Kentucky Coal Slurry Spill Threatens Water Supply : LUSENET : Grassroots Information Coordination Center (GICC) : One Thread

Tuesday October 17 1:29 PM ET Kentucky Coal Slurry Spill Threatens Water Supply

INEZ, Ky. (Reuters) - A massive spill of slowly spreading coal slurry triggered water shortages and school closings across eastern Kentucky on Tuesday, prompting the governor to declare a state of emergency.

The slurry, which has the consistency of wet cement, spilled last week from a coal company site near Kentucky's eastern border with West Virginia. It seeped into two streams that flow into the Big Sandy River and ultimately into the Ohio River.

The spill unleashed 200 million gallons of sludge through abandoned mine shafts past an overburdened slurry impoundment, which collapsed Oct. 11. The slurry, a semi-liquid mixture that is a product of the chemical washing of mined coal, has made its way through the tributaries to the Big Sandy River.

After touring where the spill occurred at the Martin County Coal Corp., Kentucky Gov. Paul Patton said the crisis endangered the health and safety of thousands of residents who rely on drinking water from the rivers and their tributaries.

Communities throughout the affected 10-county area were forced to close off water intake pipes. Residents had to scramble for alternative water sources, Kentucky emergency officials said.

Some public schools were forced to close indefinitely pending restoration of safe water supplies, and authorities ordered water consumption confined to essential purposes.

The Environmental Protection Agency estimated it could take five months to complete the cleanup and dredging operation.

-- Martin Thompson (, October 18, 2000


Spill among South's worst disasters Streams black with coal waste as towns go dry

Source: The Courier-Journal Louisville, KY Publication date: 2000-10-18 Arrival time: 2000-10-21

A massive spill of liquid coal waste from a mining company reservoir in Eastern Kentucky "ranks as one of the worst-ever environmental disasters" in the Southeast, a federal environmental official said yesterday. "It's going to be an emergency for some time," Art Smith, the on- scene coordinator for the Environmental Protection Agency's Louisville office, said of the spill, which reached the Ohio River yesterday at Catlettsburg.

Drinking water was running dry in some communities that had to shut down their water intakes, and Smith said state fish and wildlife officials are assuming a "total kill" of fish along the Big Sandy River and some of its tributaries.

"They can't see anything," he said. "The belief is that aquatic life was just smothered."

About 75 miles of rivers and streams have been turned black by the collapse last Wednesday of an impoundment at a Martin County Coal Co. processing plant outside Inez.

An estimated 250 million gallons of slurry - a watery mixture of coal dust, clay and other waste with the consistency of lava - flowed out of the 72acre holding pond before the leak stopped yesterday, Smith said.

Gov. Paul Patton, who on Monday declared a state of emergency in 10 counties in the Big Sandy and Ohio River watersheds, said in an interview yesterday, "We're concerned about the effect on the Ohio River intakes. . . . If it pollutes the Ohio badly enough we've got major problems."

The spill threatened to shut down as many as 25 water treatment plants in Kentucky and West Virginia, but 270 miles downriver in Louisville, local water officials said they expected the Ohio to dilute the slurry enough to avoid serious problems for that city.

In Louisa, the Big Sandy was an almost iridescent black. The local health department ordered restaurants to close throughout Lawrence County to conserve water after the city of 2,000 people had to close its intake, and owners were told not to expect to reopen until next week unless they can find an alternate water supply.

The decision seemed to irk Donna Daniels at the Whistle Stop Cafe, which had been feeding the volunteer and city workers trying to restore water service. "I've still got water," she said, showing a clean, strong stream running from the faucet in her kitchen. "I don't know why they had to shut us down."

DANIELS IS one of just a few people in Louisa who still have water. Her home, a few blocks away, is now dry. She had to drive to nearby Fort Gay, W. Va., to shower at a friend's house yesterday morning.

Car washes, coin laundries and other businesses that rely on water were mostly shut down Monday. But Three Rivers Medical Center and a nursing home continued operating, using large water tanks that were trucked in.

Business at the Best Western Village Inn "has never been better despite the water shortage," said Krista Pannell, a worker. Late yesterday afternoon the motel still had running water.

"Last night we were about full," she said. "Some people are coming here just to take showers."

The Louisa water department, which has 12,000 customers in the city and Lawrence County and also supplies other nearby cities and water districts, has kept just enough water in reserve in case there is a fire, Mayor Mike Sullivan said.

"We're pretty well without water," he said as he surveyed work crews building a 1.5-mile emergency line to pump uncontaminated water out of the Levisa Fork of the Big Sandy to the city's treatment plant. "We won't stop until we get it done."

The soonest water could resume flowing to residents would be late tomorrow or early Friday, Sullivan said - and then only a trickle.

The Martin County water company also was laying lines to a clean stream for a temporary water supply.

Kentucky National Guard spokesman Phil Miller said Guard soldiers were on hand helping lay the lines for the Louisa and Martin County water companies. The Guard also trucked in two 5,000-gallon tankers to ease the shortage.

Ray Bowman, a spokesman for the Kentucky Division of Emergency Management, said that the slurry had worked its way upstream a short distance into the Levisa Fork and that there had been reports of some wells in the region being contaminated.

BOWMAN SAID it's difficult to tell how long the problems will persist. "As far as we know, this has never happened before," he said. "You don't know how helpless I feel."

Heather Frederick, a spokesman with the state Natural Resources Cabinet, said impoundments for liquid coal waste are inspected regularly by the cabinet and the one that gave way last week was last inspected Sept. 22. No problems were found.

She said inspectors found a much less serious leak in 1994 and fined the company $16,000.

Meanwhile, Martin County Coal employees and contractors were building gravel dams along the two streams the slurry entered from the impoundment. They had constructed 17 dams along Wolf Creek and Rockcastle Creek by yesterday, the EPA's Smith said. The gravel dams are designed to let water through but block particles from the slurry.

Workers are using industrial vacuums to try to clean the material out of the creeks that feed into the Big Sandy. "They're doing as well as they can," Smith said of the cleanup efforts. "But there'll be black water for some time to come."

Bowman said the slurry is breaking apart very slowly as it moves downstream and it is too early to tell how far the slug will travel down the Ohio River.

Officials with the Ohio River Valley Sanitation Commission are monitoring water quality so they can alert water companies to possible problems, said Rhonda Barnes, a spokeswoman for the eight- state commission.

IF THE commission detects problems, it would advise water companies downstream and they could decide whether to shut water intakes to prevent clogging and other damage, or whether they would be able to treat the water, she said.

The slurry is moving about a halfmile per hour, Barnes said.

The Louisville Water Co. estimates the slurry will take about 20 days to reach Louisville and will be significantly dispersed by then, said Steve Hubbs, vice president for water quality and production.

Hubbs said the water company will rely on the Ohio River commission for test results, but if it appears contaminants are in the water, it will conduct its own tests upstream to decide how best to treat the water.

He said he does not expect to have to shut down the intake valves because the volume of the Ohio will likely dilute the slurry, and the water company uses only a tiny fraction of the water in the river.

"The Louisville Water Co. uses 100 million gallons of water a day," he said. "We use . . . less than half of one percent of the water that flows past Louisville." story_id=14999302&ID=cnniw&scategory=Utilities%3AWater+%26+Sewer

-- Martin Thompson (, October 21, 2000.

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