“What we got going on here in Rock Creek is a little school in Sundial, W.Va., called Marsh Fork Elementary and it's being surrounded by a coal mining processing plant and a toxic waste impoundment and also a mountaintop removal site,” said Rock Creek resident Ed Wiley. He used to work at the processing plant and his granddaughter, Kayla, attended Marsh Fork Elementary.
The toxic waste impoundment and processing plant are all operated by the Goals Coal Co., a subsidiary of Massey Energy. The 1849-acre mountaintop removal mine that surrounds the school and dam is operated by two other Massey subsidiaries, Independence Coal and Alex Energy. The next-door processing, or prep, plant was built in 1982. The sludge impoundment followed three years later at 85-feet-high, with some of the documents signed by West Virginia Congressman Nick Rahall. The plant's coal loading silo was built in 2003, and the mountaintop removal behind it started about the same time.
The school sits 225 feet from the silo that's just across the creek. The now 375-foot tall earthen dam, 400 yards away, is “holding back 2.8 billion gallons of toxic waste. It's five acres out of its permitted boundary in the tail waters of it...” Wiley said. “There's over 200 violations on the dam itself. If significant, substantial, certain occurrences happen, this dam will fail and 977 lives will be perished. A lot of the violations are repeated. It's widely spread leaking, and at the toe of it, according to the federal government."
Marsh Fork Elementary, the Goals Coal Processing Plant and the Edwight surface mine (operated by Independence Coal and Alex Energy). Photo by Bo Webb.
According to West Virginia Mining Safety and Health Administration safety inspection documents, Massey has been cited repeatedly for the dam's “widespread leaking."
They've also been cited for wood debris being in the impoundment since none is supposed to be in there. According to Wiley, they just cut the tree tops off in the impoundment instead of removing them:
They need to drain that down, let it dry out, and get all that debris out of there. There's not supposed to be no roots, no wood products whatsoever in an impoundment. At least six acres of it is all wood products. I complained at least two years ago about that to Eric Carlson, at the EPA in Charleston. I waited and waited and waited on him [at the impoundment], sat there till three o'clock and he never showed. I called him in the morning and he said he checked it all out. I said, “No you didn't.” He said "How do you know about that?" He just looked at it on the satellite. I said “We're not just dumb hillbillies.” I asked, “When you drove by the silo and looked to your right, what did you see?” He said “I didn't see anything.” I asked "Didn't you see that school?"
“Why?” he asked. That should've been an automatic shut down. It's about the kids. He said "I didn't see nothing. What are you talking about?" That's how he said it.
The disastrous coal fly ash sludge spill in Harriman, Tenn., that occurred just before Christmas 2008, was just over 1 billion gallons, but officials say coal slurry impoundments in West Virginia are more strictly regulated than the fly ash impoundment was in Tennessee (W.Va. Gazette Article).
"There is no such thing as clean coal technology. If they're cleaning it, what are they doing with the waste? They're putting it in our mountains, they're putting it in our hollows, and their polluting the nation's water supply. It's a time capsule release and it's gonna pollute the whole system of the nation's water."
-- Ed Wiley, Rock Creek, W.Va.
Parents in suburban America may worry about kidnappings or shootings or drugs, but parents in the Coal River Valley worry every time it rains. Debbie Jarrell, Kayla's grandmother, said: “You’d have to worry about whether you should send her to school the next day if it rained a little bit, or if it was raining while she was at school if you should go and get her. No grandparent, or no child, should have to be forced with the decision of whether they can go to school because it rains or not, or whether or not they’re going to be safe while they are at school. They should be guaranteed that they are safe at school, especially from something like that.”
What evacuation plan?
“Wait till a heavy rain comes, and watch that sludge up there come roarin',” Sylvia Bradford said. “That'll run us. We're not worth [an evacuation plan.]”
“There's nothing,” Rick Bradford said. As for the kids at the school, “Well, they'll just have to hop up and take it,” he said.
“Down the river they'll go,” Sylvia said.
“If the dam breaks, plan is to send Elbert Stover, the chief of security, out with a bullhorn to warn us,” Rick said as Sylvia broke out in laughter. “Heh, but that is how they got it planned out, you know. What are they going to do? Come over here in a helicopter?”
“A previous principal said 'We've all got to die of somethin,'” according to Coal River Mountain Watch co-director Vernon Haltom.
