Disaster in West Virginia


There is no way to discuss oil spills without stopping to make a comment or two on the crime, the rape of the Appalachian mountains for coal. Mountain Top Removal, so specific a technique that it has its own name, not just a description is so devastating that environmentalists commonly refer to it simply as MTR.

MTR. Three little letters signifying the work of coal companies to ruin the lives of people all over Appalachia. In eastern Kentucky and West Virginia, the people know about MTR. It’s not a television channel or the letters representing a movie studio. Those three letters stand for disaster when they happen in your neighborhood.

America needs coal. A power plant that lights a city of about 150,000 people burns about a million and a half tons of coal and, by the way, uses about 2 billion gallons of water, although much of the water is reusable. We are locked into coal as a nation. Over half of all U.S. utility companies use coal to power their electric generation capacity.

(As coal prices have dropped to about half of their previous prices, have you noticed any reduction in your utility bill? Probably not. Have you noticed any increase in the premiums paid to utility company stockholders? You will if you look. By the way, 64% of all stocks are held by the top 1% of the people, so don’t worry about widows and orphans if their stock goes down. Worry about your utility bills.)

The problem with coal is that this same utility company, when it burns coal, produces about 3.7 million tons of carbon dioxide, the principal culprit of global warming, according to a group of guys known as the leading scientists in the world, 10,000 of them.  Is the world warming? The Chinese are spending a lot of money mapping out a route across the Arctic, which is now open, not frozen, much of the year, so that they can ship to Europe more directly, saving 3,000 miles and about $300,000 per trip.  Seems like they would only do that if it were, say….possible! But that’s not the point of this.

Mountain Top Removal mining is unquestionably efficient. Rather than digging a shaft down to a seam of coal, even with today’s modern drilling technologies, it is much faster and easier to get at a seam of coal by blowing off the top of the mountain, an area as high as a five-story building and a larger area than the Pentagon. Problem is, it has the same by product that the people who work in the Pentagon get deliberately.  Devastation. 

First they cut down and remove all the trees. Then they plant explosives and blow up the top of the mountain and remove the dirt down to the rock, carting it away, but also shoving some down into the valleys. Then they use draglines as large as a small building with hoists up to about 20 stories high to dig out the rock and to get to the coal. At this point, any extraneous dirt and rock is often dumped into the valleys. In fact, so much has been dumped into the valleys that mining companies have already turned buried 1200 miles of streams and made many more miles of streams and rivers toxic.

After mining the coal, the mining companies are supposed to return the mountains as close to their original state as possible. Naturally, that does not work out well, even in the best of cases. Trees have a hard time being regrown because the animals eat the tree shoots before they can mature. The land has all kinds of problems and that is if the companies even do restore it.

Some do not. The fines are negligible and the people who have been supervising mines at Interior for the last 30 years are ex-mining company executives. So it is a rigged game. The scale is so large that the scarring of the earth in West Virginia can be seen from outer space. It is the size of Rhode Island.

But there are worse problems, if you can imagine that to be possible. In 1972, Pittston Coal Company, then the largest independent coal company in the U.S.(and second in the number of fatal and non-fatal accidents) had built three dams to hold sludge from its mining operations along Buffalo Creek in West Virginia. They created three large black pools of toxic stew of mine dust, shale and clay which hung there on the side of the mountain, Although Pittston had been fined over a million dollars for various infractions, they had only paid fines totaling $275.

Although there had been other breaches in the pools of black water, on the morning of February 26, 1972, heavy rains caused the topping and then the collapse of the dams, sending 132 million gallons of water in a 20-foot wave, cascading down Buffalo Creek destroying every town and village in its path.

In only minutes, 125 people were dead, 1,100 seriously injured and 4000 made homeless. Over 530 homes disappeared and another 900 were severely damaged. Monetary damage, the least of the problem was still estimated, in 1972, at $50 million.

In the aftermath, there were promises…oh there were promises…to the people of Buffalo Creek. Governor Arch Moore promised a home development with over 750 homes. In the end 17 homes and 90 apartments were built on the site of an old “gob” pile, a former dumping site for toxic mining waste. The residents sued Pittston and after a period they eventually settled, each person in the class action suit receiving about $13,000. None of the communities that had been destroyed ever came back together.

As early as 1967 there were repeated warnings from the Department of Interior that the retaining pools like the one above Buffalo Creek were a serious and dangerous hazard and could be deadly.

This is 2010, thirty-eight years later. In Sundial, West Virginia, West Fork Elementary School sits 400 yards down the mountain from a mountain top removal mine. Massey Energy, which has already killed 49 people in recent months, owns and operates the mine which also contains the Shumate sludge containment which holds in a dam over 2.8 billion gallons of coal sludge. The 385-foot earthen dam, West Virginia’s largest sludge impoundment, is located directly above the school.

Not only are earthen dams, like the dam that caused the Johnstown Flood, but Massey itself is totally unreliable. With numerous violations of safety, many deaths, the Massey company had a serious failure with a loss of 300 million gallons of sludge, causing enormous damage, as recently as 2000.

It is seldom that it is necessary to urge people to action, but the idea that the vulnerable people in the poorest, or one of the two or three poorest, states in the country should be at such risk virtually demands that we all contact a member of the House of Representatives, the White House web site, the Department of the Interior web site or their offices….someone to prevent this preventable potential disaster from happening.

Call this number (202) 208- 6416. Tell them that you read this article in www.populistdaily.com. And tell them, which they will discover and which is true, that this article will go out over the Internet to as many different organizations, both Democratic and Republican, union and corporate, private and public as we can send to.

This is now President Obama’s problem. Let’s make sure that he knows it and that in this time of summer storms someone takes action to insure that no more families and no more innocent children are killed through the negligence of mining companies. At least we can do all we can to prevent this one instance. Make the call. Just ask them if they have seen this. Imagine how you will feel if you do not and this dangerous dam collapses on the people of Sundial, West Virginia.