Thursday, December 24, 2009

Kingston Ash Disaster 1 year later

One year ago, a massive release of coal ash occurred, spreading a toxic plume of pollutants in the Clinch River and Emory River in Tennessee. How is it that this coal ash, which was too toxic to be left in these rivers, would end up being hauled 300 miles away to Perry County Alabama and discharged to local streams and residential areas without a concern? Why are Perry County residents being assaulted and hurt and why is Alabama's habitat being sacrificed? Read the entire shameful story to find out about this cover up!

It was one year ago today that I saw a blurb on TV showing a scene where “A pond dam broke. Some minor flooding occurred.” When I saw the picture it hit me instantly that this was NOT water that flooded out of that pond, it was some type of coal waste. I contacted a local group there in Kingston “United Mountain Defense” and got the real story from their blog site.

On Dec. 22, 2008 a disaster of historic proportions took place in Kingston Tennessee when a pond containing over a Million cubic yards of coal ash burst into the Emory River. I took up a collection to buy drinking water since he ash had covered many wells in the area making the water there undrinkable. With a whole truckload of water I headed out to Harriman Tennessee, just outside Kingston. On arrival I was told that the scenario had changed for the worst.

TVA recognized the size and scope of the disaster early and wanted the story to quietly go away. TVA officials assured people that there was nothing to worry about, it was just ash and posed no threat. The next day, fellow WATERKEEPER Donna Lisenby and Sandra Diaz from Appalachian Voices showed up with testing equipment and we decided to enter the Emory to take samples of both the ash and water from the river.

Sandra and I left in a canoe with Donna in a kayak and headed up to the disaster site. We took samples along the way for later testing.

We got to the spill site and were all amazed at the proportions of waste in the river. I coined the phrase “Ash-bergs” with the first sighting of the mounds of gray of waste piled high in the riverbed. The ash-bergs were higher than the houses that surrounded the embayment in places. That was our fist glimpse of the actual dam failure. Massive is the only word that describes it and that falls short of the totality and magnitude of this disaster.

The samples we took that day were analyzed and found to contain some 300 times the allowable limits of Arsenic. We were not scientists or even qualified as lab technicians but we knew how to take samples. Samples that later raised many red flags as to a possible cover-up by TVA of just how toxic the spill was.

TVA sent a rent-a-cop, officer John B. Neal, badge # 107, out in a boat to escort us out of the river. We left with a warning citation for “Criminal Trespass” in a waterway of the United States of America but not until after we had collected all the samples we needed to bust TVA.

I first flew over the site with a SouthWings pilot on Dec. 29, 2008 and saw a river totally changed. Instead of a quiet vacation spot with happy people all around, I saw an embayment full of toxic gray ash that had completely filled the river to it’s banks in places and where it overtopped the river banks, houses were piled up like match boxes. The ash was all over the river for miles downstream.

The second time I flew with SouthWings was on Jan. 09, 2009. It was right after a rain and the ash had spread out like wet gray pancake batter filling even more of the river than before. I photographed a snag boat that was pulling whole trees out of the muck. A plume of ash trailed from behind the boat and was flowing into the power plant and straight out the other side into the Clinch River. Our predictions were being fulfilled right before our eyes and still no one seemed to care.

That ash is now being shipped by the train load to Uniontown in Perry County, Alabama, an Environmental Justice Community. It is then mixed with household garbage in an open landfill. The ash coming in from Kingston is being dredged up from the river bottom, placed in rail cars, and sealed in plastic garbage type bags called “burrito bags” which hold any water still in the ash until it is broken open and loaded into trucks to be hauled 1.5 miles through the landfill to cells located at the intersection of Perry County 1 and Perry County 21, only a few hundred feet from residential homes.

The ash is being layered in with the garbage and left in the weather to soak up any rain that might fall as well as the leachate created by the garbage. The water that remains in the ash is the same water we tested in Kingston and found to contain heavy metals including Arsenic. The ash water, garbage liquids, and rain are creating an enormous amount of toxic leachate that is trapped in the landfill until removed by the leachate collection system.

