Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Toxic coal sludge pollutes Ky. town 10 years later

The Big Sandy River, just below the confluence of the Tug Ford and Levisa Ford, is shown Sunday, Oct. 15, 2000, near Louisa, Ky. The river was contaminated due to a spill of coal sludge. The 200 million gallon spill forced officials to close schools, car washes and coin laundries Monday, Oct. 16, 2000, to preserve clean water.

Comments:  The pro uranium people who are always bragging their holding ponds of uranium waste will always work!  Don't think so!  Remember another break happen in Dec. 2008!  This Saturday will be a series of broken tailings ponds thru out the world!

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — In parts of eastern Kentucky, the pictures coming out of Hungary of the red sludge that roared from a factory's reservoir, downstream into the Danube River, are all too reminiscent of what happened a decade ago this week.

A layer of dark goo still sits under a creekbed on Glenn Cornette's land, the leftovers from when a coal company's sprawling slurry pond burst, blackening 100 miles of waterways and polluting the water supply of more than a dozen communities before the stuff reached the Ohio River.

A torrent as wide as a football field and 6 feet deep covered Cornette's property in Martin County, near the West Virginia line about 175 miles east of Louisville. It killed all manner of plants and cut off his access to the street.

"It just looked like pudding or something," Cornette said recently.

With seven dead so far and at least 120 injured, the 184-million-gallon spill of toxic muck from a Hungarian alumina plant has already proven more dangerous than what's known as the Inez (eye-NEHZ') disaster.

But the mess in Kentucky was considerably bigger — some 300 million gallons of slurry, a byproduct of purifying coal, oozed into yards and streams for miles in what was considered one of the South's worst environmental disasters at the time.

And a decade later, its effects linger.

The slurry burst through the bottom of the Martin County Coal Corp.'s 68-acre holding pond early on the morning of Oct. 11, 2000, sending the goo washing through an underground mine and into two creeks. The sludge blackened 100 miles of waterways, polluted the water supply of more than a dozen communities and killed aquatic life before reaching the Ohio River. There were no human casualties.

"The sludge looked like a flow of black lava," said Mickey McCoy, an Inez resident whose creek was blackened by the spill. "We're not talking brown water, we're talking black, black lava just rolling."

The coal company, a subsidiary of Richmond, Va.-based Massey Energy, eventually paid $46 million for the cleanup, along with about $3.5 million in state fines and an undisclosed sum to residents, including Cornette, who sued over property damages.

Since the 2000 disaster, there have been 22 coal impoundment spills at Massey-owned sites, according to the Coal Impoundment Location and Information System, a database kept by Wheeling Jesuit University in West Virginia. Most were minor, and none approached the size of the release at Inez.

There are 285 active slurry ponds in 11 states, according to the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration. More than half are in Kentucky and West Virginia, and with another 71 in Illinois and Pennsylvania.

The Martin County spill prompted MSHA to stiffen its sludge pond review process with closer attention paid to underground mining issues, spokeswoman Amy Louviere said.

It's just a matter of time before you have another failure in one of them," said Oppegard, who was MSHA's lead accident investigator into the Martin County disaster until he was replaced when President George W. Bush took office.

The Martin County impoundment was supported by a relatively thin barrier of earth and rock — 15 to 18 feet — between the bottom of the sludge pond and an underground mine, said Jack Spadaro, former director of the National Mine Health and Safety Academy, which trains inspectors. Spadaro, who also led a team that looked into the spill for MSHA, said the pond was 80 feet deep when it burst.

The same slurry pond had a small release in 1994, and the company should have known the impoundment was a risk to fail again, Spadaro said. Instead, several dozen feet of sludge were added to the pond before the break in 2000.

In addition to state fines and legal settlements, Massey paid federal penalties totaling $5,600, which Spadaro called "a huge miscarriage of justice."

Spadaro, who became a critic of MSHA's handling of the spill investigation and eventually left his federal job to become an engineering consultant in West Virginia, estimated that about three-quarters of Kentucky's 79 active sludge ponds sit atop old mine workings.

The Martin County release was considered the country's worst coal-related spill until an earthen dam breached at a Tennessee Valley Authority power plant in 2008, sending more than 1 billion gallons of watery coal ash into a nearby river and surrounding lands. Coal ash is formed during combustion at power plants, while coal slurry is part of the production process at mines. Officials have estimated the cleanup at the Tennessee site will exceed $1 billion.

McCoy said he visited fellow Inez resident Cornette's home Oct. 3 to look for remaining sludge a decade later.

"I dug at the edge of the bank," McCoy said. "Now this was in the water, and I pulled up a shovelful and threw it upside down on the bank and there was the sludge, under about 3 inches of sand."

Associated Press writer Bruce Schreiner contributed to this report.

Read more: