The West Virginia coalfields contain some of the highest quality water in the world. Aquifers in the coalfields often sit directly below seams of coal. When the coal seam is undisturbed, it acts as a giant carbon filter, leaving excellent water quality that West Virginians across the state rely on for drinking water. When coal seams are disrupted, however, water quality quickly declines. The accounts of impaired water quality in the coalfields are abundant. As mining continues and practices such as slurry injections and impoundment sites become more prevalent, communities are seeing a decline in their water quality. One woman from Hopkins Fork had her water tested when she moved into her home in 2002 and was told it was of spring water quality, as good as any you could buy. Today, she does not even use the water to brush her teeth.
Like many residents of Prenter, she has seen a dramatic change in her water, most commonly between 2001 and 2004. In many homes, the water started to smell more and more like rotten eggs, the odor of hydrogen sulfide a corrosive and neurotoxic gas. Others found their water sometimes running black, gray, white or orange. Many residents remember the changes in their water coinciding with a period of very heavy blasting at the nearby Black Castle Surface mine. After unusually strong blasts, some residents reported their water stopped running entirely for days and ran black when it finally came back on.
“There are underground injections at the head of laurel creek and than Massey went in and blasted the mountains all around that area, over 10,000 acres just in Sandlick area, and we think its cracked the aquifer and allowed the coal slurry they pumped in the ground to breech the well water.” -Patty Sebok
Many residents also found strange, rainbow colored, oily films on the surface of water left standing and inexplicable waxy buildups in the backs of their toilets that continually grew back. Household appliances, such as coffee pots, plumbing fixtures, hot water heaters, washing machines and even electric sockets, began to corrode rapidly, sometimes in as little as a year. Hydrogen sulfide gas, H2S is the suspected agent. In industrial settings, personal safety detectors for H2S are set to go off at 15 ppm. Levels up to 30 ppm have been detected in some homes in Laurel Creek. See what the water in one home does to a penny in the video below.
“I’m a livelong resident of Boone county West Virginia. I lived in Prenter Hollow for about 31 years and I knew that the well when I moved there I had iron in it, but I’m finding out that different wells in the area have different containments; some of them run red, some of them run black, some of them have a chemical or a diesel or oily type smell to them” -Patty Sebok
Alarmed by all these changes, some of the residents got their water tested by Dr. Ben Stout of Wheeling Jesuit University and others by Dr. Scott Simonton of Ashby Tucker Environmental Consulting. The tests confirmed the community's suspicions that something was wrong. Many of the houses had levels of toxic heavy metals, including arsenic, lead, manganese, iron, antimony and others exceeding US Safe Drinking Water Standards. Lead and arsenic are the top two priority pollutants on the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. Hair sample tests of 15 residents also revealed elevated levels of a wide range of metals. More comprehensive testing is still required to assess the full extent of the community's exposure to toxins through their water supply. Additional information about the regulation of toxic releases can be found with the Environmental Protection Agency's Toxics Release Inventory.
The immediate question is: What happened to destroy the water supply this community has always depended? While there is not yet enough evidence to say for sure, many residents suspect the contamination is linked to coal slurry injection. Coal slurry is a toxic byproduct of processing coal for market. From 1977 to 1984, Massey subsidiary Omar Mining Company pumped the coal slurry from its Chesterfield preparation plant into the abandoned Chesterfield deep mines at the head of Laurel Creek. In total, several hundred million gallons of coal slurry were injected underground within 3 miles of the nearest well user. Some residents suspect that the heavy blasting at the Black Castle Surface mine cracked the geologic layers allowing the coal slurry to enter the water table. Environmental Engineer Dr. Scott Simonton agrees this is a plausible scenario. After years of lobbying by community members, the Legislature finally ordered the Department of Environmental Protection to study well water contamination in Prenter over great reluctance by the DEP. The study, subcontracted to Triad Engineering, is due to be released in early 2012.