Due to the unprecedented amount of water produced at the landfill the system seems to have been over taxed and cannot handle the amount of this mixture being produced.

The leachate created by this toxic mix was then trucked to nearby Marion Alabama where it was dumped into an open sewer lagoon and mixed there with municipal sewage in the lagoon again, within a few hundred feet of residents homes there. The smell emanating from it wafted throughout the community making people sick. Even inside when the wind was right the smell was overpowering inside as well. A resident there is a C.O.P.D. patient who is on Oxygen. Her illness was not caused by the lagoon but was not an issue either until the leachate started coming in by the tank truckload. On Thanksgiving Day there were 21 such stinking loads dumped while residents were trying to have family Thanksgiving dinner. My good friend and attorney, David Ludder was contacted by a resident at the lagoon and asked if he could help. David asked me to investigate. What I found and reported back helped him decide to take dramatic action. Mr. Ludder filed multiple Clean Water Act notices of intent to sue.

EPA requested to rescind determination that Arrowhead Landfill is acceptable for ash disposal

I took samples of the water in the lagoon on two occasions. The first came back with an Ammonia reading of 0.71 mg/l. That is extreme for an open lagoon. The smell was absolutely the worst thing I have ever experienced. I am told that the levels inside a sewer pipe should only be at or around 20 to 30.

Later I came back and took a sample of the leachate just dumped by a Suttles truck. The Ammonia came back at 565 mg/l. It became apparent that the Marion Lagoon was failing in a huge way. I sampled the point of discharge from the treatment facility. The results were staggering! The EPA threshold for Arsenic in water is 0.005 mg/l. The sample taken from the POD came back at 0.067. That is after full treatment at the wastewater facility run by Marion. None of the treatment facilities in the area set up or approved to treat for heavy metals. The Arsenic dumped into the lagoon is flowing straight through into Rice Creek, a tributary of the Cahaba River. Even as much as 1.5 miles downstream we found Arsenic to exceed the EPA safe levels.

I have made three trips to the lagoon now and taken others with me for documentation purposes. Every person who went with me has complained of getting sick from it. Headaches, nausea, dizzy feeling, and even vomiting were the common complaints.
Within a couple weeks of Mr. Ludders action the trucks stopped coming into Marion.

End of story? Nope!

With the shipments of ash still coming in and no place to take the leachate what would happen next surprised even me. I went to the landfill to investigate a photo I had taken earlier on July 13, 2008. It looked like a pond with hoses in it and a culvert leading from it directly into the Perry County 1 roadside ditch. The photo shows a quantity of ash collected in one corner and the road was wet all around the pond. When I arrived at the possible location in November, I was struck with the sight of a white ditch with reddish water, similar to mine waste, standing in the ditch. A sample taken there later showed Arsenic at 0.007 mg/l which exceeds EPA standards.

Interviews with residents disclosed many items of suspicion for me. One lady stated that the smell was worse at night. She later stated that the smell was much worse at night “when they are pumping their water out”. Many residents also told of seeing the ditches run white with landfill waste and the smell that came with it.

Once again, I contacted David Ludder and explained to him the severity of the situation and again, David took swift and decisive action in the way of citizen complaints and notices of intent to sue if the situation is not resolved.

Based on the lady’s comment about nighttime pumping, I went to the landfill on Dec. 15 after dark and just after a light rain. The smell was overpowering, the ditch was full of white slimy substance that was coming from the landfill. I followed the flow up to where it came out of the landfill and took samples. (Samples later showed Arsenic @ 0.840.) I then followed the flow further until I found what I was looking for. A high volume pump was set up to pump out leachate that had accumulated in the haul road ditch during the day. The pump was still warm to the touch and the hoses were weighed down to direct the outflow to the roadside after flowing through the landfill muck a distance of several hundred feet. I will never forget that stench.

