Wednesday, November 29, 2000

Some question attention to spill

EPA: Agency 'in this for the long haul'

By Mark R. Chellgren
The Associated Press

        FRANKFORT — It has been called one of the worst environmental disasters in the region's history. Yet some in Kentucky wonder if the coal sludge spill in Martin County last month has received the attention it deserves.

        Aloma Dew, chairwoman of the state Environmental Quality Commission, wondered whether the “poor people” affected by the spill have been helped as much as the “fuzzy little animals” harmed by other environmental disasters.

        “It just seems like we play second fiddle to the rest of the world when we have a disaster in our own back yard,” said C.V. Bennett III, another member of the commission.

        Art Smith, a representative of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which has been overseeing the cleanup, said the EPA has dedicated the resources to cope with the disaster. “EPA is in this for the long haul,” Mr. Smith said.

        The commission summoned representatives of state and federal disaster agencies as well as the Martin County Coal Corp. on Tuesday to talk about the spill, what is being done to clean it up and what will be done to prevent it from happening again in the dozens of other slurry ponds that dot Kentucky's mine lands.

        Officials acknowledged they still don't know what caused the bottom of the slurry pond to crack open and spill 250 million gallons of slurry into two adjacent creeks through abandoned mining tunnels underneath the pond. Authorities knew about the old tunnels, but historically the danger from sludge ponds has come from failing dams.

        Five water systems, three in Kentucky and two in West Virginia, had to find new water sources and some of them are still in use. But other than a chemical used to coagulate the debris created when coal is cleaned, the chemical makeup of the slurry is little different than the ordinary rocks and dirt found in the area.

        Robert Ware, assistant director of the Division of Water, said the chemical is biodegradable, has not been found in detectable amounts and there is no evidence of groundwater contamination.

        The biggest problem has simply been the huge amount of oozy sludge, said Thomas Meikle, director of surface mining for A.T. Massey, the parent company of Martin County Coal. It has been compared to the consistency of wet cement.

        “Essentially we're dealing with a bunch of mud and we're trying to get it cleaned up as fast as we can,” Mr. Meikle said.

        Shoveling up the dried material has proved much easier. It will be disposed of just as other coal-mining waste.


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