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This news story originally provided by The Columbus Dispatch
October 11, 2004

Still buried in SLUDGE  

Four years after more than 300 million gallons of coal slurry inundated part of Martin County, Ky., people there feel as bad off as ever.  
Rita Price

Abraham Lincoln Chapman stands above Coldwater Creek, whose banks still show remnants of coal slurry.

CHRIS RUSSELL | DISPATCH

A pile of loose debris from a mountain leveled for its coal remains a threat to this home, critics say.

CHRIS RUSSELL | DISPATCH

The Bush people came in and stopped the investigation. They said it had gone on long enough." JACK SPADARO former mine safety engineer

CHRIS RUSSELL | DISPATCH

Chapman stands along the creek that he says is polluted.

FILE PHOTO

The 72-acre retention pond near Inez , Ky. , after the slurry spill in October 2000

CHRIS RUSSELL | DISPATCH

A handful of the coal slurry that residents say still befouls Coldwater Creek

FILE PHOTO

Slurry flooded more than 70 miles of stream and killed 1.6 million fish when the walls of a retention pond failed in 2000.

INEZ, Ky. Born and raised in rugged country along Coldwater Creek, Abraham Lincoln Chapman is a man at home in the mountains. He traverses their towering forests by sun-kissed day or pitch-black night Chapman is comfortable either way and, until Oct. 11, 2000, the only thing he could remember fearing on this land was a particularly nasty copperhead snake.

So when he caught sight of a Martin County Coal Co. worker waving him down in the scant, pre-dawn light, Chapman felt more irritation than concern.

Guards are wont to chase him off the mountain, he said. Doesnt seem to matter who was here first, whose family has loved the woods and hunted its creatures and respected the balance.

"He said, Linc, you cant go up there, " Chapman recalled.

"I asked why. He said, Well, you cant get there. "

Chapman squinted toward Coldwater Creek and saw what looked like a river of volcanic lava.

"My family," he thought.

Racing back to wake his wife, son and daughter, Chapman passed a creeping sea of coal slurry 15 feet deep.

He was among the first to see what would come to be called the worst environmental disaster to strike the southeastern United States , a catastrophe whose stain grew 20 times larger than the oil from the Exxon Valdez.

Four years later, "Everything is supposed to be healed," Chapman said. "Were supposed to be right where we were. Were not. They need to back up and try again."

Chapman, like many residents and activists, is still waiting for someone to do right by Martin County , a picturesque patch of eastern Kentucky that has served as Appalachia s poster child ever since President Johnson came here to launch his War on Poverty. It also is defined by scalped mountains, fouled streams and the overwhelming political power of King Coal.

"They kill us with black lung, bury us in slurry, break our backs in the mines," said Chapman, 49, himself retired from the industry. "And then they say, Aint you lucky we gave you a job? "

A mess of slurry

While most of America would be hard-pressed to imagine what slurry is, let alone where it comes from or how its stored, Appalachia knows too well.

Slurry, or sludge, is a byproduct of coal mining, a mixture of sediment and rinse water stored in giant ponds formed by damming up a valley.

Think of a mining mountain as mashed potatoes, a Kentucky writer once noted, and the slurry pond as gravy on top. But when slurry spills over the sides, you cant sop it up.

On Feb. 26, 1972, a Pittston Coal Co. dam failed, sending a wave of water and sludge along Buffalo Creek in West Virginia , killing 125 people.

The Martin County spill contained more than twice the volume of Buffalo , but because fate and a lot of well-positioned debris intervened, the rushing slurry veered into two creeks instead of one, thereby diminishing its force.

"Had it all come Coldwater," Chapman says, "you wouldnt be standing here talking to me."

The break came on a dam, or pond, known as the Big Branch Impoundment, an expansive, 72-acre body of water and sludge visible to the residents below only via an occasional aerial shot in newspapers or on television.

When the bottom gave way, more than 300 million gallons of thick, black, suffocating wastewater poured into streams, homes and wells.

Chapmans 14-year-old daughter, Paige, was too frightened to sleep in her first-floor bedroom after the slurry came. Before she left, she tossed a rock in the creek and waited, a long time, for it to sink.

Added local high-school teacher Mickey McCoy, "Around here, you didnt have to be Jesus Christ to walk on water."

Political fallout

The subsequent federal investigation into the spill, launched in the waning days of the Clinton administration and completed after President Bush took office, has become a bitter controversy marked by allegations of political favoritism, negligence and indifference to the plight of a poor county.

"The democracy thing? It isnt working," said McCoys wife, Nina. "Here, our democracy is being held hostage by our capitalism."