This was occurring within less than 200 feet of residential properties where people live. Residents are more like prisoners in their homes due to the smells and fear for their health. One man told me of his daughter’s horse getting caught in the ditch where it flows through his yard. The horse was extracted with no injuries but three days later the horse died. This is the same ditch where I got Arsenic hit for 0.007 from standing water and later 0.840 after a pumping event.

All of this comes to one thing. Alabama is getting the disaster ash from Kingston at a price. Is the $1.05 per ton tipping fee enough to recover the potential damages done to the community or do Perry Co. officials even care? Alabama Dep. Of Environmental Management (ADEM) gets $1.05 tipping fee per ton as well. It is well known that ADEM is struggling with money issues. ADEM has more than once given this landfill a clean bill of health stating that there was total compliance. Could it be that under the past ADEM director, Trey Glenn known issues were ignored in order to receive the treasured $1.05 per ton?

That is my belief.

I firmly believe that TVA, ADEM, EPA, and the Perry County Commission have teamed up to present a willful campaign of misinformation designed to facilitate the placement of this toxic mess in an environmental justice community where they thought the people were either too dumb or too poor to protest very loudly. In essence what they have done is to spread the disaster ash, just like the cancer it is said with it throughout the Southeast.

Eight river systems have now come in contact with the disaster ash. The Emory, Clinch, Tennessee Rivers flow to the Mississippi. The disaster ash is being railroaded into the community in Perry County literally. The landfill lies in the Chilatchee and Tayloe Creek watersheds and flow to the Alabama River. Leachate from the landfill was being shipped to Marion Al. where it was discharged into the Cahaba River basin. Now it is being trucked to Demopolis where it goes to the Tombigbee River that flows into the Mobile River.

That comes to 8 rivers with two separate entries to the Gulf of Mexico. It is spreading through our rivers like cancer flows through the blood steam.

It is time for America to wake up. Whether it is leachate, ash, or mining, it is all a symptom of coal use and lack of adequate controls over it’s use and the waste produced.

Until Kingston, coal ash was almost unheard of. Now there are great measures being taken there to hold the impact to a minimum. Any truck that enters and leaves the disaster site must be washed before departing the plant. The ash that is not being currently loaded is covered and kept from blowing dust around. The train cars must be cleaned and ash placed in protective bags to keep leakageand dust issues down. All very admirable precautions I admit.

Why then are the same measures not being employed
here in Alabama. Here, the ash is left in the weather to be spread by the winds as dust and rain that turns it into a slimy gray sludge. In Perry County trucks are hauling the leachate from landfill through downtown Uniontown, Marion, and Demopolis with sludge dripping throughout the entire route. When it dries is becomes airborne for people to breath. When it rains it becomes a dangerous slippery mess that runs into the streams thus contaminating many more than we have documented.

Why are the people of Perry Count any less human than the more affluent white community of Swan Pond Tennessee?

Monday, February 23, 2009

The Dirty Lie ROAD TRIP!

I leave tomorrow morning for what I am calling The Dirty Lie road trip. I will travel to New York City for the launching of After the party in NYC with Bobby Kennedy, Gloria Reuben, Kevin Bacon, and many others who want to debunk the myth of cleansing fossil fuel, I will travel to DC for a Green Peace demonstration denouncing the use of coal as a clean product. It can't be done!
I will stop along the way and interview people in coal country on camera going up and coming back. On my return I will edit all and post periodically on 
Check in on my blog at for trip updates and postings of the trip.

See Ya in the blogs, LEAVE COMMENTS!

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Victory at the Supreme Courts

Victory over a coal strip mine on Hurricane Creek

It was announced yesterday that the Alabama Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Friends of Hurricane Creek and Alabama Rivers Alliance in the matter of Tuscaloosa Resources Inc. permitted discharge of a known pollutant into a waterway, Hurricane Creek, on the EPA 303(d) list of impaired streams.

Our victory this time is the last chance for either ADEM or TRI to appeal further. It is over we won. 

