After decade, still signs of coal slurry spill

By Dylan Lovan
Sunday, October 17, 2010

LOUISVILLE - In parts of eastern Kentucky, the recent pictures from Hungary - of red sludge that roared from a factory's reservoir downstream into the Danube River - are all too reminiscent of what happened a decade ago.

A layer of dark goo still sits under a creek bed on Glenn Cornette's land, left over from when a coal company's sprawling slurry pond burst, blackening 100 miles of waterways and polluting the water supply of more than a dozen communities before the stuff reached the Ohio River.

A torrent as wide as a football field and six feet deep covered Cornette's property in Martin County, near the West Virginia line about 175 miles east of Louisville. It killed all manner of plants and cut off his access to the street.

"It just looked like pudding or something," Cornette said recently.

With seven dead so far and at least 120 injured, the 184 million-gallon spill of toxic muck from a Hungarian alumina plant has already proved more dangerous than what's known as the Inez disaster.

But the mess in Kentucky was considerably bigger - some 300 million gallons of slurry, a byproduct of purifying coal, oozed into yards and streams for miles in what was considered one of the South's worst environmental disasters at the time.

A decade later, its effects linger.

The slurry burst through the bottom of the Martin County Coal Corp.'s 68-acre holding pond early on Oct. 11, 2000, sending the goo washing through an underground mine and into two creeks. The sludge blackened 100 miles of waterways, tainted towns' water supplies and killed aquatic life before reaching the Ohio River. There were no human casualties.

"The sludge looked like a flow of black lava," said Mickey McCoy, an Inez resident whose creek was blackened by the spill. "We're not talking brown water. We're talking black, black lava just rolling."

The coal company, a subsidiary of Richmond-based Massey Energy, eventually paid $46 million for the cleanup, along with about $3.5 million in state fines and an undisclosed sum to residents, including Cornette, who sued over property damages.

Because of the failure, Massey has studied its other slurry ponds, or impoundments, and hired outside experts to help prevent another sludge release, company spokesman Jeff Gillenwater said. The impoundment site where the spill occurred is no longer in use, he said.

"The company is proud of the efforts it has undertaken to remediate the spill," Gillenwater said in an e-mail to the Associated Press.

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