After sludge spills, so does anger

BY SUSAN KIM | Harlan, KY | December 19, 2000

Jess Freeman is helping Oklahoma residents recover from ice storms.
Credit: Boyce Bowdon

Nearly 20 years after losing a friend in a coal sludge accident, Becky Simpson is wondering why some things never change.

"A sludge pond was on the mountainside right above her house. Part of the pond busted and washed through her yard. The coal company gave her $2,500 to get someone to clean it up.

"The pitiful part was that she said she was afraid it would bust all the way during the night and wash her away.

"That's exactly what happened. She never even got to cash that check. I lost a wonderful friend. I knew her for two years and we had been going to meetings trying to change the whole situation."

That was in 1981. This year, a Martin County Coal Company coal waste impoundment collapsed in October, resulting in one of the largest coal slurry spills in history. "Cleanup is still continuing. We have 520 people working on different aspects and they're making great progress," said Bill Marcum, spokesperson for Martin County Coal. "There are government agencies involved in review the work."

But even though cleanup is going well, some Martin County residents report they are wondering why the spill happened in the first place, and why government agencies didn't review the coal waste impoundment as carefully before the disaster as they are doing in the aftermath. Some 50 Martin County residents are planning to file a class action suit against the coal company.

For Simpson and other residents in eastern Kentucky, the spill is the largest in a long line that never seems to end. "The coal companies dig these enormous holes in the ground, then just keep filling them until they fill them up. They're as dangerous as they can be. It just sits there waiting for a collapse to happen, especially when it rains and then freezes and loosens it all up.

"It doesn't matter how far back in the mountains they put those ponds in. People live in fear that they're gonna bust. For people who have to live underneath that, it's torture. My heart goes out to them."

In past years, Simpson has seen a 20-foot high wall of sludge and people in sludge up to their necks. After her friend died, she founded a survival center in Harlan in her memory for families in need. "We are helping about 800 families, whether they need coats, shoes, blankets, or food baskets."

This week, Simpson read that Martin County Coal has applications for more sludge storage ponds. "I said that's gross."

The spill resulted in what is ironically referred to as a "clean kill," said Lori Briscoe, associate director of the Appalachian Center at Berea College. "It killed everything for 60 miles."

Many residents agree that the responsible coal company started cleaning the ooze out of Kentucky's waterways as soon as possible, she said. "Martin County Coal responded pretty well in cleaning up right away," said Briscoe.

But in responding immediately, cleanup operations have entailed taking out people's sewer lines, clear-cutting stream banks, and building new storage ponds to store the cleaned-up ooze. "Fifty citizens are filing a class action lawsuit over some of these damages," said Briscoe.

"The coal company is denying any significant toxic chemicals but that's being contested, too."

Many more than just 50 residents are asking why Martin County Coal and its industry counterparts in other counties are allowed to store the sludge in what turned out to be a precarious way.

"This will happen as long as we tolerate coal mining in the manner in which it's done in the mountains," said Father Al Fritsch, a Catholic priest who is a member of the secular nonprofit group Appalachia - Science in the Public Interest.

"Our answer is to use appropriate technologies like solar energy. We don't even advocate the use of coal. That's different from what other environmental groups in the mountains will say."

Others advocate for better regulations surrounding coal slurry storage. "Anywhere where people are so dependent on the coal companies, nothing will ever get done about it unless strong legislation is passed," said Briscoe. "Virginia passed strong legislation several years ago but other states didn't follow that lead."

Tom FitzGerald, director of the Kentucky Resources Council, Inc., wrote a statement on behalf of citizens angry about the spill. "Never again will we accept coal corporations denying responsibility for acts that were squarely within the control of the coal company and for consequences that were foreseeable and avoidable," he wrote. "Never again will we allow coal company profits and convenience to trump public safety and environmental protection."

He added: "Never again will we sit in quiet complicity as with resignation these avoidable tragedies are accepted as a necessary price of a coal economy. Never again will we quietly accept a legislative policy for this Commonwealth that doing the bare minimum required by federal law is sufficient to protect the lives and communities of our coal field neighbors to the east and west."

Fitzgerald and other residents are advocating for a moratorium on increasing the size of coal waste impoundments; stronger legislation to protect the public; a review of existing impoundments; new coal processing technology that doesn't produce such wet, heavy waste; and stronger enforcement of other regulations.

Simpson and other residents have joined in advocacy efforts, but said it seems like the government has turned its back. "The federal and state (government) isn't interested in talking about it. And if you go try to check on the state of a sludge pond yourself, the coal company keeps you out with security guards," she said.

"We need more people involved in this issue nationwide," added Briscoe.

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