Thursday, October 26, 2000

Coal sludge damage said to rival Alaska's Valdez oil spill

By Roger Alford
The Associated Press

        INEZ, Ky. — With coal sludge thickening water in the Big Sandy River, American Electric Power was forced to close its massive generating plant 1 1/2 weeks ago.

        A few miles downstream, Marathon Ashland Petroleum has been having to bring clean water in by barge to keep a crude-oil refinery operating.

        Those and other industries heavily dependent on water are calculating their financial losses and will send the bill to Martin County Coal Corp., the company that has accepted responsibility for the release of 250 million gallons of sludge into the Big Sandy and its tributaries.

        The company on Wednesday set up a toll-free number — (888) 900-4262 — to accept calls from businesses and residents who suffered damages from the black goo that escaped from a mountaintop impoundment Oct. 11.

        The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said the spill, which has wiped out aquatic life on at least two streams and fouled drinking water for residents along 60 miles of the Kentucky-West Virginia border, is one of the worst environmental disasters ever in the Southeast.

        Martin County Coal president Dennis Hatfield said Monday his company will pay for the cleanup, no matter the cost.

        “We are insured,” said Bill Marcum, a company spokesman. “The limits of that policy, I'm not sure about.”

        Marathon Ashland, which uses 7,500 gallons of water a minute in the refining process at the Cat- lettsburg plant, will try to recoup some of its costs associated with the sludge.

        Chuck Rice, a spokesman for the refinery, declined to say how much the sludge has cost his company.

        “All I can tell you is we are participating in ongoing discussions with Martin County Coal,” he said.

        Likewise, American Electric Power wouldn't talk about the costs it has incurred.

        “It's a very expensive proposition to have a plant off line,” said Pat Hemlepp, a spokesman for the electric company.

        The greatest costs will be incurred by residents whose property has been covered by up to 8 feet of sludge, said Stephen Smith, executive director of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy in Knoxville, Tenn.

        “They clearly are owed compensation,” Mr. Smith said. “It's going to be difficult to put a price tag on it, but clearly their property values have plummeted. It's very apparent to us that they are being put in a severe hardship.”

        Mr. Smith and other representatives of the alliance, which deals with energy issues across the Southeast, visited the affected area Friday and were startled at what they found.

        “It's the worst thing we've ever seen,” Mr. Smith said. “It rivals the damage of the Alaska Valdez oil spill, except it's inland and it's in a sparsely populated area. ... It should be declared a federal disaster area. I'm having a hard time comprehending how Martin County Coal will ever be able to return that watershed back to a state anywhere close to what it was before.”


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