From our attorney, Edwin Lamberth…
Subject: FW: Alabama Rivers Alliance and Friends of Hurricane Creek v. ADEM, et al. - ANOTHER VICTORY

John and Cindy,

Today, the Alabama Supreme Court denied Tuscaloosa Resources's Petition for Writ of Certiorari. This means that our victory is complete and cannot be challenged any further.

Have a great weekend.

Best regards,


Subject: Alabama Rivers Alliance and Friends of Hurricane Creek v. ADEM, et al. - ANOTHER VICTORY

February 20, 2009
Ex parte Tuscaloosa Resources, Inc. PETITION FOR WRIT OF CERTIORARI TO THE
COURT OF CIVIL APPEALS (In re: Tuscaloosa Resources, Inc. v. Alabama Rivers Alliance,
Inc., and Friends of Hurricane Creek) (Montgomery Circuit Court: CV-04-1052; Civil Appeals :
WHEREAS, the petition for writ of certiorari in the above referenced cause has been
duly submitted and considered by the Supreme Court of Alabama and the judgment indicated
below was entered in this cause on February 20, 2009:
Writ Denied. No Opinion. PER CURIAM - Cobb, C.J., and Woodall, Smith, Parker, and
Shaw, JJ., concur.
NOW, THEREFORE, pursuant to Rule 41, Ala. R. App. P., IT IS HEREBY ORDERED
that this Court's judgment in this cause is certified on this date. IT IS FURTHER ORDERED
that, unless otherwise ordered by this Court or agreed upon by the parties, the costs of this
cause are hereby taxed as provided by Rule 35, Ala. R. App. P.
I, Robert G. Esdale, Sr., as Clerk of the Supreme Court of Alabama, do hereby certify that the
foregoing is a full, true, and correct copy of the instrument(s) herewith set out as same appear(s) of record
in said Court.
Witness my hand this 20th day of February, 2009.
Clerk, Supreme Court of Alabama

Coal is Dirty, Dangerous, and Depleting. 


Monday, February 9, 2009

TN Fly Ash Dam Break - Photos by John Wathen

On 12.29.08 John Wathen, the Creekkeeper for the Friends of Hurricane Creek out of Tuscaloosa, AL, flew with SouthWings to document the dam break. To learn more about the Friends of Hurricane Creek or if you are interested in reproduction rights to these images, please contact John L. Wathen,












Tuscaloosa News Editorial

WHIT GIBBONS: John Wathen is helping to save Hurricane Creek


(Staff file photo| Michael Palmer)
John Wathen, left, addresses a group of protesters that organized in front of Tuscaloosa Middle school where a Alabama Dept. of Transportation meeting was being held in 2002.

Some environmental stories are worth updating and retelling, especially when they have good endings, such as this one.

During the past century, a man in Tuscaloosa began telling elected officials and the general public about the historical, cultural and environmental significance of a local stream. The stream had suffered abuse by industrial impacts and blatant disregard for environmental stewardship.

The man is John Wathen. The stream is called Hurricane Creek. Last week, the Tuscaloosa County Commission agreed to set aside 249 acres on the creek for a public park. This enlightened action by the commission is commendable not only for the land protection itself but also for the recognition of Wathen's message as an important one to support. Several years ago, I wrote a column about Wathen, praising his kind of environmental activism and lauding him as a hero. To reprint parts of it today seems timely and appropriate.

Most great causes or significant advances throughout history have heroes associated with them. Ecology and environmentalism are no exception, and the history books will recognize some for many years. Aldo Leopold is known for advancing principles of conservation. President Theodore Roosevelt implemented countless conservation measures from his political vantage point. Archie Carr led the way for international efforts to protect sea turtles.

But the chapters are always too short to acknowledge some of the lesser known, but equally important, contributors to a better environment. I refer to the countless numbers of people who are concerned about keeping a healthy environment and who go about making a difference in local communities through their commitment.

We all know people like this, and the downside of mentioning any one individual is that dozens of others who also contribute go unmentioned. But that is the way of the world, so let me mention Wathen, who is making a difference environmentally at a place, Hurricane Creek, I am familiar with.