To many people in eastern Kentucky, West Virginia and southeastern Ohio, proof that corporate interests trump community came with the recent fall of Jack Spadaro, a federal mine-safety official whose 36-year career unraveled after he refused to sign off on what he called "a whitewash" report on the Martin County spill.

Spadaro, then the head of the National Mine Health and Safety Academy, says he and other investigators discovered negligence on the part of Martin County Coal a subsidiary of coal giant Massey Energy Co. and lax enforcement by the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration.

The slurry pond had a spill in 1994, Spadaro says, and the company knew another break was nearly inevitable.

"There was only 15 feet of soil and rock between the mine and the slurry when it broke," said Spadaro, who also investigated the Buffalo Creek disaster. "There should have been 150."

Massey disputes allegations that it knew another spill was imminent, saying the claim is "completely false" and that the company follows safety standards that exceed state and federal requirements.

Spadaros former boss at Mine Safety, Davitt McAteer, defends Spadaro. McAteer told 60 Minutes this year that major fatalities were avoided only "by the grace of God," and that officials expected a report that recommended violations, fines and possible criminal charges.

"All of a sudden, in January 2001, on Inauguration Day, it changed," said Spadaro, who turns 56 on Monday, the anniversary of the spill. "The Bush people came in and stopped the investigation. They said it had gone on long enough."

McAteer was replaced and Spadaro accused of abusing his authority and misusing a government credit card, resulting in $22.60 in bank fees was reassigned to a Pittsburgh office four hours from his home. He resigned Sept. 30.

"Jack got a raw deal, no question," said Tom FitzGerald, of the Kentucky Resources Council. "He ran afoul of a new administration, one whose environmental policy and energy policy are the moral equivalent of the portfolios of George Bush and Dick Cheney."

Spokesmen for Mine Safety said that, although they do not comment on personnel matters, there is more to Spadaros case than he says. Officials also said that he was denied federal whistle-blower status.

That hardly mattered to Spadaros cheering supporters Oct. 2 at the Blue Gator in Athens , Ohio , where he received a $5,000 Jenco Award from the Jenco Foundation.

Established by Terry Anderson a Democratic Ohio Senate candidate who was held hostage in Lebanon for for almost seven years after being kidnapped in 1985 the foundation is named for the Rev. Lawrence Martin Jenco, a now-deceased Roman Catholic priest held hostage with Anderson.

Anderson says he created the award to support those "who are working for the dignity and sense of worth of the people of Appalachia ."

Low expectations

Mickey and Nina McCoy believe that dignity is insulted virtually every day.

"Were supposed to sacrifice Appalachia for the sake of coal, for energy, for the rest of the country," Mr. McCoy said. "We get somebody who tries to stand up for us, somebody like Jack Spadaro an American hero and you see what happens."

The McCoys and others were dismayed again this year when an administrative judge in Washington cut the fine levied by Mine Safety against Massey by 90 percent.

Massey, the fourth-largest coal company in America and a heavy contributor to the Republican Party, was charged $5,600, an amount that a Martin County newspaper called paltry and insulting, "a price that wouldnt even buy a good used car."

Mrs. McCoy, a high-school biology teacher, has begged for more studies on contamination of the local water supply but thinks it wont happen.

"The EPA let the coal company conduct the tests," she said. "Regulatory agencies who came in here after the spill set up shop on coalcompany property. The watchdogs became guard dogs."

Massey did, however, bear the cost of the cleanup, estimated at $46 million. It also paid the commonwealth of Kentucky $3.25 million, the state fish and wildlife service $225,000 and an undisclosed amount to area residents who sued.

The company maintains that slurry is a benign, nontoxic substance, no more dangerous than dirt.

During a raucous public meeting in April, a Kentucky Coal Association representative became angry and offered to eat some. Mr. McCoy, a citizen panelist at the meeting, has a jar of slurry saved in case the man decides to follow through.

"It was like Jerry Springer," said Mrs. McCoy, exasperated.

In the four years since the spill, which temporarily shut down five water-treatment plants as its black plume moved to the Ohio River, bottled water has become the largest section of the local grocery, she said.

Environmentalists continue to push for improved regulation of mammoth slurry dams, hundreds of which dot the nation. "There are 223 more of these in Appalachia ," Spadaro said. "There are better, alternative methods of disposal of the waste, but that would cost the coal industry $1 more per ton. So it wont happen."

Massey says the area has healed and been "reclaimed." But Chapman says hes still waiting and watching for fish wildlife officials say the slurry killed an estimated 1.6 million in more than 70 miles of stream to return to his stretch of Coldwater. He used to see mink and muskrat, too.

"I am not against coal mining, and neither are most people here," he said. "I dont even know that we need new laws. How bout we use the ones we have?"

rprice@dispatch.com

 

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