Tuesday, April 03, 2001

Coalfield residents skeptical of panel inquiry

By Martha Bryson Hodel
The Associated Press

        HUNTINGTON, W.Va. — Coalfield residents repeatedly urged a government panel looking into the hazards of coal-mine waste ponds to expand its inquiry into areas where people live next door to the impoundments.

        “People in the coalfields are tired of studies,” said Doyle Coakley of Richwood, vice chairman of the Citizens Coal Council.

        An afternoon meeting in a Huntington hotel is not likely to draw people who live far away and have to work for a living, Mr. Coakley told the committee appointed by the National Research Council to conduct a study funded by Congress. The National Research Council is part of the National Academy of Sciences

        “You've done everything wrong,” Mr. Coakley told the committee.

        The committee was appointed after the bottom fell out of a 75-acre coal-mine waste pond operated by Martin County Coal Corp. near Inez, Ky., in October. The pond apparently collapsed into an abandoned underground mine, then spilled out into tributaries of the Big Sandy River, the border between West Virginia and Kentucky.

        “Half of the people in Martin County, Kentucky, have never been in a Radisson Hotel; and they'd be intimidated if they did come here,” Mr. Coakley said. “And we would like to see somebody besides coal company representatives on this committee,” he said.

        More studies aren't necessary, he said.

        “Building a sludge pond over an old coal mine is plain stupidity, or else total disregard for the people who live below it,” Mr. Coakley said. “Wasn't one Buffalo Creek enough?”

        The accident that defined mine safety regulations for slurry ponds happened in 1972, when a dam broke at Buffalo Creek, killing 125 people.

        It prompted the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration to issue regulations on the design of slurry dams in 1975.

        David R. Wunsch, New Hampshire state geologist and head of the National Research Council subcommittee studying coal waste impoundments, said the panel would consider the comments made in Monday's public hearing.

        The purpose of the review by the National Research Council is to look into coal-mine waste ponds in general, not to investigate the Martin County spill, Mr. Wunsch said.

        It is possible the committee can be expanded to include coalfield representatives, Mr. Wunsch said. More meetings are planned before the committee is due to report in October, including one in Pittsburgh and one in Bethany, W.Va.

        “We have only just started this process,” Mr. Wunsch said.

        Janet Nease of Whitesville also urged that the committee be expanded to include coalfield resi dents.

        “We are concerned that people who live near these slurry ponds are not represented on your panel,” she said.

        “We have a lot of concerns, but no one is listening to us,” Ms. Nease said. “We go to public hearings on a permit, and they're a joke — the decision has already been made.

        “You can't put a few meager jobs above the lives of the people,” she added.

        Congress set aside about $1.6 million last year for an investigation into the spill.


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