Friday, July 19, 2002

Sludge spill victims stay put, but mostly out of necessity

By Roger Alford
The Associated Press

        INEZ - For Greg Price, the decision to move away from Coldwater Creek didn't come easy, despite his worries that the coal waste that inundated the rural community nearly two years ago might be harmful.

        Family ties were everywhere. A brother next door. Elderly parents across the street. Cousins close by.

        “I really hated to leave, but if my son had gotten sick from what was in that sludge, it would have been hard to take,” said Mr. Price, who moved with his wife, Judy, and son, Brandon, to Prestonsburg. “We miss Coldwater. We always will. But it's just something we felt like we had to do.”

        Despite similar health concerns, residents of the eastern Kentucky communities that were coated with 300 million gallons of coal wastes have not moved away in large numbers.

        Mr. Price said his family may be the only one that moved away from Coldwater so far. At least two other families moved to areas of the community that were not affected by the sludge.

        An Eastern Kentucky University researcher said the reason the exodus didn't materialize is because most people simply couldn't afford to move.

        “If you fear for your health and the health of your family, then you'd want to move out of that area,” said Stephanie McSpirit, an EKU sociology professor who headed a study of the areas that were swamped by the gooey black coal sludge on Oct. 11, 2000. “It comes down to resources and the financial ability to move.”

        Ms. McSpirit said residents along Coldwater and Wolf creeks outside Inez told student researchers that the sludge spill, one of the worst environmental disasters ever in the Southeast, has made it nearly impossible to sell their homes in the affected areas.

        The spill occurred as water and sludge broke through the bottom of a 70-acre impoundment on a mountaintop outside Inez. The material gushed into underground coal mine portals, out into the two creeks and the Big Sandy River.

        Lawns were buried up to 7 feet deep in the molasses-like mixture. All fish were killed in two streams. Drinking water supplies were fouled along some 60 miles of the Big Sandy River.

        Nearly all visible traces of the sludge are gone, but residents worry that chemical contaminants might be harming their health. The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry said arsenic, mercury and other contaminants were found in the sludge.

        Monroe Cassady, a resident of Coldwater Creek and coordinator of the Big Sandy Environmental Coalition, said no one wants to buy homes affected by the spill. Many of the residents have filed lawsuits against Massey Energy and subsidiary Martin County Coal for property damages.

        “There will be quite a few people who will move if they get a settlement from the company,” Mr. Cassady said. “Most people can't go out and buy a new house without selling their old ones first, and no one is interested in buying their places with so much of the sludge covered up on their property.”

        Massey has spent about $40 million on the cleanup, but Mr. Cassady said he doesn't think the affected areas can ever be fully restored.

        “You still have sludge on the creek banks and in the creek beds,” he said.

        “The streams still run black from time to time.”

        Mr. Preece's brother, Larry, said Martin County residents shouldn't have to move away because of health concerns.

        “Most people who have grown up in this area truly don't want to leave, but people are afraid,” he said. “They don't know what the health risks are.”


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