Brushy Fork coal sludge impoundment

From Global Energy Monitor

The Brushy Fork coal sludge impoundment is operated by Marfolk Coal, a subsidiary of Massey Energy (now Alpha Natural Resources), and is located in westernmost Raleigh County, West Virginia. Brushy Fork is a tributary of Little Marsh Fork, that flows into Marsh Fork, comprising part of the headwaters of the Coal River upstream of Whitesville.[1] The impoundment lies above the Marsh Fork Elementary School and has a capacity of more than 8 billion gallons. It is located near Marfork and Coal River Mountains in West Virginia, raising local concerns that the dam will break from mountaintop removal blasting.[2]

In March 2013, Alpha Natural Resources received approval from federal regulators to expand the impoundment to 910 feet, taller than the Hoover Dam, and increase its holdings of coal waste from 6.5 billion gallons to 8.5 billion gallons. Emergency plans suggest a 100-foot wave of sludge could reach nearby Sherman High School in 17 minutes.[3]

Local Activism

Massey Energy has plans to begin mountaintop removal at Marfork Mountain, 100 feet away from the Brushy Fork coal sludge impoundment. In May 2009 more than seventy-five residents of the Coal River Valley and members of a coalition that includes Mountain Justice and Climate Ground Zero picketed the entrance to Massey Energy's Marfork Mine complex. Protestors stood in front of the gates of the mine facility with signs including "7 billion spilled, 998 killed," and the State Police arrested them. After the arrests, former U.S. Congressman Ken Hechler, a longtime opponent of strip mining, gave a speech. He underscored the responsibility of citizens to safeguard their freedoms and stand up for their rights. The protest came just hours after activists carried out two non-violent direct actions to protest mountaintop removal and coal sludge impoundments.[4]

On July 5, 2011, Coal River Mountain Watch and the Sludge Safety Project will gather supporters outside the federal Office of Surface Mining office in Charleston. Chief among their concerns is a planned permit renewal and proposed blasting for the Bee Tree Mine, which they fear could destabilize the nearby 7 billion-gallon Brushy Fork coal sludge impoundment. Residents note the dam was built by the same engineers behind the Martin County, Kentucky dam, which failed and released some 300 million gallons of coal slurry, creating a flood as wide as a football field and 6 feet deep.

Regulators ordered stability tests on the 7 billion-gallon Brushy Fork coal sludge impoundment in response to residents' concerns. Officials with the state Department of Environmental Protection and the federal Office of Surface Mining and Reclamation Enforcement said mining laws require them to assume a citizen complaint has merit, while it is up to the state to determine if the threats of failure and flooding are real. Harold Ward, also of the DEP's mining division, said state inspectors who visit the Brushy Fork impoundment have found nothing to suggest a defect, but that the DEP is working with engineers and Alpha Natural Resources to devise a testing plan to prove it is safe. OSM cited Alpha subsidiary Marfork Coal Co. on May 26, 2011, "for failure to prevent liquification and provide safeguards against the development of this condition."

The dam above Marsh Fork Elementary School has a capacity of more than 8 billion gallons. Emergency response documents say that if it failed, the resulting flood would hit Pettus in just 12 minutes and the communities of Whitesville, Seng Creek and Sylvester within 36 minutes. It would travel through Orgas and Coopertown in the first 90 minutes to Fosterville, Prenter, Comfort and Bloomingrose. In about three hours, it would hit Racine and Peytona.[5]


In May 2012, the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, West Virginia Highlands Conservancy, and Sierra Club filed a lawsuit against Alpha Natural Resources Inc. over selenium pollution at Independence Coal's Crescent No. 2 Surface Mine in Boone County and Marfork Coal's 7-billion-gallon Brushy Fork coal sludge impoundment in Raleigh County. The claim states that the company is violating the federal Clean Water Act and state-issued discharge permits. The claim asks for a judge to order the operations to comply and fine Alpha per day of violation. They also seek monitoring and sampling to determine the extent of the environmental damage, and a cleanup and restoration order.[6]

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