The Next Great Coal Spill? Massey's Billion Gallon Disaster in Waiting

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CommonDreams.org

The Next Great Coal Spill? Massey's Billion Gallon Disaster in Waiting

As President Obama makes his third trip to the Gulf today to assess the worst crude oil spill in American history, residents in the coalfields can't help but sympathize with the stricken area.

In 24 states across the country, coalfield citizens have been living with area watersheds contaminated by toxic coal slurry and coal ash for decades. Thousands of miles of streams have been jammed and sullied with coal waste from strip-mining and mountaintop removal operations.

But it's the magnitude of the massive coal slurry impoundments and dams hovering above communities in the mountains of the Appalachian coalfields that bring home the sickening images of the Gulf oil spill.

"After watching the disaster unfold in the Gulf with 20-40 million gallons of oil already spilled," says Bo Webb, in Naoma, West Virginia, "I cannot begin to imagine what would happen to our Coal River Valley if the 9 billion gallon sludge dam above us failed."

Webb is referring to the Brushy Fork impoundment, the largest and potentially weakest coal slurry impoundment in the nation operated by Massey. According to Massey's own evacuation reports, a break in the class "C" coal slurry impoundment would result in certain injury or death for the nearly 1,000 residents downslope in the valley. Some area residents would have less than 15 minutes to escape a 72-foot tidal wave of coal slurry.

We're talking about billions of gallons of coal sludge here, not millions.

Despite pleas and protests by local residents, Massey Energy is operating a reckless strip mine near the Bee Tree branch of Coal River Mountain, blasting outrageously close to the multi-billion gallon coal slurry impoundment that is held back by a weakened earthen dam.

Webb's concerns are not unfounded. Ten years ago, millions of gallons of toxic coal sludge broke through a similar impoundment at another Massey operation in eastern Kentucky. The worst environmental catastrophe in the US until the TVA coal ash pond disaster, the Martin County spill at the Massey site dumped over 300 million tons of toxic sludge into 100 miles of streams, contaminating the water supplies for 27,000 people, and wiping out 1.6. million fish.

Here is a clip from that coal spill that remained under the news media radar:

In the meantime, coalfield residents from Alaska to Wyoming are wondering if it will take a disaster on the level of the BP oil spill to get the Obama administration to deal with the unfolding disasters of coal slurry impoundments, coal ash ponds, and reckless strip-mining.

Jeff Biggers

Jeff Biggers is the author of The United States of Appalachia, and more recently, Reckoning at Eagle Creek: The Secret Legacy of Coal in the Heartland (The Nation/Basic Books). Follow him on twitter: @JeffRBiggers

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