Photos by Vivian Stockman, Oct. 19, 2003 unless noted
West Virginia’s Most Massive Coal Waste Impoundment
The massive Brushy Fork coal slurry impoundment (also referred to as a coal waste or coal sludge impoundment) is located in extreme westernmost Raleigh County, West Virginia. Marfork Coal Co. (a subsidiary of the violation-prone Massey Energy) operates this impoundment.
Since the late 1990s, Coal River Mountain Watch and the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition have been raising awareness about this impoundment and challenging coal industry “regulators” to stop permitting the expansion of this behemoth lake of toxic goo. We’ve won some concessions along the way. such as forcing Marfork to monitor the groundwater downgradient of the impoundment for dangerous heavy metals, such as mercury. The United Mine Workers of America is also gravely alarmed over the dangers this impoundment poses for miners and coalfield residents.
Before transporting coal to market, coal companies wash the coal. Up to 60 different chemicals, some of which are known carcinogens, can be used in the coal-washing process. The heavy metals that occur naturally in coal (mercury, arsenic, lead, cadmium, etc.) leach into the water used in the coal washing process. The slurry that results from the cleaning process is often stored in coal waste impoundments–sometimes with catastrophic results. There are alternatives.
Brushy Fork is only about half completed right now (see pictures below), and it’s size is already mind-boggling! At its final stage, the impoundment will hold over 8 billion gallons of coal-waste sludge! The dam will be 954 feet high–that’s 80 feet taller than the New River Gorge Bridge!
Our concerns include:
- Catastrophic failure of the impoundment into underlying underground mine works (the same engineers that designed this facility worked on the failed Martin County Coal impoundment), a disaster which could result in the loss of life and unprecedented environmental damage;
- Toxic heavy metals (naturally present in coal) and chemicals discharged into streams during blackwater “spills;”
- Toxic heavy metals and chemicals leaching from the impoundment into groundwater;
- A series of permit violations by Marfork–Brushy Fork has at least been cited at least 37 times, often for blackwater or surface water contamination and runoff;
- Potential compaction /engineering problems with the impoundment’s dam;
- Mountaintop-removal related blasting near the impoundment;
- A ludicrous emergency evacuation plan that would have residents going upstream into the sludge to supposedly escape it;
Brushy Fork is a tributary of Little Marsh Fork, which flows into Marsh Fork, comprising part of the headwaters of the Coal River upstream of the town Whitesville. The Coal River flows into the Kanawha River, which flows into the Ohio River, which flows into the Mississippi, which flows into the Gulf, which mingles with the ocean waters, which is all part of the planet’s hydrologic cycle, which means we all live downstream. Drink deeply–and think deeply! Join us as work to protect coalfield residents and the environment from this and other coal slurry impoundments.
Photos by Vivian Stockman; Flyover courtesy SouthWings
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