Martin County Sludge Spill: A Brief History

On Oct. 11, 2000, a coal sludge pond in Martin County, Ky. broke into an underground mine, releasing millions of gallons waste into Coldwater Fork and Wolf Creek.

AP reports that although cleanup efforts began days before, it had “no measurable impact” on the sludge-covered area and thick streams were headed toward the Big Sandy River, one of the area's largest water sources. At this stage, 200 million gallons are said to have spilled over the region. A woman trapped in her home due to the disaster was interviewed, saying she had no way to travel to town. No injuries or deaths were reported, but wildlife deaths were assumed.

On Oct. 16, a Louisa, Ky. water plant was shut down due to the toxicity of its water source. Officials from the plant had previously been promised that the sludge wouldn't reach their water, but as the water turned black, Martin County Coal Company organized to provide the surrounding area with water transported from Lowmansville, Ky.

Martin County Coal Corp. soon sent water to be distributed locally, but Fort Gay Mayor Lawrence Thompson considered asking the coal company to dig a water well for the town as it “would probably be cheaper and better in the long run.”

Kentucky Gov. Paul Patton formally declared a state of emergency on Oct. 17 due to unsafe water resulting from the coal spill. Schools were closed, and both businesses and residents were encouraged to conserve what was left of safe drinking water. The Environmental Protection Agency said it could take up to six months to clean, and officials were unsure as to where help would come from in the meantime.

We're trying to relieve the misery and get residents lives back to normal as quickly as possible.

-- Dennis Hatfield, president of Martin County Coal Corp.

In the weeks after the spill, the mountaintop site of the Martin County Coal Corp. disaster was examined by the Environmental Protection Agency and reporters; What was left of the site was likened to a “huge black crater.”

By Oct. 24, estimates of the spill had increased to 250 million gallons, polluting drinking water for at least 60 miles. A representative of the company told the press that officials would work “24 hours a day seven days a week” until matters were handled.

Three ponds were constructed to hold collected sludge from the spill, and five more were planned.

By November, at least 44 residents decided to seek damages from Martin County Coal Corp. Some lawyers advertised their services in area newspapers due to the large size of the spill. A class-action suit was filed to include all affected by the disaster, however neither A.T. Massey Coal, the company of which Martin County Coal Corp. is a subsidiary, nor Fluor Corp., its owner, were named in the lawsuit.

The Martin County Coal Corp. maintained that the disaster was "an act of God" and asked a circuit court judge to dismiss a lawsuit filed against the company. They denied negligence and the coal company's president assured local residents that liability insurance would give adequate compensation to any damage.

In April 2001, a group of activists and local residents stood outside a building where company officials were holding a shareholders meeting in an effort to air grieviances against the coal company. The corporation did not talk to the protesters. 

West Virginia sued the coal company in June 2001 for adverse environmental effects that plagued the Tug Fork waterway after the spill. The state demanded both monetary damages and a court order for cleanup.

One year later, most of the spill had been cleaned, however many residents still expressed fear over contaminants, such as arsenic and mercury, that may have been left behind. Officials were still unsure as to what caused the spill, although one report suggest that a leak in one of the mine's walls may have weakened fortifications over time. 

Over $40 million was spent on cleanup actions.