National Geographic : 2006 Mar
"Now the coal companies will take 300 feet off the top of a mountain just to get at a few feet of coal." I GREW UP BEHOLDEN to West Virginia bitu minous coal. My parents' house in Cincinnati was heated by it until they switched to oil in 1945. The coal came down the Ohio River by barge, and every wintry month or so a dump truck would deliver a big pile beside our garage. I remember helping my father cart it to the furnace inside, and the grating screech of his shovel on the cellar floor. And I remember the trail of black soot and the coal dust on my shoes. I was grateful for the warmth the coal gave us, but I hated it too because it was dirty. This was before public health and clean-air regulations obliged the mining industry to wash coal and, in Appalachia at least, dispose of the dust, dirt, and wastewater in impoundments, often perched precariously on the sides of the mountains. There are some 500 of these impoundments in Appalachia today, more than half in Kentucky and West Virginia. Variously referred to as slur ry ponds, sludge lagoons, or waste basins, they impound hundreds of billions of gallons of toxic black water and sticky black goo, by products of cleaning coal, mostly from under ground mines but also from surface mines. Mountain folk residing downhill from these ponds worry about what a flood of loose sludge might do-and has already done in a number of tragic cases. In Logan County in the winter of 1972, following two straight days of torrential rain, a coal-waste structure built by a subsidiary of the Pittston Coal Company collapsed and spilled 130 million gallons into Buffalo Creek. The flood scooped up tons of debris and scores of homes as it swept downstream. Survivors recalled see ing houses bob by, atilt in the swift current, the doomed families huddled at their windows. The final count was 125 dead, 1,000 injured, 4,000 made homeless. The Pittston Company called the disaster an "act of God." In neighboring Kentucky on an October morning in 2000, the bottom of a waste pond near the town of Inez collapsed, pouring 250 million gallons of slurry-25 times the amount 114 NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC * MARCH 2006 of oil spilled in the Exxon Valdez disaster-into an inactive underground mine shaft. From there, the slurry surged to the mine's two exits and flooded two creeks hell-bent for the Tug Fork of the Big Sandy and the Ohio River beyond. Miraculously, there was no loss of human life, though 20 miles of stream valley would be declared an aquatic dead zone, water systems in ten counties would have to be shut down, and the black slick would eventually reach out toward the riverfront in Cincinnati. Lawyers for the Martin County Coal Company, a Massey subsidiary and owner of the impoundment, blamed the accident on excessive rainfall, which was simply another way of saying what had been said at Buffalo Creek. It was God's fault. Fear of impoundment failures haunts the col lective memory of West Virginians. "I'm con vinced something awful's going to happen again," Freda Williams was saying the day I called on her at her tidy brick house beside a tributary of the Big Coal River, just south of Whitesville. One of the largest waste basins in the state, the Brushy Fork slurry lagoon, owned by Massey Energy, impounds some eight billion gallons of blackwater sludge about three miles upstream from Williams's home. "What's going to happen to all that water if the dam breaks or the basin collapses into an abandoned underground mine?" By some accounts, should the Brushy Fork impoundment ever fail, a wave of sludge 25 feet high could roll over Whitesville in no time flat. RESHAPING THE LAND I Twisted Gun public golf course in Mingo County (top right) smooths away scars left by the kind of moun taintop mining that still goes on beside it. Searching for native ginseng (right) isa West Virginia tradition with diminishing returns. While deer and overharvesting have taken a toll on the plant, whose root is prized as a medicinal, mining destroys the forests where ginseng grows.