Quantcast
Energy

Here's What 7.8 Billion Gallons of Toxic Coal Sludge Looks Like

By Heather Moyer

This is part 2 (read part 1) on my visit to see mountaintop removal coal mining sites in West Virginia with Coal River Mountain Watch.

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.

The water was orange due to a leak from an underground mine in the mountain in front of us. The man successfully sued the coal company ("Thanks to Coal River Mountain Watch," added Junior) and now the company has to bring him all his water.


As we stood staring at the grotesque orange stream, a frog moved in the water. Junior told me how biodiverse the region is and listed different kinds of frogs, salamanders, newts and more that he's seen.


We rode up a very steep trail to a cabin Junior's family and others had built years before he was born. It's a nice little getaway—but just through the trees you can see the Edwight mountaintop removal site the next mountain over. You can't get away from coal in coal country.


As we rounded another steep trail, the massive Brushy Fork coal sludge lake came into view. Its size is mind-boggling. When we first saw it through the trees I thought we'd stop to look there. Instead it took another 15 minutes to come around to an entrance point.

Standing near the edge was breathtaking. We were surrounded by high steep walls made by blasting away parts of the mountain. Trees teetered on the edges. It was like someone had taken a knife and sliced around them, like they were the middle of a cake and the other pieces had been cut away.

Junior pointed out how close the company had been blasting next to the impoundment—a scary thought considering the devastation a breach would cause.

"This impoundment has been here for years, but they're still adding to it," he said.

Again, I was struck with silence. What words should one have when seeing something so awful?

All that happened because I want the lights to turn on when I flick the switch. Because I want to watch TV and use my computer. And people die underground or get black lung for the same reasons.

This is all pretty sobering.

"What do you think of it all?" Junior asked as he got back on the ATV.

"I have no words besides 'this is f**king awful,'" I replied.

"That about sums it up."

There are sites and sludge impoundments like this all over the region—and even more mountains are permitted for this devastation. How do you not just sit down right there where the mountain used to be and cry and give up?

Back at the Coal River Mountain Watch office I chatted more with Junior and director Deb Jarrell. Their work is an uphill battle, but they do find positives.

Their new office in Naoma, for example. They don't get harassed as much as they used to, said Debbie and some neighbors are even supportive at times.

"Many of them do like coal, but some of them have quietly told us that they're on our side," she explained. "I think the biggest issue here is that people don't like what mountaintop removal coal mining does, but it provides their family a job, so they aren't going to speak out."

A paycheck vs. mountains and clean water. It's an age-old battle in coal country.

The Coal River Mountain Watch staff does provide as many opportunities as possible for the public to speak out against coal. They regularly spar with state and coal company officials to ask for public hearings on new permits being issued in the area.

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.

Show Comments ()

EcoWatch Daily Newsletter

Sponsored
Business
zodebala / iStock

Investigators Find Slave Labor on Starbucks-Certified Brazil Coffee Plantation

By Daniela Penha and Roberto Cataldo, Translator

This story was produced via a co-publishing partnership between Mongabay and Repórter Brasil and can be read in Portuguese here.

At first sight, the Córrego das Almas farm in Piumhi, in rural Minas Gerais state, seems to be a model property. "No slave or forced labor is allowed," reads one of several signs that display international certifications—including one linked to the U.S. based company Starbucks corporation.

Keep reading... Show less
Politics
Oil and gas companies flare natural gas that cannot be processed or sold. Varodrig / Wikimedia Commons

Trump Lets Fracking Companies Release More Climate-Warming Methane

As expected, the U.S. Department of the Interior on Tuesday released a final rule that reverses Obama-era restrictions on methane emissions from oil and gas operations.

President Obama's 2016 methane waste rule, which never went into effect, required fossil fuel companies on tribal and public lands to reduce emissions of methane, a potent greenhouse gas that's about 86 times more powerful than carbon dioxide. It called on drilling operators to capture leaking and vented methane and to update their leak-detection equipment.

Keep reading... Show less
Health
Smoke from the Carr Fire in northern California, July 2018. Eric Coulter, Bureau of Land Management / Public Domain

U.S. Air Pollution Is 'Completely Outrageous'

By Juanita Constible

How do you think the U.S. stacks up against other countries for protecting its citizens from the health threats of air pollution?

That's the question Christiana Figueres, one of the world's leading climate warriors, posed at last week's Global Climate and Health Forum, an official side event of the Global Climate Action Summit. The answer, said Ms. Figueres, is "completely outrageous."

Keep reading... Show less
Politics

Top EPA Watchdog Since 2010 Announces Departure

The head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) internal watchdog organization announced plans to leave for a job outside the federal government Tuesday, The Associated Press reported.

Arthur A. Elkins Jr., who has held the position of Inspector General since he was appointed by former president Barack Obama in 2010, will spend his last day at the agency Oct. 12, The Hill reported.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored
Popular
A man outside his flooded home in Lokoja in the Kogi state of Nigeria following heavy rains there. SODIQ ADELAKUN / AFP / Getty Images

100 Dead in Nigeria Following Severe Flooding

Nigeria declared a national disaster in four states Monday in response to deadly flooding that National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA) spokesperson Sani Datti partly attributes to climate change, CNN reported.

Keep reading... Show less
Politics
L: Michael Coghlan / Flickr R: Coloured chest X-ray of a male patient showing evidence of a mesothelioma lung cancer, which is usually associated with exposure to asbestos. Zephyr / Science Photo Library / Getty Images

Report: 140 House Members Vote Against Chemical Safeguards Every Time

The Environmental Working Group Action Fund, the political arm of the Environmental Working Group (EWG), released a first-ever report that scores how each member of the U.S. House of Representatives voted on chemical policy and safety.

The scorecard shows that 140 House members voted against chemical safeguards every time, while 149 members consistently voted for chemical safety protections.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored
Food
grobery / CC BY SA 2.0 (Flickr)

What’s for Dinner? A Preview of the People, Process and Politics Updating Federal Dietary Guidelines

By Sarah Reinhardt

Months behind schedule, two federal departments have officially kicked off the process for writing the 2020-2025 iteration of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. Updated and reissued every five years, these guidelines are the nation's most comprehensive and authoritative set of nutrition recommendations. And although the process is meant to be science-based and support population health—and has historically done so, with some notable exceptions—there are plenty of reasons to believe that the Trump administration is preparing to pitch a few curveballs.

Keep reading... Show less
Health
Vladimirovic / iStock / Getty Images Plus

The Many Hazards of Toxic Algae Outbreaks

By Sarah Graddy and Robert Coleman

This summer, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) is tracking outbreaks of potentially toxic algae across the U.S. We have been startled to find that these outbreaks are erupting everywhere: from the East Coast to the West Coast, from the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored

mail-copy

The best of EcoWatch, right in your inbox. Sign up for our email newsletter!