A gooey gray river of coal waste, the consistency of soft-serve ice cream, is oozing through waterways in Kentucky and West Virginia, inflicting what officials are calling the worst environmental disaster to hit the region in more than a decade.
So far, more than 100 miles of creeks, streams, and rivers have been affected, despite attempts by federal and state crews to contain the spreading mess. No human injuries have been reported, but the smothering sludge has been deadly to wildlife.
About 250 million gallons of the creeping goo, known as coal slurry, leaked from a Martin County Coal Corp. waste containment pond on Oct. 11 in Inez, Ky., about 140 miles east of Lexington, and has been inching through streams and rivers. The polluting glop meandered from the mine into creeks, then down the Big Sandy River and into the Ohio River last Friday.
“It’s a big mess, just as bad as if you had a big oil spill,” says Fred Stroud, on-scene coordinator with the Environmental Protection Agency’s emergency response team.
In the wake of the spill, the federal government announced a wide-ranging review of 653 coal-waste dams across the country. But officials are stumped about how to prevent the sludge from contaminating additional waterways in the Southeast.
Heavy Metals Found
Slurry is commonly found at coal mining sites across the nation. As coal is processed, certain minerals are removed to increase its burning potential. The waste is mixed with water, and the resulting slurry, a cement-like paste, is stored in ponds.
In this case, the coal company built the slurry pond above an old mine. When the bottom gave out, the sludge spilled through the mine and into the waterways.
Experts have found heavy metals in the sludge, including mercury, lead, arsenic, copper and chromium. While the long-term effects are unclear, the metals found don’t pose a threat in drinking water that is treated, according to the EPA and the Kentucky Natural Resources and Environmental Protection Cabinet.
In the days since the spill, several towns have been forced to seek alternate sources of drinking water. Some public schools closed and residents were ordered to restrict their water consumption to essential activities only.
Turbidity Poses Problems
The greatest danger from the spill so far comes from an increase in turbidity, or solids suspended in the water. As the sludge moves, it raises the water level, coats the riverbanks and suffocates any wildlife in its path.
The turbidity also has caused problems at water treatment plants because the thick water clogs the filters.
Some of the worst damage is found in the creek near the initial dam collapse, Stroud said. “As far as environmental devastation in the creek, it’s in the top 10 in the South in the last 25 years,” he said. The river of goo poses a difficult challenge for clean-up crews. Unlike an oil spill, where the contaminant floats on the water, the sludge sinks to the bottom of the river.
The crews have tried using vacuum trucks, makeshift dams made of bales of straw and skimming booms, but so far nothing has worked.
State Cites Coal Company Although the recent slurry spill is the worst such dam collapse disaster in recent memory, it is certainly not the first.
In 1972, a dam collapse in West Virginia’s Logan County killed 125 and destroyed more than 500 homes. The tragedy led to the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act five years later, the first major regulation aimed at preventing environmental and public safety hazards.
Now, the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration says it will review its standards for coal slurry storage. The Kentucky dam at the heart of the recent catastrophe was ranked as having only a “moderate” danger of breakthrough in a 1997 federal survey, a ranking which did not qualify for a follow-up check.
The federal review began after the 1996 failure of two Virginia slurry impoundments.
In the Inez case, the state of Kentucky issued violation notices to Martin County Coal Corp. for polluting the state’s water, releasing hazardous substances and creating an environmental emergency. The state has called for remedial measures. Each violation carries a potential penalty of up to $25,000 a day.