How Do You Kill a Mountain?

[imgbelt img=plunderingredwater320.jpg]A compendium of photographs, facts, commentary, and history makes the case for abolishing mountain-top-removal mining of coal.

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cradle-to-grave toxic legacy. 

[imgcontainer left] [img:plunderingredwater320.jpg] [source]Mark Schmerling/published with permission, Plundering Appalachia (2009) © Earth Aware Editions™

Acid runoff pools below the mine site at Kayford Mountain, about 35 miles southeast of Charleston, West Virginia.

Mountain top removal coal mining, rather than being the end of the pollution cycle, is only the beginning.  Coal washing turns water into sludge contaminated with toxic chemicals and heavy metals. This liquid waste is often contained behind earthen dams in huge sludge ponds.

Plundering Appalachia describes three tragedies involving sludge (also called slurry) impoundments.  One of these ponds, operated by Pittston Coal, broke on February 26th, 1972 above the community of Buffalo Creek in southern West Virginia. Over 132 million gallons of black wastewater poured into the valley killing 125 people, injuring 1100 and leaving 4000 homeless. The coal company called it an “act of God,” presumably because heavy rain had caused the pond to fill and breach the dam. 

Shortly after midnight on October 11, 2000, the bottom of a coal sludge impoundment owned by Massey Energy in Martin County, Kentucky, broke into an abandoned underground mine below, sending an estimated 306 million gallons of sludge down two tributaries of the Tug Fork River. The spill was over five feet deep in places and contaminated the water supply for over 27,000 residents. Mercury, lead, arsenic, copper and chromium were found in the sludge. 

On December 22, 2008 shortly before 1 a.m., an 84-acre TVA coal ash impoundment at Kingston, Tennessee — 40 miles west of Knoxville — spilled 1.1 billion gallons of coal slurry into the Emory River and onto 300 acres of surrounding land.  This spill, the largest release of fly ash in U.S. history, was 100 times larger than the Exxon Valdez oil spill. 

It’s not only these large, periodic catastrophes that threaten the drinking and recreational water of the region.  Because many Appalachians depend on surface and well water, all manner of water quality violations present potential hazards.  In 2008, the Environmental Protection Agency slapped Massey Energy, which operates dozens of underground and surface mines across the region, with the largest civil penalty ever assessed for Clean Water Act permit violations.  Massey agreed to pay $20 million for more than 4,500 violations of the Clean Water Act. 

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