A Torrent of Sludge Muddies a Town's Future
By PETER T. KILBORN
Published: December 25, 2000
INEZ, Ky.— As Prentice Maynard was leaving for work before daybreak on Oct. 11, he noticed that Coldwater Creek was unusually high as it flowed under the bridge he took to the road.
By 7:40, when his wife, Janice, left their trailer for her job in town, the creek was an eerily still, glistening black goo that could hold a stick upright.
''I thought, 'It's like pudding,' '' Ms. Maynard said. ''It was overflowing the stream bed. At 4:45, when I got home, it was over the driveway.''
For three days the goo rose and spread. It swamped gardens and lawns along the six miles of Coldwater Creek in eastern Kentucky and coated its banks and bottom and those of neighboring 15-mile Wolf Creek to thicknesses of up to six feet.
Ms. Maynard's pudding was 250 million gallons of coal-mining sludge. And it created an environmental disaster, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, suffocating aquatic life -- salamanders, frogs, fish and big snapping turtles -- as it moved downstream. It has also worsened the economic disaster in this backwater pocket of central Appalachia, where, with the din of tank trucks and pumps running constantly, the cleanup is only half finished.
The slurry of watered-down coal particles, dirt, rock, clay and traces of heavy metals had burst through the bottom of the A. T. Massey Coal Company's lifeless 72-acre, 2.2-billion-gallon waste lagoon, which sits atop this Appalachian county's struggling and now terrified hollows.
For five hours starting just before midnight, 10 feet of the 90-foot depth of the lagoon raced through abandoned underground mines, smashing concrete seals the company thought strong enough to contain a spill, then shot out two mine entries and into the creeks.
Briefly before the spill, this place had some hope in the pending arrival of two new employers. On high ground six miles away, a casket company is expected to open a shop that might employ 30 or 40 workers, and in two years, a maximum security federal prison will open and employ about 200 local people.
Now any future employer will have to weigh the risks of another visit of sludge. ''We were making some progress when this disaster hit,'' said Garry R. Lafferty, the county's deputy judge executive, its second-highest-ranking administrator. ''It really backs you up.''
Martin County's torrent of sludge was more than 20 times the volume of the Exxon Valdez's crude oil spill in Alaska 11 years ago. Among coal-mining spills, it was twice that of its biggest forerunner, 28 years ago in Buffalo Creek, W.Va., which killed 125 people and swallowed 500 homes. This time, though, no one was hurt.
A touchy issue involving industry, jobs and the environment, it drew a few headlines but little national interest.
As the spill rolled into 100 miles of rivers and streams, clogging water treatment plants and forcing schools, restaurants, laundries and a power plant to close before dispersing at the Ohio River, Gov. Paul E. Patton of Kentucky, a Democrat and former coal mine operator, declared a 10-county emergency.
Inez, population 470 and sinking, is where President Lyndon B. Johnson announced his War on Poverty in 1964. ''I was a college kid then,'' said John Kirk, a lawyer in town who has filed a class-action suit for 200 homeowners against Massey and its local subsidiary, the Martin County Coal Corporation. ''What Johnson did, more than anything else, was give an injection of optimism to this little place.''
In the 1970's, coal companies swooped in, leasing and buying hundreds of square miles of rolling hills and valleys. The land below ground became honeycombed with tunnels and shafts. With strip mining, mountaintops became mesas.
In return, the industry delivered wages, jobs and home-building. According to Ron Crouch, director of the Kentucky State Data Center at the University of Louisville, coal mine employment leaped nearly tenfold, to 3,156 in 1980 from 364 a decade earlier. The county's population rose to 13,925 from 9,377, before beginning a gradual decline.
Incomes, once just above half the state average, reached the average by 1980. Middle-class homes and new trailers sprouted near eastern Kentucky hovels along Coldwater and Wolf Creeks. The poverty rate, more than 50 percent at the start of the War on Poverty, fell by half.
But automation took away mining jobs and the price of coal began to plunge, to just over $20 a ton today from nearly $40 at its peak. The boom began to fizzle, and today, mine employment has dropped below 900, while wages have slipped. And with no one yet willing to buy into the path of another spill, home values along the two creeks have collapsed.
Just why the October spill happened, in particular why the seals broke, is still being investigated.
