Martin County sludge spill
The Martin County Sludge Spill occurred after midnight on October 11, 2000 when the bottom of a coal sludge impoundment owned by Massey Energy in Martin County, Kentucky, broke into an abandoned underground mine below. The slurry came out of the mine openings, sending an estimated 306 million gallons (1.16 billion liters) of sludge down two tributaries of the Tug Fork River. By morning, Wolf Creek was oozing with the black waste; on Coldwater Fork, a ten-foot (3 m) wide stream became a 100-yard (91 m) expanse of thick sludge.
According to the EPA, the "spill" was 30 times larger than the Exxon Valdez oil spill (12 million gallons) and one of the worst environmental disasters ever in the southeastern United States, comparable to the TVA Kingston Fossil Plant coal ash spill in 2008. The spill was over five feet deep in places and covered nearby residents' yards. The spill polluted hundreds of miles of the Big Sandy and Ohio Rivers. The water supply for over 27,000 residents was contaminated, and all aquatic life in Coldwater Fork and Wolf Creek was killed. Heavy metals were found in the sludge, including mercury, lead, arsenic, copper and chromium.
A federal investigation into the spill began during the end of the Bill Clinton administration and completed after President George W. Bush took office, and has become a bitter controversy marked by allegations of political favoritism, negligence, and indifference to the people affected by the spill.
Jack Spadaro, then the head of the National Mine Health and Safety Academy, investigated the spill and reported negligence on the part of Martin County Coal, a subsidiary of coal giant Massey Energy, and lax enforcement by the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA). According to Spadaro, the slurry pond had a spill in 1994 and Massey knew another break was nearly inevitable, possibly prompting criminal charges.
What led Spadaro to this finding was a June 13, 1994 memorandum, later obtained by Salon through a Freedom of Information Act request. In that memo an MSHA engineer made a series of nine critical recommendations that Martin County Coal and MSHA regulators needed to address before the company could resume using the impoundment after the 1994 "spill." The engineer, Larry Wilson, also observed rising bubbles in the slurry impoundment, indicating that there was still a breech. "[Martin County Coal] should not be allowed to let the [slurry] level rise until a complete evaluation by the Company's consultant has been completed [sic]," wrote Wilson. Martin County Coal's own engineering firm was aware that another breakthrough after the May 1994 accident was "virtually inevitable," according to testimony given to the MSHA accident investigation team. (The Lexington Herald-Leader newspaper obtained transcripts.) In his testimony an engineer for Geo/Environmental Associates, Scott Ballard, said that there was only 15 feet of rock and dirt between the bottom of the slurry impoundment and the location of the 1994 breakthrough into the underground mine. The MSHA recommended amount is 150 feet. Ballard told the MSHA that plans to seal the rupture and minimize leakage were "never intended to prevent a breakthrough in any form or fashion. In fact, the question was asked during the MSHA review process: Will this prevent it? And the answer was emphatically 'no.' There's no guarantees. There's nothing here that will prevent a breakthrough."
Massey disputed allegations that it knew another spill was imminent, saying the claim was "completely false" and that the company follows safety standards that exceed state and federal requirements.
Spadaro’s former boss at Mine Safety, Davitt McAteer, defended Spadaro, telling 60 Minutes that major coal sludge fatalities are avoided only "by the grace of God," and that officials expected a report that recommended violations, fines, and possible criminal charges.
After Bush took office McAteer was replaced. Then U.S. Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao, who oversaw the MSHA, "put on the brakes" on the agency investigation into the spill by placing a staffer to her husband, Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY), in charge. Spadaro was accused of abusing his authority and misusing a government credit card, resulting in $22.60 in bank fees, and was reassigned to a Pittsburgh office four hours from his home. He resigned.
In 2002, MSHA issued its investigative report on the accident and found that the company failed, in constructing the impoundment, to spread a layer of fine coal slurry around the perimeter to create a barrier against water seepage. MSHA assessed Martin County Coal Co. $110,000 in civil penalties, the legal maximum, and no criminal penalties. Massey Energy appealed the citations; one was removed. The only federal violation Massey was cited with was for failing to properly notify MSHA about changes in water flow from the impoundment; fine: $55,000. In September 2002, Massey's PAC gave $100,000 to the National Republican Senatorial Committee, which Sen. Mitch McConnell had previously chaired. Overall, McConnell has been one of the top recipients of Massey-related contributions, collecting $13,550 from Massey-connected contributors.
Martin County Coal agreed in the summer of 2002 to pay $3.25 million in penalties and damages to Kentucky, the largest mining-related fine in the state's history. Massey Energy says it has spent over $40 million in cleanup costs. But Massey CEO Don Blankenship also announced during a conference call with investment bankers on July 31, 2003, that the company had just won a $21 million insurance settlement for property damage and business interruptions that resulted from the October 2000 slurry spill.
In 2005 Appalshop filmmaker Robert Salyer released a documentary entitled Sludge, chronicling the continuing story of the Martin County disaster, the resulting federal investigation, and the looming threat of coal sludge ponds throughout the coalfield region. In the wake of the Kingston Fossil Plant coal fly ash slurry spill, Appalshop has provided a web stream of Sludge for the public.
- "Sludge" Sludge Website, accessed November 2009
- Geraldine Sealey, "Sludge Spill Pollutes Ky., W. Va. Waters: Worst Regional Disaster in Years" ABC News, October 23, 2002
- Rita Price,"Still buried in SLUDGE" The Columbus Dispatch, October 11, 2004
- Philip Babich, "A Dirty Business: The Martin County Coal Mine slurry spill and the Bush cover-up of an environmental disaster" ReclaimDemocracy.org, November 13, 2003.
- Ilene Proctor, "Watchdog Group Offers $50,000 Reward For Information That Massey Energy Paid Bribes To Federal Officials" ePluribus Media, May 3, 2010.
- "MSHA Assesses Maximum Fines for Martin County Sludge Spill" EHS Today, May 1, 2002
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