a commercial kitchen that could produce nourishing, locally grown goods prepared on-site with their mountain spring water.
The Halberts dreamed that their business might expand to nearby states and include items such as pickled green tomatoes and sauerkraut, and Mark started plans for a vineyard on the slope beside their home. In the fall of 2011 they arranged for a plumber to finish preparing for the commercial kitchen, but had to stop the project before it was complete. Everything was put on hold when the water and land that the Halberts’ vision relied on began to fall apart.
A Life Disrupted
Perched on a flat bench along an otherwise steep slope, the west side of the house faces toward the forested ridge and the second-story entrance and deck are parallel to the steep mountainside. That fall, the ground around the home began to shift, sometimes in sudden, violent movements that shook and cracked the walls.
After one intense shake, Ginger ran downstairs to check on Mark in the shop below and found the door jammed shut. She frantically tried to open it, praying that no heavy equipment had fallen on her husband. Thankfully, he was unharmed.
Following heavy rains, the shop began to flood. Standing water filled the floor, which signaled the start of a mold problem that worsened when the pipes corroded that spring and water seeped beneath the rugs.
Putting their plans on hold because of the property damage was “a bitter pill to swallow,” Ginger says, but as time progressed the family faced more pressing concerns. In the spring of 2012, their water developed a strange taste. At first Ginger thought the change might be due to snowmelt and would pass along with the winter’s built-up grime, but by May the taste worsened and the plants that she watered began to wither.
That spring, Mark and their children began experiencing a nagging pain in their legs, a sensation that Ginger felt in her arms and elbows. Over the next year, the pain escalated — her children said it felt as if their legs were pulling away from their bodies. Ginger started washing the dishes in the sink because the water had destroyed the dishwasher, but her arms broke out in rashes afterward.
Mark’s leg began to hurt so intensely that the former Marine had trouble walking. At the V.A. Hospital, the doctors looked for a blood clot and other indications of trouble but couldn’t find anything wrong, though one healthcare worker said it sounded like the cause could be metals in his muscles. Mark then went to a chiropractor who came to the same conclusion. The family already knew that their water quality was in decline when their health symptoms began in 2012. At that time, they used their tap water for showering and cleaning but hauled bottled water to the upstairs residence for drinking. When the Halberts discovered the extent of the water contamination in the spring of 2014, they installed a 300-gallon rainwater cistern to supply water for washing dishes and bathing — and their symptoms disappeared.
“I took it for granted that water was going to be there forever, and I think by nature it should have been,” Ginger says.
The onset of their troubles coincided with the opening of a new mountaintop removal coal mine near their home, and Ginger believes the surface mining operation is responsible for the ruined water. But proving a connection between a new mining operation and contaminated water in a region riddled with decades of mining infrastructure is a task for only the most dogged and determined. Ginger Halbert is both.
The Halbert property has always been intimate with coal — two coal seams crop out of the mountainside behind their home, and one runs beneath. Their spring discharges from one of the abandoned coal seams. The last underground mining on these seams ended in 1959, and in the 1990s the owners of the legacy mines met the legal requirements for reclamation and had their bonds returned, freeing them from legal or financial responsibility for any future troubles. In the ‘90s and the early 2000s, the Halberts called the federal Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement asking for assistance with rockslides and gushing water, but until 2012, their drinking water always tasted good.
In 2011, When the Halberts received notice that FCDC Coal, Inc. was opening a surface mine on the adjacent hollow, they were offered a pre-blasting survey that measured existing water quality. The survey showed a pH level of 6.8, which is within the healthy drinking water parameters of 6.5 to 8.5. In November 2012 — after blasting began — staff from the Kentucky Department for Natural Resources and the Division of Mine Reclamation & Enforcement inspected the spring in response to a water quality complaint from the Halberts. Their test results showed a pH of 4.
While the Halberts waited for more information from the state agency, they spoke with an employee of FCDC Coal who said the company could assess the water and discuss possible solutions if it was indeed impaired. After the company also found dangerously low pH, Ginger called to ask whether the company would either connect them to city water or provide filters. This time her contact denied that FCDC Coal could be responsible. “‘You take what we give you or we’ll make sure you have no water,’ thats the way he put it,” Ginger recalls, bristling at the memory.
Mark picked up the phone next, this time dialing the state DMRE. The original inspector was unavailable, so Mark began describing the coal company’s response to her supervisor, Eric Allen. He told Mark that the state inspector had concluded the new surface mine was too far away and could not have impacted the water, so DMRE had stopped the investigation.
“We never received a letter, never received nothing from them, and they stopped investigating,” Ginger says in disbelief.