I have been to the creek many times; my first memory of it was as a 5-year-old during World War II with my grandparents and seeing a clear stream running over and around rocks big enough for a family picnic. High cliffs with hardwoods and pines framed the far side. Sandbars lined the near shore up to the edge of the woodland. My memories are of deep pools with fish, the sounds of swirling waters around rocks, and the fresh smell of outdoors.

Of course, many places in this country have such a creek, and the exact location does not matter for my point, which is that in the years since my childhood, Hurricane Creek has changed. Upstream pollution, trash from negligent creek visitors, and a general degrading occurred over time. But the water continued to pour forth, and the creek remained.

Then Wathen set about to make some changes for the better, to return Hurricane Creek to as close to its original pristine condition as possible. He canoed on the creek, picking up cans and bottles in the shallows and on the shore, plucking plastic bags and wrappers from the vegetation. He persuaded others to take up the cause of restoring a beautiful piece of nature to its former self. He developed an organization called Friends of Hurricane Creek.

Wathen faced the same obstacles from political and commercial interests that anyone does when trying to set things right. Pollution is not an easy thing to quell with big business and self-serving politics involved. Attitudes are not always easy to change when a community decides that nothing can be done because the problem's too big or the political opposition too powerful. But Wathen persisted. He still persists.

And the creek is again beginning to look like my long-ago memory of it.

Hurricane Creeks are all over the country and most of them need a protector. Such people do not always get mentioned in books on the history of the environment, but their efforts are vital to all of us. We still have heroes around who will work against steep odds to protect the environment.

And every one of them could use help.

Some will finally see results, as have John Wathen and Hurricane Creek, a place I would like to take my own grandchildren.

Reach Whit Gibbons' at

Friday, February 6, 2009

CRIME in progress

Rick Dove speaks about Alabama's environment and calls it a "CRIME in Progress"

Saturday, January 24, 2009

New TVA Sludge video posted

New video from Assignment Earth on TVA Ash disaster in Kingston.

Hurricane CREEKKEEPER, John L. Wathen, Donna Lisenby, Upper Watauga RIVERKEEPER, and Sandra Diaz from Appalachian Voices are prominately featured as photographer and seen taking readings for samples.

John L. Wathen
Hurricane Creekkeeper,
Friends of Hurricane Creek

Members of

Who has the authority to say someone else
is not being a good steward of the environment

Anyone who notices

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Radio Interviews on Coal Ash

These interviews were done by Donna Lisenby and John L. Wathen concerning our experiences in and around Kingston Tn. We were the first citizens to get in and retrieve valid samples that proved TVA had not been completely transparent in their assessment of the damages.

This was done on the way home from Kingston by Bob Kincaid, Head On Radio . Net (Horn Radio) out of West Virginia.

This one is of Donna on Ring of Fire with Robert F. Kennedy Jr.
Lake Ontario Waterkeeper's weekly radio show, Living at the Barricades, recently produced an episode on the coal ash spill along the Emory River in Tennessee.  The show features an interview with Hurricane Creekkeeper John Wathen.

Monday, January 19, 2009


Same old (toxic) story

From the Baltimore Sun

Same old (toxic) story

Our view: Latest coal ash disaster underscores the need for federal intervention; state regulations such as Maryland's can't solve the problem alone

If the experience in Gambrills, where wells serving more than 80 homes were found to be contaminated by chemicals leaching from a coal ash dump, weren't enough to demonstrate the need to regulate these growing environmental hazards, the recent problems of theTennessee Valley Authority have surely sealed the deal.

Last month, about 5.4 million cubic yards of coal plant sludge escaped a containment pond and spread across 300 acres near the Kingston Fossil Plant in East Tennessee. As was the case in Maryland, drinking water supplies were poisoned with lead, arsenic, chromium and other highly toxic substances.

Admittedly, the scale of the two events is not the same. The cost to clean up the Tennessee spill is expected to reach hundreds of millions of dollars, which will dwarf the $45 million Constellation Energy Group has agreed to spend to make things right in Anne Arundel County.