The evacuation plan (PDF) for the Shumate's Branch dam and people living downstream is posted with the Coal Impoundment Location & Information System: "The notification and evacuation will be performed personally or by bullhorn. The Mt. View and Alum Creek Schools will serve as Emergency Evacuation Centers.” According to the document, the evacuation area extends 46.5 miles downstream of the dam, to the fork of the Coal River, the County Sherrif's Department and Office of Emergency Services are responsible for “transportation security, roadblocks, etc.,” and “The OES and Goals will provide a joint effort in directing the emergency operations, directing officials of cooperating agencies and providing transportation of evacuees.”
What a dam breach would look like:
The kids at Marsh Fork would have less than five minutes before the initial three-foot wall of sludge hits them.
Edwight would have five minutes, with a two-story-tall peak a half-hour after the dam breaches.
The children at the Head Start facility in Pettus would be hit with a 3.6-foot wave within minutes, peaking at 24 feet one hour after breach.
Whitesville would be hit with a four-foot-wall within minutes, peaking at 17.5 feet 1.5 hours after breach.
Petyona, 27.5 miles from the dam, would be under more than 20 feet of sludge within seven hours.
The Emergency Warning Plan provides no figures for the people living further than Peytona, and none at all for the impact on water quality and aquatic life.
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According to Coal River Mountain Watch, WV DEP Secretary Stephanie Timmermeyer wrote regarding the sludge dam, “The extensive oversight by federal and state regulatory agencies indicates that the impoundment has been constructed and is maintained in accordance with federal and state laws.” Ed, however, has had a different experience. “I worked on this site many a days. I knew of a lot, what we call shortcuts, around the mining, things that you do to hurry up... Take little shortcuts at doing the job instead of doing it right the first time, if there is a right way. And, I knew of a lot of problems there and it really just woke me up to the whole issue of what was wrong there at that school.” Ed detailed the coal prepping process:
This is what they're calling their clean coal technology. What they do, they use a lot of diesel fuels, a lot of the ammonias and other chemicals to get heavy metals out of the coal, such as arsenic, lead, aluminum, copper, uranium, uh, the list goes on and on and on of what they get out of coal.
Then after the coal comes out, they're putting a binding agency on top of that called CTS-100 Binder. This is some bad stuff it's got a mist. It's blowing over on these children. The diesel trains themselves are sitting there, running, there's usually three of them hooked back-to-back and they're sitting there idling, there's a lot of black smoke that comes off of them, them's blowin over on these children.
at the school. “Data gathered to date does support my belief that dust from coal-related activities adjacent to the school are impacting the air quality--and therefore increasing human health risk--at the school,” he said. “This dust not only impacts the exterior areas of the school, but interior areas as well. Additionally, I believe that fluctuations in dust levels observed at the school do correlate with activities at the adjacent coal facility.” Dr. Simonton suggests sampling of dust continue at the school for at least one month, but preferably longer. He also suggests “permanent dust monitoring at the perimeter of the Goals Coal facility.”
Interview behind Marsh Fork Elementary black bears being bulldozed at mountaintop removal sites.
Some have countered that the school's past use of coal heat explains the presence of coal dust inside the school. Dr. Simonton, however, confirmed that sampling methods ruled out that possibility: “Yes, surfaces were sampled that have been cleaned since coal was last used—for example, bleachers in the gym.”
“I know of men that's worked around this plant particularly. They're my age—I'm 50 years old—and these guys is, their IQ level goes down to about a sixth grader at any moment,” Ed said. “They could be fine one minute and next thing you know their IQ drops down, they shake real bad, they've got what they call neural toxic disorder. So, these kids, you know, we need to get them out of there, we need to get these kids a new school.
“It's a disaster waiting to happen.”
Dr. Simonton has confirmed some dangers of the coal dust presence in the school:
My concern about the school is that dust levels not only appear to exceed human health reference levels, but that the dust is largely made up of coal. Coal dust contains silica, trace metals, and polynuclear aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH), many of which are known human carcinogens. PAH's have been found in dust samples taken at the school. Inhalataion of coal dust is known to cause adverse health effects in humans, however, studies of coal dust toxicity are understandably mostly of adult populations. Children are particularly at risk from dust exposure in general, so it is reasonable to assume that coal dust creates an even greater risk for children than it does adults.
