Sunday, October 22, 2000

Townsfolk juggling conflicting emotions

By Karen Samples
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        COLDWATER CREEK, Ky. — Carl Scott wishes people would picket the coal company that ruined Martin County's streams. But he knows they won't.

        “That's the biggest coal company in Martin County,” he said. “It'd be hard to get anyone to stand against 'em. They've been here since I was a boy.”

        Mr. Scott rents a house near the head of Coldwater Creek, which was inundated last week with black goo from a broken sludge pond. The pond was part of a mine run by the Martin County Coal Co., which owns thousands of acres about a mile above Mr. Scott's place.

        Because of the accident, a stagnant muck now consumes two bridges, several yards and a basketball court along the creek. One home is unreachable, surrounded by acres of sludge and protected by hurriedly built berms.

        Mr. Scott's property wasn't submerged, but the stream that once gurgled nearby is now black and still.

        “I think it's sickening,” he says. “They own all this back in the head (of the hollow) and they don't want you to hunt on it; they don't even want you walking across their property. And then they do all this.”

        He's hoping for mutiny. But a mile down the creek, the Fraley family is philosophical.

        “It's just something that happened, and we've got to live with it,” C.W. Fraley said. “There's no use to be excited about it."

        Mr. Fraley is comfortably retired from a coal company owned by A.T. Massey, which also owns Martin County Coal. “They've had a real good living around here for the last 30 years,” C.W. Fraley said of people who worked for the coal company.

        His son Darrel, who lives next door, is also a retired miner.

        “You know they didn't do it on purpose, and I reckon they're doing their best to clean it up,” Darrel said.

        Coal-company employees this week fanned across the county to make amends. They established a new water source for residents. They pumped sludge from Coldwater and Wolf Creek, which also was deluged. They dug enormous pits to hold the sludge as it's removed.

        Bobby Cooper, who works for a Massey contractor, was called in from his usual job in Beckley, W.Va. He and three others worked a regular shift on Thursday, drove five hours to Kentucky and then worked through the night, fusing pipe to carry sludge out of Wolf Creek. The men finished 4,000 feet and have another 16,000 to go.

        “We had no problem coming here,” said Mr. Cooper, eyes red from lack of sleep.

        He's more worried about the wildlife and people than the company's profits, he said.

        At a town meeting on Monday, Martin County Coal President Dennis Hatfield called the accident what it was — a disaster — and apologized to the crowd, said county Judge-Executive Lon Lafferty.

        “That was important to hear, in order for the healing process to begin,” he said.

        Dr. Lafferty is a family physician who was elected the county's chief executive. Himself a homeowner along Coldwater Creek, he has seen myriad emotions in his friends and neighbors: anger, bewilderment, fear, ambivalence toward the company.

        Martin County Coal employs 300 people in an impoverished county of 12,000. Its mines generate about a quarter of the county's $900,000 in annual revenue from coal severance taxes, Dr. Lafferty said. Miners can easily make at least $40,000 a year in coal, he said.

        At the same time, however, Appalachian culture has gradually become less deferential to the coal industry. Dr. Lafferty represents a new breed of county official: One who avoids angry pronouncements but also is determined to get answers.

        “I'm going to do whatever is necessary to find out how this happened, why this happened,” he said, his jawline hardening. “I'll do whatever is necessary to ensure this never, ever happens again.”

        Friday, he drove past the roadblocks to the top of Coldwater Creek, stopping several times to gaze at acres of muck where grass and gardens once stood. “Do you believe this?” he asked. “Just unbelievable,” he muttered.

        At the entrance to the mine, a large company sign seemed to mock the landscape. “Help keep our environment beautiful!” it said. “Please put litter in its place.”

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- Townsfolk juggling conflicting emotions

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