Here, the money is being used not only to contain the mess but to connect homes to public water and pay for any health problems or property losses stemming from the ash dump. The Maryland Department of the Environment has chosen to adopt new standards for landfills that handle coal ash - although the fledgling program is woefully underfunded.

But the two incidents in Maryland and Tennessee are hardly isolated events. Environmental groups estimate that there are more than 1,300 coal ash disposal sites in the country. A high percentage are in facilities such as a pond or former gravel pit with no lining to prevent groundwater contamination.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has studied the problem and concluded - well, not much. The agency has found ample evidence of pollution, but when it comes to devising regulations to protect human health? So far, nothing.

It's not easily solved. Society can't just wish away the millions of tons of waste produced each year by coal-fired power plants. Some forms of coal ash can be recycled into building materials, but that's not a complete solution. Landfills and waste ponds continue to be used as industrial dumps, and the public water supply deserves to be protected now.

States like Maryland can adopt their own forms of regulation, but that's not going to solve a national problem and might even make it worse if mountains of ash end up getting shipped to states with lax environmental standards. The EPA must take this on before another dam breaks or waste dump floods and more communities are put at risk.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Martin County, Tug River Disaster

Coal ash is not the only threat from poorly engineered ponds.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

TVA Ash Spill, Interactive Mapping Page

For those who want a birds eye view of the Kingston Disaster go to Wansoo has generously offered to set up such a page at any disaster we face in the future using this as a template.

You can even go in for a "Birds Eye View" from Google from before the disaster.

With this we can update the maps instantly then send out links for anyone in the world to follow with a simple click. 
Check out the blog that comes with it.

Dr Wansoo Im and I have created a model mapping page to cover the disaster and update with video, photos, and data.

Coal Day of Action

**Please  forward far and wide on all press list, myspaces, facebooks and list servs**.

Martin Luther King Day chosen for "watershed moment"


Monday, January 19th, community organizers in Knoxville, Nashville, and Chattanooga, Tenn., are holding public demonstrations against TVA.  All three protests will begin simultaneously at noon. 


The Chattanooga demonstration will begin at noon outside the TVA offices on 1101 Market Street.  The Knoxville noon protest will be held in Market Square, outside TVA's corporate headquarters.  The Nashville protest will take place as part of the city's historic MLK-Day parade. 


Protestors are critical of TVA's three disasters in three weeks across the Tennessee River watershed.  "Three disasters in three weeks isn't an isolated incident.  This is system-failure," Knoxville student Chris Martin said.  "[TVA is] the largest purchaser of coal in North America, and one of the largest state providers of carbon-based energy on the globe," Martin said.  "If they don't start to budge on coal, clean energy is going nowhere."


TVA currently maintains 18 coal plants and over 50 industrial waste sites in the Tennessee watershed region, the network of waterways surrounding the Tennessee River.  TheEmory River in Roane County, the Ocoee River in Polk County, and Widows Creek in Jackson County, Ala., have all met with disaster in recent weeks.


Environmental justice and stewardship groups argue that the contamination includes hazardous materials, with independent water-testing to back up their claims.  Local governments and medical authorities have begun organizing evacuations of contaminated neighborhoods near Harriman, in East Tennessee.  Federal agencies continue to deny any risk of toxics.

 "We chose to include this in the state capitol's MLK parade so people will never let this happen again," said Nashville community-organizer Anna Graves.  "This is our water, our air that we're talking about here."


 "We're here to dramatize the destruction of our community," Katuah Earth First! member Amanda Cagle said in Chattanooga.  "They're destroying our mountains, our streams, our neighborhoods.  Coal kills, from the cradle to the grave."






Chris Martin




Amanda Cagle




Anna Graves


Chris Irwin
865 257-4029

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Emory River, Before and After

Emory River, Before and After

WATERKEEPERS on Cross Fire with RFK Jr.

WATERKEEPER, Donna Lisenby discusses the Kingston Coal Ash Disaster with RFK Jr.

