Here's What 7.8 Billion Gallons of Toxic Coal Sludge Looks Like
By Heather Moyer
Junior Walk and I are standing where a mountain used to be. We're on a pile of rocks surrounded by even more piles of rocks and boulders. But that's not what has our attention.
"There it is—the largest earthen dam in the western hemisphere," Junior said.
We're looking at the Brushy Fork impoundment—a massive dam holding back 7.8 billion gallons of toxic coal sludge. Coal sludge contains a scary assortment of chemicals—from manganese to cadmium, lead and mercury and more. And we're standing in front of a 7.8 billion gallon "lake" of it. Down below the sludge are hundreds of homes, filled with people hoping that dam never breaches.
Our journey to this shocking site started on a much lighter note down at the Coal River Mountain Watch office in front of a four-wheeler. Junior tossed me a helmet and had me get on the back. I'd never been on an ATV, so I was a little nervous and excited.
"Do you want to go slow or not-so-slow?" he asked with a grin.
You only live once, so I said, "Step on it."
To say the trail to Brushy Fork was a gut-rattler would be an understatement.
It's too bad such a fun, muddy ride included such awful stops along the way. We reached a fork and stopped so Junior could show me acid mine drainage. He told me about the man we'd just waved at before heading up the trail.
"He used to get his water from the creek—but look at it now," Junior said.
I asked what those hearings are usually like and get noises of frustration from both Junior and Debbie. Debbie shook her head. Junior rolled his eyes. "It's like talking to a brick wall," he said of all the officials involved.
But they keep fighting. Their latest battle is against the familiar foe of Alpha Natural Resources. The company is in the process of applying for permits to blow the top off of another 5,000 acres of Coal River Mountain.
Neither Debbie nor Junior can imagine not doing this work to protect the mountains they love so dearly. It's their mission—their calling. And they welcome anyone to come see what they love so much and join them in the work.