Breaks in coal slurry impoundments can threaten the lives and health of area residents, destroy homes and businesses and contaminate water supplies. This dangerous potential looms over coal mining regions in West Virginia and throughout Appalachia.
- Senator Robert C. Byrd
The Brushy Fork Slurry Impoundment is located in western Raleigh County, where the Brushy Fork tributary used to run down off of Coal River Mountain. Water from Brushy Fork flowed into Little Marsh Fork, into Marsh Fork, and then into Coal River just upstream of Whitesville.
The Brushy Fork Impoundment was originally permitted in November of 1995. At a public hearing addressing the expansion of the dam, the following concerns were raised: the quality of the compaction of the dam as of 1999, the adequacy and life expectancy of the drainage system, the adequacy of the monitoring plan and overall concerns about the safety of the impoundment throughout its life expectancy. At this point in time, violations had already been given to Massey regarding the compaction of the dam as well as several "black water" releases (a release of contaminated water that is often black) into the Coal River. Communities were also concerned about nature of the emergency evacuation plans for communities living downstream of the dam.
Dozer spreading coarse refuse atop Brushy Fork Dam. Photo by Jen Osha.
At a second public hearing held to address additional mining and the expansion of Brushy Fork, Rick Eades, a respected hydrologist, added concerns about the impact of additional blasting on the stability of the dam. He questioned "blasting where underground mines existed in the Eagle coal seam, the possibilities for adversely affecting near surface bedrock in a way that could possibly enhance pathways for slurry to be released via the subsurface and bypass the dam." What Dr. Eades was expressing concern over was the possibility of a slurry breakthrough not through the dam itself, like in Buffalo Creek, but through the bottom of the dam, into an underground mine shaft, and out the side of the mountain. This type of slurry breakthrough is called a blowout, as was the cause of the massive slurry spill in Martin County, KY, in 2000.
After the hearing, the WV Department of Environmental Protection approved a 100-foot increase in dam height (the request had been for a 400 ft increase!) and Coal River Mountain Watch appealed directly to the Surface Mine Appeal Board. The permitted expansion, called an "Incidental boundary revision (IRB)," was not incidental at all. In fact, the original permit for Brushy Fork was 270 acres, and the IRB would allow for an expansion to 645 acres!
In May 2000, when the Surface Mine Appeal Board heard Coal River’s appeal, Dr. Eades challenged the DEP about their monitoring plan for potential breakthrough of the slurry into the underlying Eagle coal seam. Previous undergound mining in the Eagle coal seam was found to be directly beneath the impoundment, and in some places less than 200 feet of "interburden," or rock between the impoundment and the mine shafts, existed as a barrier. This area, where mining exists directly under the dam and the pond, is called the "shadow zone."
Coal River Mountain Watch's appeal was denied by the Surface Mine Appeal Board, although an additional groundwater monitoring plan was required due to the expansion of the facility. The problem, however, is that no deadline was set for this monitoring plan. As of now, almost nine years later, no plan has been developed.
Currently, this impoundment
is now permitted to hold over nine billion gallons of slurry and stand 900 feet high from the toe to the crest (which is higher than the New River Gorge Bridge!) It is the largest impoundment ever constructed in West Virginia. [Link to Freda Williams interview].
The start of mountaintop removal on CRM adds additional concerns to the safety of this impoundment. Permit revision for the Bee Tree Surface Mine will allow for blasting to occur only 100 feet from the dam. Why is this a concern? Brushy Fork is already situated over top of underground mine shafts. Many residents are concerned that blasting could cause a rupture in the dam itself, or cause a breakthrough from the bottom of the dam into an underground mine shaft that would blow out the side of the mountain.
How safe are these impoundments? Ernie Thompson, a former mine inspector, has this to say:
Your sludge ponds, they ought to be plumb out. There’s some way of processing coal other than going through a prep plant and using all these chemicals. Cause once you put those chemicals in a hole in this mountain up here, I don’t care what you do, those chemicals are going to leak out into your water table. Has to! You know, the way they got it now, is that if you build a sludge pond and you divert the water, diversion ditches around it, and then you’re pumping the water back down to the prep plant that comes off the back of it and reusing it. Now when they reclaim it, they pump the water out…where does the water go? They pump it into the river. They pump it into a little hole, a little catch pond, take a little filter there to keep the black out of it, and put it back into the creek. The sludge is full of chemicals. All right, they dried that sludge pond up on top of the mountain and they just put dirt back over it. So we got acres and acres and acres, 60-80 acres, that’s laying there full of sludge, full of chemicals, and its bleeding through the toe of that dam, its going right back into the water table. And that’s going to feed…it’s going to feed out for eternity, I suppose. It’d be like putting all those chemicals in a big jar and punching a hole in it, and they just feed out so much at a time.
Lessons to learn from the 2000 Inez, Kentucky spill
Five months after the spill, sludge still fills Coldwater Creek. Photo by Vivian Stockman.
In October of 2000, a slurry impoundment in Inez, Kentucky released 300 million gallons of coal slurry into tributaries of the Tug Fork River, killing all life in Tug Fork and the Big Sandy River all the way to the Ohio River, about 100 miles away. The slurry broke into an underground mine shaft, and then burst out two mine portals. It was the nation's worst ever blackwater spill. Jack Spadaro was the director of the National Mine Health and Safety Academy at the time of the Inez spill, and was asked to go to Kentucky to determine the cause of the spill:
The impoundment…was sitting on top of abandoned underground mine workings. And the floor of the reservoir broke through into those underground mine workings. One of the documents the company had submitted to obtain approval for this reservoir showed a hundred-foot wide solid rock barrier between the bottom of the reservoir and the mine workings. But when we did a drilling program after the disaster, we found that hundred foot coal barrier was only 12 feet wide. So that was the point where the reservoir broke into the mine workings, then it went from the mine workings out into two watersheds. It completely killed everything in those watersheds. And fortunately people didn't lose their lives, but it could have—if it had just gone into one watershed, there was a high likelihood that there would have been a loss of life.
Spadaro was asked to end his investigation before it was complete, and then was asked to sign a final report
with which he did not agree. He refused to sign the report, and went public with his concerns about the "cover-up by the Bush Administration about the root causes of the Martin County disaster." Jack, however, has continued to be a whistleblower and hero to the residents living beneath slurry impoundments. He found that out of the 650 slurry impoundments in the United States, 225 are sitting on top of underground mine workings....like Brushy Fork. Jack stated, "I am concerned about the Brushy Fork impoundment and its long term stability."
Photo by Vivian Stockman.
The emergency warning plan, written by Marfork Coal to address an emergency regarding the Brushy Fork Impoundment,
states that a 40-foot wall of sludge, cresting at 72 feet, would engulf communities downstream as far as Prenter....where the wall of sludge would still be 20 feet high. This emergency plan does not address the locations where sludge would blow out if the impoundment collapsed into underground mine shafts, like in the Martin Co. spill. Additionally, the evacuation plan would direct many residents to evacuate directly into the path of an oncoming release.
Listen to Jack Spadaro talk about the impacts of MTR and the dangers of slurry impoundments: "It's important for the people of the coalfields to get help."
To learn more about the proximity of underground mine shafts to the Brushy Fork impoundment, please click on the maps below. The first map is an overhead of the Brushy Fork impoundment. The different colors are different mine shafts that exist below or in close proximity to the impoundment. The second map is a cross section (on the line shown in map 1) which shows the depth of each mine shaft.