Coal is Dirty, Dangerous, and Depleting

Monday, January 12, 2009

10 Point Blueprint for Clean Water

WATERKEEPER Alliance polled it's members around the country and came up with a 10 point Blueprint for the next administration to follow to clean water in America.

I was privileged to be able to give my viewpoint on coal in general. Coal can never be made anything less that Dirty, Dangerous and Depleting.

From the WATERKEEPER magazine...

Coal Mining

Mountaintop coal mining is the scourge of communities in Appalachia and in other rural areas across the U.S. Entire mountains are blown apart to allow access to seams of coal that lie within. Emotions run high as dust, blasting, water pollution and flooding push people out of their homes.

For those brave enough to challenge illegally granted permits in the courts, threats against home and family are now rampant. Communities find themselves embroiled in difficult and lengthy efforts to hold regulatory agencies accountable. Citizens must hire independent hydrologists, biologists, and other legal and technical experts to challenge illegal practices at great personal and financial expense. They find themselves confronting angry neighbors who work in the mines — one family’s livelihood pitted against another family’s home and heritage.

Today, in West Virginia, Kentucky and Virginia, the situation is explosive — literally. Streams disappear in an instant as coal companies blast apart mountains and bulldoze rubble into valleys. These “valley fills” have buried or damaged more than 1,200 miles of irreplaceable headwater streams.

What’s left is a wasteland.

More than 400,000 acres of the world’s most productive and diverse temperate hardwood forests have already disappeared and it is predicted that that figure could increase to 1.4 million acres — 2,200 square miles — by the end of the decade if nothing is done to limit this practice.

In addition, the coal industry emits more greenhouse gases and mercury into the atmosphere than any other industry, as the nation’s 1,100 coal-fired power plants spew roughly 50 tons of mercury into our environment each year.

How Green Were Our Valleys
By John Wathen, Hurricane Creekkeeper
Many facets of mining — such as long wall mining, strip mining and abandoned mines — left from an era before laws were passed to protect the environment have assaulted Hurricane Creek, here in west Alabama. In West Virginia, it is called mountain top removal. In Kentucky, cross ridge mining. In Tennessee, it is peak reduction. And in Alabama, it is plain old strip mining. All of it is insanity.

Many coalmine operators still propagate the myth that “we are not going to hurt anyone or the environment.” I have worked all over the country with Citizens Coal Council to expose the truth about coal. I have not yet been in a community where the operator did not say “we will be good neighbors” and “we will fix anything we break.”

Tell that to Marian Plovic of Washington, Penn. Her house on Route 136 was subsided by long-wall mining on Christmas day in 1998. The house tilted three inches and continued until it had tilted 25 inches on a diagonal slant. The foundation was broken beyond repair so a repair crew raised her house up off the foundation and built a new concrete foundation. Before the house could be lowered onto the new foundation, however, it cracked beyond use. The Plovics moved back into the home in late February 1999 and by mid-March, the house had tilted about 20 inches over 40 feet. As of today, Marian and her husband are still living in and repairing their home.

The house I once rented on Shoal Creek in Jefferson County, Ala., is now standing in water. The house has long ago rotted into the river but the fireplace is still standing in water as a reminder of what was once a beautiful fishing camp. Old growth forests of 100-year-old oaks and hickories stand dead in 3 feet of water. The water level did not rise. The riverbanks sank into the river in what is referred to in long-wall country as a planned “earthquake.” Subsidence is the one absolute in long-wall mining. It will happen, of that there is no doubt.

Simply put, coal is not our salvation. It is not clean, cheap or efficient. Coal is benign enough when it’s left in the ground, where it works as a filtering system for aquifers below. The trouble starts when it’s exposed to the atmosphere: It starts to oxidize. The oxidization process and contact with rain causes the sulfur contained in coal to become H2So4 or sulfuric acid, also known as acid mine drainage (AMD). Acid from the mine waste and overburden cause heavy metals to be dissolved and deposited in the water, which causes a ferrous bacteria to accumulate or armor the stream bottom, making it uninhabitable for fish or wildlife. In the Hurricane Creek basin, we have many examples of AMD from past mining as well as current operations.

