On Coal River Mountain, underground mining, contour surface mining, and more recently, strip mining and mountaintop removal mining have been used to extract coal in the steep terrain. All of the surface mining except for work done on Brushy Fork and Collins Fork occured before the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation of 1977 (SMCRA). SMCRA regulations do not apply to pre-1977 surface mining. Although areas of Coal River Mountain have been impacted by previous mining, community members have still been able to access the mountain.
Horse Creek mine. Photo by Jen Osha.
Listen to Jimmy Meadows talk about the loss of underground mining jobs and the impact on local communities.
There are currently five active underground mines on CRM: White Queen, Marsh Fork, Horse Creek Eagle, Brushy Eagle, and Slip Ridge Cedar Grove. All five of these underground are owned by a subsidiary of Massey Energy (McIlmoil, 2007).
Many of the residents interviewed who expressed concerns about the impacts of MTR are former miners. "I'm a retired miner, a retired deep miner, and my heart was in deep mining when I was a worker," said Jimmy Meadows, a current resident of Horse Creek. "I feel like if they were forced to deep mine these areas, that it would at least be five to one more employees per person as high wall mining and strip mining. It would benefit the citizens of our state and the economy of our state. But when you use high wall or strip mining, its a lot fewer employees required to do the same amount of work." He added, "it's easier to use dynamite and shovels than it is to use men and underground mining equipment. Economics - bottom line it'll be the dollar."
Punchout on Coal River Mountain. Photo by Jen Osha.
An unfortunate consequence of the history of underground mining in the Coal River Valley are the numerous underground mine shafts at different elevations throughout the mountain. To the left is a picture of a punchout in the Right Hand Fork of Sycamore Hollow. The haze in the top of the picture is the hot, stale air that blows out of the mine shafts through these pipes. The hole dug in front of the pipes is to hopefully prevent water (or slurry!) from flooding the hollow and the people who live there. Bacon Brown, on the right, is one such concerned resident who monitors these "punchouts" for safety.
What is a blowout?
Photo by Jen Osha.
A punch-out in itself it not a cause for worry: it is simply where the mine shaft problems arise when water builds up in the mine reaches the surface. The picture to the right shows a punch-out in Horse Creek where the mine shaft has been sealed up and a pipe installed for drainage. Problems arise if water builds up pressure behind the seal and causes a blowout. A blowout occurs when built up water, or slurry, builds up in an underground mine shaft and “blows” out the side of the mountain at the point where the mine comes to the surface, also called where the mine “punches out.”
On April 1, 1993, water from an abandoned coal mine blew out the hillside in Rock Creek, a hollow on the Coal River Mountain. No one was seriously injured, but 75 families were evacuated and two families lost their homes. The water blew out a hole in the mountain 30 feet across and six feet wide. The WV Department of Environmental Protection issued two notices of violation to Consolidation Coal, the owner of the Rowland no 10 Mine that backed up with water and blew out.
The blowout ripped a poplar tree from the hillside 150 feet from Steve Foster’s house and rammed it through their living room window. Helen Foster, her sister, and six children were inside the house when it happened. Their house and two vehicles were buried underneath mud, rocks, and other debris. Helen stated: “it just came down the hill in front of the house, and a tree came through the side of my house through the window. We was running, hearing the glass break. The power went off, we hid in the bathroom for a little bit, then we took the kids and climbed off the mountain to safety.” Helen thought the sound they heard was the wind, but her son Nick thought it was water. Nick went to look out the window to check, and as he looked outside, he was hit in the head by a tree limb when it crashed into their living room.
Mike Richardson, emergency program engineer at the WV DEP, was one of three officials who came to examine the Rock Creek Blowout. He stated, “We just did one of these at Cabin Creek a few days ago in Kanawha County. Exact same thing happened….It filled up a three-acre area in a matter of an hour. It just occurs. It occurs a lot more than we hear about.” Indeed, often when blowouts occur in uninhabited areas, they do not even make the news.
Two recent blowouts that did make the news occurred in March, 2009. A mine blowout in southeastern KY
released approximately 10,000 gallons of water per minute from an underground mine shaft that had not been used since the 1970s. In this recent blowout, no homes or people were injured. The next day, at 5:35 in the morning, an underground mine, last operating over fifty years ago, blew out above the town of East Bank, West Virginia. The pressure blew a hole 12 feet wide and 4 feet high in the side of the hill. The East Bank Middle School was evacuated and closed for the day. Despite the proximity of the blow out to the surface mine above the town, the DEP was unable to draw any connections between the blow out and the surface mining (see the map below. The blowout was between Coalburg and the strip mine).
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Click on the slideshow below to see pictures from the East Bank blowout, or read more at Ken Ward's blog Coal Tattoo.