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.
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.
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Four years ago, Jacob Abel cast his first presidential vote for Donald Trump. As a young conservative from Concord, North Carolina, the choice felt natural.
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