A Landing a Day

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Sundial, West Virginia

Posted by graywacke on February 25, 2010

First timer?  In this formerly once-a-day blog (now pretty much an every-other-day blog), I have my computer select a random latitude and longitude that puts me somewhere in the continental United States (the lower 48).  I call this “landing.”  I keep track of the watersheds I land in, as well as the town I land near.  I do some internet research to hopefully find something of interest about my landing location.  To find out more about A Landing A Day (like who “Dan” is and what the various numbers and abbreviations mean), please see “About Landing,” (and “Abbreviations” and “Cryptic Numbers”) above.

Dan –  My ALAD readers are going to think that I land in more or less the same place quite frequently.  Just recently, I landed in the same area of TX twice (Tesnus & Dryden).  Not long ago I landed in the coal mining country of WV (Chelyan & Eskdale); today, I landed not far away at all from that landing, obviously once again, in . . . WV; 18/15; 4/10; 1; 152.8.  Here’s my landing map, showing that I landed in an area with sparsely-inhabited valleys (filled with numerous tiny “towns”) and virtually-empty uplands:

Here’s a slightly broader view, showing my proximity to Beckley and even more tiny towns:

Here’s the broadest view:

I landed in the watershed of a new river, the Pond Fk of the Little Coal; on to the Little Coal (2nd hit); on to the Coal (also 2nd hit); on to the Kanawha (11th hit); on to the Ohio (118th hit); on to the MM (732nd hit).

Here’s my GE shot, showing the afore-mentioned valleys and uplands, along with a couple of “mountain top removal” or MTR mines:

Here’s an oblique GE shot, looking east towards one of the mines.

In this shot, one gets the sense of the mountain top removal aspect of the mining.  Anyway, the town of Sundial is right at the base of this mine, where there’s a bit of an environmental/safety controversy:

From Appalachian Voices (appvoices.org):

The Marsh Fork Elementary School in Sundial, West Virginia is located 400 yards downslope from a mountaintop removal mine.  The mining site above the school, operated by Massey Energy, houses the Shumate sludge impoundment. With 2.8 billion gallons of coal sludge (also known as coal slurry) held back by a 385-foot-high earthen dam, it is one of West Virginia’s largest impoundments. The two photos below are of Marsh Fork Elementary School, and the 2.8 billion gallon coal sludge impoundment directly uphill from the school.

Coal sludge is created when coal is washed – a process required to remove soil and rock from the coal prior to being shipped. According to the Sludge Safety Project,

“sludge contains carcinogenic chemicals used to process coal. It also contains toxic heavy metals that are present in coal, such as arsenic, mercury, chromium, cadmium, boron, selenium, and nickel.”

Here’s a GE shot of the impoundment:

From Wiki, more about these impoundments:

Coal slurry consists of solid and liquid waste and is a by-product of the coal mining and preparation processes. It is a fine coal refuse and water. Mining generates enormous amounts of solid waste in the form of rocks and dirt. This refuse is used to dam the opening of a hollow between adjacent mountains. After the dam is built, the void behind it is typically filled with millions of gallons of waste slurry from a coal preparation plant. This impounded liquid waste can sometimes total billions of gallons in a single facility.

High-profile disasters associated with these slurry impoundments have called into question their safety. In February 1972, three dams holding a mixture of coal slurry and water in Logan County, West Virginia failed in succession: 130 million gallons of toxic water were released in the Buffalo Creek Flood. Out of a population of 5,000 people, 125 people were killed, 1,121 were injured, and over 4,000 were left homeless. The flood caused 50 million dollars in damages. Despite evidence of negligence, the Pittston Company, which owned the compromised dam, called the event an “Act of God.”

Coal slurry contains a large range of constituents, including dissolved minerals that have been leached or washed out of the coal and other rocks. In addition, the slurry contains chemicals added to facilitate the washing or water re-use processes.  Chemicals found in the slurry and sludge include the following:

[a list of about 50 organic chemicals follows, with nasty-sounding names like bis(2-chloroisopropyl)ether. . .]

OK, OK, I have to speak my piece.  I’m a professional environmental guy, and am generally familiar with protecting the environment from impacts associated with contaminated soil, water and sediment.  My guess is that these impoundments are pretty closely regulated, are regularly inspected, and have engineering safeguards (I sure hope so!).  I don’t know what you do with one of these when you’re all done mining, but I suspect that it would have to be drained, stabilized and capped.  If nothing ever goes wrong, the nasty chemicals would be safely buried, not really hurting anybody or anything.  And, if all of the government regulations are followed by the mine, nothing should ever go wrong.  (Boy, do I hope all of the regulations are in fact followed . . .)

That said, I don’t blame the locals for being nervous about having one of these huge impoundments right above a community (and a school).  For me, the immediate threat is less a chemical threat than a physical threat (if the dam gave way).

And there’s more on this story – this from the Rainforest Action Network (note that MTR stands for Mountain Top Removal):

SUNDIAL, W.Va. – Three activists, who are committed to nonviolently ending mountaintop removal, unveiled a banner that said “EPA stop MTR” at Massey Energy’s Edwight mountaintop removal mine. Five people were arrested: the three activists Charles Suggs, Madeline Gardner, and William Wickham, and independent photographer Antrim Caskey and independent filmmaker Jordan Freeman. The activists chose the Edwight mine because Massey has recently begun blasting directly above the town of Naoma, W.Va., and the grave danger its slurry dam poses to Marsh Fork Elementary. This is the fifth in a series of such actions over the last 3 months that Climate Ground Zero has taken against Massey Energy and mountaintop removal coal mining.

Here’s some info about future coal mining (mountain-top removal) in the area; back to the Appalachian Voices write-up:

Perhaps most unfortunate for the communities around Sundial is that Massey energy intends to vastly expand the mountaintop removal operation up-slope from the town and school.  What’s more, permits for extensive future MTR operations have been issued throughout the region.  The image below show the permitted mountaintop removal areas (with the Massey mine circled).

Wow.  That’s a lot of mining planned for this part of WV.  I’m sure there are many voices that speak out regularly on both sides of the coal mining issues . . .

I’ll close with this shot of Naoma, the next town south from Sundial:

That’ll do it. . .



© 2010 A Landing A Day

2 Responses to “Sundial, West Virginia”

  1. Kathleen said

    Hi, I love your blog. I just came across it when I was looking up Marsh Fork Elementary School. This school is where the media met after a coal mining accident a few years ago. As you noted, it is located in a very unsafe location, just feet below a slurry dam that contains billions of gallons of toxic sludge and next to a polluting coal processing plant. The community is very poor and an unusually high number of children at this school suffer from asthma and chronic bronchitis (not a surprise). The conditions in this area are unbelievable. I did a lot of research on this school and community and it could use a lot more attention from the media because of what is going on around it.

    A documentary about Marsh Fork and the surrounding community was aired on TV in June, called ‘On Coal River.’ You can see a trailer for it at oncoalriver.com

    Thank you so very much for your attention to this important matter.. and for your great blogs. I am a new fan!

    • graywacke said

      Kathleen – thanks for your kind words and the link to the documentary. I’ll be checking it out for sure.


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