Community still recovering 15 years after environmental disaster

Aug 11, 2021 | News

By Mollie Moore

Abraham Chapman started Oct. 11, 2000 like he does most fall days. Planning to go bow hunting, he woke up around 4 a.m. and was out of the house, driving up the road on his four-wheeler before daybreak.

When Chapman reached the gated entrance leading to one of the many coal-mining sites scattered across the mountains of Martin County, Kentucky, he was stopped by the shack guard and told to go no further.

If he had, he would have driven straight into a thick stream of black sludge.

As a lifelong Inez, Kentucky resident and retired coal miner, Chapman knew exactly what the sludge was. The black substance was slurry, a by-product of the purification process of coal.

“It was just like a volcano flow,” Chapman said. “Like a flow of lava.”

By the end of the day, the slurry would reach the top of Coldwater’s 5 foot creek bank and spill over into Chapman’s yard and those of his neighbors.

This October marked the 15th anniversary of the Big Branch Slurry Impoundment spill. This spill was, at the time, the largest environmental disaster in the South.

It released more than 300 million pounds of coal waste into Wolf Creek and Coldwater Creek, which are tributaries of the Big Sandy River.

In the early hours of that Wednesday, the slurry broke through the bottom of the impoundment pond into an abandoned deep mine. It then broke through seals that were put in place for this reason, and rushed out of two separate mine openings.

The spill flooded the mountainous landscape of Martin County that surrounds the small town of Inez. The slurry flowed down the mountains through creeks and into the hollows while the residents were sleeping.

Since the spill, the amount of active coal mining in Martin County has decreased.

In 2000, nearly 10 million tons of coal was produced from 25 separate mines. As of 2014, there were seven active mines that produce 2 million tons of coal, according to the Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet’s Kentucky Coal Facts packet.

The decreasing was not a result of the Big Branch slurry spill, though. Coal production has been slowing down since 1985, which was when coal production was at its peak in Martin County and the rest of Eastern Kentucky.

18 million tons of coal was produced in Martin County in 1985, which had been cut in half by the time October 2000 came around.

Since the spill Mickey McCoy, a lifetime Inez resident, has become active in speaking out against what he sees as the dangers of coal mining, specifically surface mining.

As a retired teacher, he now owns a restaurant in downtown Inez called Metrobilly’s.

On the day of the Big Branch slurry spill, McCoy said that he wanted to see what he had been hearing about from other members of the community.

With the help of the sheriff, McCoy said, he got to see the damage done to Middlefork road, which crosses over Coldwater Creek, and was blocked to anyone who didn’t live there.

“I saw something I’d never really seen before in my life,” he said. “You didn’t even know where the stream was.”

It took two days for the slurry to make its way into Rockcastle Creek, which is where McCoy lives. The amount of waste that he witnessed outraged him, he said.

“I don’t call this a spill,” McCoy said, “A spill is something that happens when you reach across the table for the last biscuit and you spill your sister’s orange juice. This was a damn flood.”

The spill killed all of the aquatic life that thrived in Coldwater and Wolf creeks, according to Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Eastern Fishery District employee Kevin Frey.

Frey said that, through taking an index of biological integrity, the Department of Fish and Wildlife found that the amount of fish in the creeks had restored to half of the original amount just two years after the spill. Now, Frey said that the aquatic population is fully restored.

Chapman, however, doesn’t buy it.

He said that he used to spend almost all of his free time as a child in Coldwater creek playing, fishing and catching crawdads.

The daily catch that he brought home would often be his dinner. Now, he said that he wouldn’t dare eat the fish that came from the creek.

“The creek fish are not fine and they’ll never be fine,” he said.

This is partly because of the fact that, just a few inches below the surface, Chapman said there is still slurry that lines the creek beds.

For the last 15 years of his career Chapman was the safety director for Beach Fort Processing. His job was to make sure spills like this didn’t happen.

He said that, because he knows what’s in slurry, he was worried about the way the clean up was handled.

Less than a mile down the road from his house, a miniature impoundment was dug out of an open field in order to collect the excess slurry, Chapman said.

After the solid coal particles settled leaving liquid at the surface, the solid and liquid waste was separated. The solid waste was then taken to surface mines that were in the process of being reclaimed and added into the newly formed landscape.

Currently, there is a small subdivision located on the land that was the temporary impoundment.

Chapman’s son, Tyler, said that, although he was just a child when the spill happened, he still remembers how scared he was watching the slurry spill out into his yard. For weeks his parents wouldn’t let him play outside, he said.

Currently, Tyler is a surveyor who works on stream restorations in Tennessee.

“I don’t know why anyone would want to live here after what happened,” he said.

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