The sampling to date certainly indicates that dust levels and composition at the school reach a level of concern. Particulate matter at levels found at the school has been shown to cause adverse effects in children.”
For more complete information on the contents of coal slurry and the health effects caused by exposure to them, see the Coal Sludge section. The health effects seen in kids that go to Marsh Fork spurred residents to initiate a campaign to build a new school in a safer place in the community. Ed Wiley was particularly struck by their condition:
That's actually what really woke me up, it was the third day that I brought her [Kayla] home and every day was pretty much the same: go and get her about 12 o'clock and bring her home. It'd take about an hour for her just laying real still on the couch 'fore she would straighten up and finally start moving.
Once you got 'em away from that environment they seemed to get better and I've heard other parents talk the same thing... we left the school and she was staring over at that plant and, she looked at me. Well, first I asked if she was OK, and she turned and looked at me and said “Gramps, these coal mines are making us kids sick.”
And I'll never forget that day she had tears just pouring down her face when she turned and looked at me and, it hurt me real bad. Until she goes to have babies, until she gets older in life, we will not know she's not been affected by these chemicals. These chemicals can last in your body anywhere from ten to fifteen years...
You work 16, 17 hours a day a lot of times seven days a week, and you just really don't have no time to think about what you're doing until it affects you personally. But, people around the United States needs to know the truth about the clean coal technology. There is no such thing as clean coal technology. If they're cleaning it, what are they doing with the waste? They're putting it in our mountains, they're putting it in our hollows, and their polluting the nation's water supply. It's a time capsule release and it's gonna pollute the whole system of the nation's water.
In 2008, Ivan Stiefel won the Brower Youth Award for his part in organizing Mountain Justice Spring Break to raise awareness about the dangers at Marshfork Elementary.
A lot has been done to move the kids at Marsh Fork to a safe location. “We've approached the governor many times... We went to Sen. Bird, we've done work with him and got no results. We worked with the state and county school boards, we have no results. We've had air quality tests done at the school as far as inside,” Ed said. In 2005, 20 people were arrested attempting to deliver letters to Goals or Massey on three separate occasions, nine of them were residents. Ed Wiley staged a five-hour sit-in on the State Capitol's steps that same year, and that got a meeting with Gov. Joe Manchin. A letter writing and postcard campaign was launched Oct. 14, 2005.
Two separate “air quality investigations” were conducted in 2005 by the Department of Education, but they didn't test for coal dust or airborne chemicals either time, claiming such tests are too expensive. The first investigation gave no units or reference for the particulate count, and the second “declared the particulate level safe without basing that judgment on any reference or standard,” according to Coal River Mountain Watch (CRMW), a Whitesville, W.Va.-based grassroots non-profit that's been fighting mountaintop removal since 1998.
Gov. Manchin's chief counsel, Carte Goodwin, sent a letter to CRMW on Sept. 30, 2005, “stating 'that the extensive investigation revealed no evidence of health risks or regulatory noncompliance,'” according to CRMW. The letter went on to say that professionals and experts agreed that no further testing was necessary. However, CRMW said, “Stephen Lester, Science Director for the Center for Health, Environment & Justice, sent a letter to CRMW stating that the Department of Education’s air quality investigations were 'extremely limited,' did not 'provide a proper assessment of the indoor quality at the school,' and 'provide meaningless information about the indoor air quality at the school.'”
Massey applied on Dec. 6, 2005, “to increase particulate pollution from [the prep plant] by 3.49 tons per year,” including “loadout rates from two silos (the existing silo and the revoked silo) by 400 percent.” The next month, Massey applied “to increase manganese output into the river behind the school.”
On Aug. 2, 2006, Ed Wiley began his march from Charleston, W.Va., to Washington, D.C., to raise money for a new school. He arrived on Sept. 12 and, with Debbie, met with several officials including Sen. Robert Byrd.
People are continuing to work for a new school site within the community and Dr. Simonton's air quality study is continuing to collect data on the situation. State officials continue to claim that a new school is a fiscal impossibility. The direct civil disobedience campaign that has intensified since early 2009 is also applying pressure to the local and state government to provide the kids at Marsh Fork with a healthier place to learn, as well as keeping the story in the media. The June 19-20 fundraising concert, Mountain Aid, will raise money for Pennies of Promise for construction of a new school.