After Mark countered that the family wouldn’t have been asked to participate in a pre-blast survey if their home was too far away to be impacted, Allen agreed to reopen the investigation.
Over the next year, DMRE hydrologists visited the property and surrounding area, sampling water at the home, on the mine permit, and at nearby drainages. When the agency issued its report in February 2014, some facts were clear: water quality at the Halbert home had declined substantially and was impacted by mining, and the change coincided with the start of the new FCDC Coal surface mine.
But when it came to assigning responsibility for the damage the report concluded that there wasn’t enough evidence to assign blame to a particular mine. “The volume of water in the underground mine works that supply the Halbert’s spring is far too large to be directly affected [by] the FCDC disturbance,” the report stated. “It is far more likely that conditions within the underground mines changed in some way, causing more acidic water to be produced.”
Ginger was dismayed with the state’s inconclusive findings and pored over the report, putting together a list of questions: Could the blasting at the FCDC site have impacted the fragile underground mines, causing a cave-in or other problem that ruined their water? Why didn’t a blasting inspector accompany the hydrologist or respond to their concerns in a timely manner? In March, she and Mark compiled more than a dozen such questions in a formal request for an administrative review of the February 2014 report.
“You would not believe what I went through just to find out what I could do,” she says of the process. “I did so much research I felt like I took three years of college in a week.”
Driven by her and her family’s escalating pain, she also called the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Atlanta regional office. The representative she spoke with said he would ensure that someone from the state Division of Water assessed her water, and in March 2014 the inspector arrived. The test results were sobering.
Before the Halberts learned that their water contained 14 ug/l of total beryllium compared to an EPA drinking water standard of 4 ug/l, they were unfamiliar with the metal. Now they know that it is a cancer-causing agent also linked to respiratory ailments, skin rashes and a chronic disease called berylliosis, which damages the heart and lungs. People are typically exposed to airborne beryllium through industrial work, not drinking water, but the agency theorized that the water’s high acidity might be allowing the metal to leach from the coal-bearing rocks.
The agency report also showed a pH reading of 3.33, a level considered unsafe for human use, and a conductivity reading of 2200 that indicated a high presence of minerals. Among the minerals violating drinking water standards were iron, manganese, aluminum and sulfate.
“It’s stopped all of our lives,” Ginger says. “We can’t enjoy the little things people always take for granted.” The family no longer accepts overnight visitors. Their oldest son is serving with the Air Force in South Korea, and to Ginger’s great delight he used to bring fellow servicemembers home for visits. But Ginger no longer welcomes these visitors to the house — she doesn’t want to put him and his friends at risk.
Pausing to look out of her second-story hillside window at the small houses scattered throughout the hollow, Ginger’s eyes well up with tears. She gestures to the homes, telling the stories of eight neighbors who have battled cancer in the past five years, and describing going to the small town grocery store and seeing multiple shoppers with cancer. Ginger jokes that she will go down fighting, but she is still concerned, and provides her family with detoxifying foods and supplements.
Worth Fighting For
In August 2014, Ginger received a report from a DMRE geologist who responded to the Halberts’ list of questions by reviewing the other inspectors’ work. The geologist reached the same conclusion as her colleagues, reporting that there was insufficient evidence to link the recent FCDC mining to the family’s ruined spring and expressing the opinion that the Halbert troubles stemmed from the older mines nearby.
Ginger says she isn’t satisfied with the answers, and still wonders whether the blasting impacted the abandoned mines nearby, setting off changes that contaminated their formerly reliable spring. Now represented by Jeffrey R. Morgan and Associates in Hazard, Ky., the Halberts are continuing to appeal the state’s findings in the hopes that a court might decide a more thorough investigation into the Halbert’s problems is warranted.
The Halberts are also in the discovery phase of a lawsuit against FCDC Coal to receive compensation for the damage done to their property — compensation that might allow the family to find a new home and return to their dream of processing fresh, fermented vegetables with healthy mountain water.
For now, the weeds are tall in the Halbert backyard, where a triangular stretch of flat land is flanked by the family’s spring, the home and a shifting, quickly eroding drop-off. There are no longer any deck chairs out here to take advantage of the rural valley views — ironweed and other plants grow unchecked to help catch any beryllium-laced water or dust that might blow towards the home.
It upsets Ginger that her eleven-year-old son must stay away from the yard his older siblings used to play in, and that a few miles downstream children might be playing in a creek fed by her toxic spring. She reflects that her oldest son, who is overseas in the military, might be safer than her two at home.
“We’re never promised of getting any help if we sit back and do nothing,” she says. “I was raised that you have a duty to be an American, and it does take work when you are an American to keep your rights and your laws going. And if you stop, and everybody stops, then who gets control?”