Twenty-five years ago, Hurricane Creek was included on the 303(d) list, a list of impaired streams not meeting designated use classification, for mine tailings, Ph imbalance, iron, aluminum and others. The Alabama Department of Environmental Management (ADEM) was charged to complete the total maximum daily loads (TMDL) showing the amount of pollutants allowed to be permitted. ADEM sat on it for 20 years until Alabama Rivers Alliance and Friends of Hurricane Creek/Hurricane Creekkeeper sued the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Region 4 to force ADEM to comply. EPA performed the survey but when the process was completed, we still faced another dilemma: how to implement the reductions?

There are five coal permits up for “voluntary revocation and renewal.” A 30-day notice and comment period is associated with each. None has been answered and no reissuance has occurred. Drummond Coal Co. has been in comment since December 2006. ADEM refuses to deny or issue the permit and claims that they are waiting on judgment on another case we filed years ago against Tuscaloosa Resources Inc. ADEM accepted a permit “voluntary revocation and re-issuance” while the final appeal was under way. Four Republican judges voted unanimously to overthrow the permit. ADEM reissued anyway, starting the entire process all over again.

Dam failures occurred at one local coal mine when tons of dirt and trees used for a temporary dam blew out and inundated the creek with extremely turbid water and woody debris. No fines were issued.

A few years later, a concrete dam failed, dumping millions of gallons of acidic water into Hurricane Creek. Most strip mines in our area are in acidic veins that produce hot or contaminated water. During the spill, millions of gallons of this water was released into the creek. Testing would have given us some indication of the expected impact to fish and wildlife. Neither ADEM nor Alabama Surface Mining Commission (ASMC) brought sample bottles to the spill site for testing so no Ph test was done on the coalmine failure.

It was quite obvious from an aerial view that the spillway was not constructed with steel reinforcement as the permit required. When I pointed it out to the Mining Commission’s inspector, he stated that he did not know if steel was required. But on inspection of the permit, he found that I was right and it was required. A violation like that is extremely egregious and could, if enforced diligently, cost Black Warrior Minerals their permit. Instead of issuing a new violation for the infraction, the inspector rewrote the existing violation to include “failure to maintain sediment basins.”

Now there is a rock quarry operating in the pit with no permit at all while ADEM sits asleep at the wheel.

Both Hurricane Creekkeeper and the Black Warrior Riverkeeper Nelson Brooke and his staff are now deep in the fight for accountability in the mining industry here. While we are both out gunned by the courts and industry, we continue to change things with each lawsuit. We will take back our creek and river, and give them back to our communities in better shape than we found them. That’s the Waterkeeper promise around the world, and we plan to keep it.

Recent Rollbacks: 
EPA and the Army Corps issued a new rule making it legal to dump “fill material” directly into waterways. With a simple 404 Permit from the Army Corps, they simply changed the definition of the term “fill” to signify compliance with the Clean Water Act. This rule meant that the Army Corps of Engineers could loosen its mitigation standards for waterways destroyed by mountaintop mining.

The U.S. Department of Interior’s Office of Surface Mining (OSM) proposed significant changes to the “Stream Buffer Zone Rule.” The existing rule specifically precludes mining activities within 100 feet of a perennial stream or an intermittent stream without a variance. OSM’s proposed changes would exempt the most devastating surface mining activities from coverage under the requirement, allowing for the creation of valley fills and huge coal-slurry waste ponds.

The Bush administration reversed a rule authorizing the Bureau of Land Management to deny mining operations on federal lands if the operations could cause “substantial irreparable harm” to resources and were unable to be mitigated.

The Interior Department overturned a policy allowing only a 5-acre waste site for every 20 acres of mining activity, in favor of a policy that did not limit the size of mining waste sites.


Photo by John L. Wathen, 
Hurricane Creekkeeper
Acid mine drainage can cause devastating effects on stream bottoms, creating a toxic environment for fish and wildlife.