Sludge Spill Pollutes Ky., W. Va. Waters

ByABC News
October 23, 2000, 11:21 AM

Oct. 23 -- 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.

Its a big mess, just as bad as if you had a big oil spill, says Fred Stroud, on-scene coordinator with the Environmental Protection Agencys 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 dont pose a threat in drinking water that is treated, according to the EPA and the Kentucky Natural Resources and Environmental Protection Cabinet.