Mississippi spill taints Southeast water

BY P.J. HELLER BY P.J. HELLER | Inez, Ky | October 20, 2000

A massive spill of coal slurry into waterways in eastern Kentucky has forced two public water treatment plants to shut down and

has resulted in a water shortage in a 10-county area.

The spill -- called by some officials the worst environmental disaster to hit the region in more than a decade -- is seeping through

waterways in Kentucky and West Virginia. More than 100 miles of creeks, streams, and rivers have been affected.

Federal officials have announced a review of the nation's 653 coal waste dams.

Gov. Paul Patton declared a state of emergency. He said the spill was "endangering the public health and safety." It has already

proven fatal to wildlife.

Both the Martin County Water District and the Louisa Water Department had to shut down their treatment plants because of the

tainted water in the streams, said Heather Frederick of the Kentucky Natural Resources and Environmental Protection Cabinet.

Both plants were laying pipe into waterways not affected by the slurry spill in order to create a temporary water intake and restore

water service to their customers. Water from the new intake pipes still has to be tested to ensure it is safe for drinking.

Meantime, state officials along with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers were closely monitoring the flow of the slurry, which has the

consistency of wet concrete, as it continued to flow from the Big Sandy River into the Ohio River.

About 250 million gallons of the slurry spilled into the waterway last week after a storage pond gave way. The slurry seeped into

two streams that flow into the Big Sandy River and ultimately into the Ohio River.

The slurry is continuing to flow into the waterways, despite state and federal efforts to clean it up.

The 72-acre pond is at a plant owned by Martin County Coal Corp. The company was issued four citations last week by the state for

"creating imminent environmental damage."

Municipalities have had to rely on their water reservoirs, which are now running low. In some areas, officials have closed schools,

car washes and other facilities to conserve clean water. In some areas, schools were closed indefinitely until other sources of water

can be found.

The coal company site is near Kentucky's eastern border with West Virginia.

Cleanup could take up to six months and cost millions of dollars, according to Fred Stroud of the U.S. Environmental Protection


Frederick said the state was not ready yet to say how much the cleanup would cost or who would foot the bill.

"This is a very serious situation for us. It's a very large-scale problem," she said. "Clearly, it will be very costly."

Martin County Coal was working to dredge the slurry from the streams. Berms were also set up to try to contain the flow.

The spill forced American Electric Power to shut down its coal-fired power plant in Kentucky. The plant is located along the Big

Sandy River near Louisa.

The Kentucky Division of Emergency Management is coordinating state and private relief efforts.

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