By most accounts, a computer operator noticed that a conveyor belt carrying coal had stopped. Workers who were sent to check it found sludge from the lagoon pouring into a cavity, like water through a bathtub drain, near the shore on one side. From there, said Fred Stroud, the E.P.A. official at the scene who leads the federal cleanup, the sludge roared through the Swiss cheese of underground mines near the lagoon walls, breaking through the two sets of seals.
Mr. Stroud said one stream then poured out of one mine entrance, over a ravine and into the head waters of Coldwater Creek. He said the other appeared to have run a longer course through the mines, slowing down as it spilled into Wolf Creek.
The man on the hot seat here is Dennis Hatfield, president of Martin County Coal and the son of a retired local miner. He lives nearby with his wife and two children and teaches Sunday school. It is rare to hear an unkind word about him, if not about the company he runs. ''He frogged and fished in the creeks,'' Mr. Lafferty said.
Mr. Hatfield has been deeply apologetic. Partly under orders from the state, which has cited the company for engaging in unsafe practices, Martin County Coal is picking up the cost of a cleanup, estimated at $40 million to $60 million. ''We've got 500 people and 300 pieces of equipment working on this cleanup,'' Mr. Hatfield said.
Within hours of the spill, he was on the phone to homeowners in its path, offering motel rooms, groceries, driveway clearing, topsoil for the ruined gardens and new bridges.
The company attributes the spill to an act of God, a claim that stirs derision in this heavily Baptist community. Mr. Hatfield is less certain. ''I don't know what happened,'' he said. ''I don't think anybody else does.'' With lawsuits building against it, the company has taken some extra measures, like installing a Massey public relations man.
The company bought a used four-wheel-drive vehicle so Prentice Maynard can reach his trailer and the red barn where he keeps 20 beagles, and leased an apartment for Janice Maynard, who says she is too frightened to return home. But she calls the gestures meaningless. ''I want them to buy me out,'' she said. ''I want my life back.''
Up Coldwater Road from the Maynards, closer to the mining site, Glenn Cornette, a 66-year-old retired strip miner, and his wife, Shirley, 60, feel similarly. Their trailer is next to that of their daughter and son-in-law, Patty and Edward McGinnis, and near the crumbling little house where Mr. McGinnis was born.
Around 3 that October morning, Mr. McGinnis was getting ready to give his wife, Patty, a ride to Grandad's Diner, where she would begin preparing breakfast for early-rising miners. On the road outside his trailer, Mr. McGinnis said he saw a company guard watching the rising creek.
''I asked him,'' Mr. McGinnis said, '' 'Have you got a pond break?' He said, 'We got one seeping a little bit. It's just a seep. It will be all right.' ''
Later, when Mr. Cornette arose, he said he told his wife that it looked like mud to him. ''Steam was coming off of it,'' he said.
As daylight broke, the sludge kept rising and flooding the land where he raises vegetables. ''I caught a big turtle that was going for high ground,'' Mr. Cornette said. A footlong snapper, he said, it was caked with mud. ''I took him in and washed him off,'' he said, and then put him in an unaffected stream nearby.
Mr. Cornette leases the company a patch of his 90 acres for $1,065 a year. But with fears of another spill keeping them up at night, he and his wife want out. ''I'm afraid of what's left up there,'' Mrs. Cornette said of the nearly two billion gallons still in the lagoon.
This was not the lagoon's first big leak. Six years ago, more than 100 million gallons, mostly water, escaped, doing little damage. The Mine Safety and Health Administration, a Labor Department agency, found inadequate sealing around the lagoon. The state fined the company $1,600. A plan was prepared with the federal agency to reinforce the lagoon, and the company agreed to adopt it.
''We followed up with a pretty thorough analysis,'' said J. Davitt McAteer, assistant secretary and head of the agency. But no one has established yet whether the company actually complied with the plan or whether the federal regulators checked to see that it had. ''Obviously we weren't thorough enough,'' Mr. McAteer said.
Photos: A spill of coal sludge in Inez, Ky., created an environmental disaster. (Rob Carr for The New York Times)(pg. A1); Kenneth Meek was one of the workers hired by the Martin County Coal Company to clean up a huge spill of coal-mining sludge in Inez, Ky.; Janice and Prentice Maynard were among the residents of Inez whose property was damaged by the spill. The coal company has leased an apartment for Mrs. Maynard, who says she is too frightened to return home. (Photographs by Rob Carr for The New York Times)(pg. A30) Map of Kentucky highlighting Inez: An environmental disaster has wreaked havoc on Inez, Ky. (pg. A30)