Friday, April 27, 2001

Official questions park's safety

Facility built around abandoned sludge pond converted to lake

By Roger Alford
The Associated Press

        PIKEVILLE, Ky. — Grass has been sown, sidewalks built and security lighting installed around a small lake that soon could be opened to tourists on a mountain in Pike County.

        Despite its pristine appearance, a state official worries that the property on Stone Mountain may not be safe.

        Jeff Vansant, an environmental engineer and assistant chief of the Kentucky Division of Waste Management, questioned the wisdom of building the park around an abandoned coal-sludge pond similar to the one that failed last year and dumped 250 million gallons of black goo in Martin County.

[photo] Dennis Pinson, a security watchman, looks out over the coal-sludge pond developed into a recreational lake in Pike County.
(Associated Press photo)
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        In a 43-page memo to the Kentucky Department for Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement, Mr. Vansant said the 13-acre pond and 200 acres of adjacent land should be reclaimed, not opened as a tourist attraction.

        Mr. Vansant questioned the stability of the pond, which has underground mines beneath it. He also questioned the stability of the dam.

        “We've opened an investigation based on the contents of the report,” said Mark York, spokesman for the Kentucky Natural Resources Cabinet.

        Mr. York declined to comment on whether that investigation might thwart Pike County's plan to open the property to the public.

        “I really would not want to speculate on any possible action we might take until the investigation is complete,” he said.

        Stone Mining Co. of Matewan, W.Va., donated the 13-acre sludge pond, now stocked with fish, to Pike County last month. Burt Melton, public-works commissioner for the county, said he's not sure when the property will be opened to the public.

        “That won't be my call,” he said. “It'll be up to the fiscal court.”

        Officials from the Kentucky Department for Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement, the U.S. Office of Surface Mining and the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration gave their approval for the property to be donated to the county.

        Stone Mining has also built a paved road and three picnic shelters on the property.

        David Cooper, a member of the environmental group Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, said he was shocked that Pike County had accepted ownership of the sludge pond.

        “I think the officials in Pike County had to be insane to accept the liability of the sludge pond,” Mr. Cooper said. “Someone should tell those folks what happened in Martin County.”

        An underground mine collapsed beneath a 70-acre sludge pond on a mountaintop outside Inez on Oct. 11, creating a leak that allowed slurry to burst through abandoned mine portals and into streams. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency called the spill one of the Southeast's worst environmental disasters.

        Pike County Judge-Executive Karen Gibson said Mr. Vansant's comments have raised concerns locally.

        “I'm taking everything he said seriously,” she said. “If there was any possibility that it wasn't a safe lake, we'll ask that it be drained.”

        Ms. Gibson said she doesn't think that will be necessary.

        “I think they're going to come back with a report that says it's still safe,” she said.

        MSHA has already done just that. Kathy Snyder, a spokeswoman for the federal agency, said inspectors made a site visit last week and found no defects that would stop the lake from being used for recreational purposes.

        The agency categorized the pond as having a low risk of failing.

        By donating the land to Pike County, Mr. Vansant said the company no longer faces the expensive task of reclaiming the land. In addition, Mr. Vansant said, the company no longer faces financial and legal repercussions if the pond were to fail. He said Pike County now bears that burden.

        Mr. Vansant recommended that Pike County pay to drain the lake and fill it with soil to eliminate the possibility of a sludge spill. By doing that, he said, residents won't have to worry about being hit by a wall of black water.

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