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Coalfields Residents Fear A Repeat Worse Than Martin County

November 23, 2009

CHARLESTON, W.Va. - In 2000, a Massey Energy coal slurry impoundment in Martin County, Kentucky, blew out through an abandoned mine underneath it. The spill dumped millions of gallons of sludge downstream, enough to clog eighty miles of the Big Sandy River. Now, there are concerns about that same scenario happening in West Virginia.

Retired underground miner Chuck Nelson says Massey's Brushy Fork impoundment above Whitesville is more than four times the size of the one in Martin County. He worked in the mines around those that honeycomb the land under Brushy Fork, and he's worried because Massey is blasting next to the impoundment.

"The pressure that nine billion gallons poses on the dam, it also poses a threat on the pillars that support the mountain underneath this impoundment."

Nelson is among a group of local people calling on the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection to halt the blasting.

Jason Bostic, vice-president of the West Virginia Coal Association, says federal and state regulators knew Brushy Fork was undermined when it was built and when they allowed the blasting.

"The location of those mine works would have been considered by the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration. And the interaction between the impoundment, the old works, and the blasting would have been considered by DEP."

Residents who oppose the blasting note that the impoundment in Martin County was also regulated by state and federal authorities.

Investigators say it was pure luck no one was killed by the Martin County spill. Former miner Chuck Nelson says Whitesville can't count on luck.

"I have family, I have friends that live downstream. If this dam should fail, the people in Whitesville will be met by a 20-foot high wave of sludge coming though their community."

No one from Massey Energy returned a call requesting comment.

Dan Heyman, Public News Service - WV