Sunday, October 29, 2000

Outsider to oversee sludge effort

The Associated Press

        INEZ, Ky. — Saying cleanup of the massive coal-waste spill in Martin County requires an expert, Natural Resources Secretary James Bickford says the state has hired an independent contractor to evaluate the process.

        Work could begin as early as this weekend.

        “My concern is, nobody's ever done this be fore in our shop,” Mr. Bickford said Friday. “And I don't feel comfortable in trying to go by the seat of our pants here.”

        Employees and contractors hired by Martin County Coal Corp., where 250 million gallons of coal slurry leaked into streams Oct. 11 from a large impoundment, have been working to clean up the spill. The work is being supervised at the mine by a federally ordered “unified command post,” which includes state, federal and coal company officials.

        The spill has been described as one of the South's worst environmental disasters.

        Asked whether the decision involved reservations about the current cleanup effort, Mr. Bickford said, “not really.” He said he contacted the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's regional office in Atlanta before acting, and “they're fine with it.”

        Mr. Bickford said the decision to hire the contractor was made after consulting the governor's office.

        Rusty Cheuvront, a spokesman for Gov. Paul Patton, could not be reached for comment.

        Fred Stroud, an on-scene coordinator for EPA in Martin County, said the action is “a little unusual” because the state is already represented by a Department of Environmental Protection official on the oversight panel.

        “There's really no mechanism for what they're doing,” Mr. Stroud said, “but the way I figure it, he (Patton) is trying to help us.”

        Bill Marcum, a spokesman for Martin County Coal, said he had not heard about the state's decision to hire an independent consultant.

        Mr. Bickford said the consultant, whom he would not identify, has done cleanup work for the state before. The consultant has been asked to evaluate the cleanup effort and make recommendations “on what needs to be done,” Mr. Bickford said.

        The move met with qualified approval from some environmentalists.

        “I think Bickford's intentions are good, but I question whether it's the state's responsibility to be spending taxpayers' money on this,” said Patty Wallace of Louisa, a member of Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, a statewide citizens' group.

        Martin County Coal president Dennis Hatfield has said the company has liability insurance and intends to pay for the cleanup, which Mr. Stroud has said could take up to six months.


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