Friday, September 07, 2001

Coal spill cause argued

Company explanation draws scorn from victims

        INEZ, Ky. — The former president of Martin County Coal Corp. said in a sworn deposition he did not have enough information to determine whether an unusual geologic event caused last October's massive coal-sludge spill.

        Dennis Hatfield's deposition was filed this week in Martin Circuit Court as part of the first of at least nine state and federal lawsuits filed by nearly 400 county residents against the coal company.

        Attorneys for the coal company claim the Oct. 11 spill of 250 million gallons of sludge in rural eastern Kentucky was an “act of God” — an unanticipated force of nature beyond its control.

        The explanation has drawn scorn from plaintiffs. And in the deposition, Mr. Hatfield backed away from the company's legal argument as well.

        “Are you asking me from a religious perspective?” he said. “I don't think God did that, if that's what you're asking me.”

        Mr. Hatfield, 44, of Louisa, who resigned in April, conceded that he knew of no hurricane, tornado or earthquake that might have caused the company's 72-acre slurry impoundment near Inez to bottom out. The pond leaked more than 250 million gallons of coal waste through adjacent underground mine works into 70 miles of streams.

        But Mr. Hatfield also said he had not seen all test results from drilling at the site by the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration.

        “So I don't think I have enough information really to (say what caused the leak),” he said.

        The deposition was equally ill-received by the plaintiffs.

        “God's off the hook,” said former Inez Mayor Mickey McCoy. “The only people who should be on the cross now are MSHA and Martin County Coal.”

        “We thought it was offensive,” plaintiff Larry Preece of Inez said. “We didn't understand it then, and we still don't.”

        Ned Pillersdorf, the plaintiffs' attorney, asked Mr. Hatfield to explain how the spill was beyond the company's control.

        “I don't think we or anyone could have foreseen that this would happen,” Mr. Hatfield said. “No one expected it to happen.”

        Reports indicated a solid coal barrier of at least 60 feet between the old mine works and the impoundment, but an MSHA inspector said this year the barrier was only 10 to 15 feet, Mr. Pillersdorf said.

        Mr. Hatfield said he thought that statement was incorrect.

        In the deposition, Mr. Hatfield said MSHA's head inspector told him in March that drilling at the impoundment “had not detected any significant problems or inaccuracies in our mine workings.”

        The results of a federal investigation into the cause of the spill are still not ready for release, MSHA spokesman Rodney Brown said Wednesday.

        The report itself, originally scheduled for release in February, has been controversial since April — when Jack Spadaro, a member of the investigation team, asked to resign because he felt some MSHA leaders wanted to whitewash the agency's own role at Martin County Coal.

        But Dave Lauriski, who was appointed this year by President Bush to head the mining agency, said last week the Labor Department's inspector general is investigating concerns raised by Mr. Spadaro.


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