At the time of publishing, a huge spume of pollution in the Big Sandy River, Kentucky, was less than 12 miles (19 km) from its entrance to the Ohio River, whilst officials in the nearby town of Ashland anxiously awaited the effects caused by the spill, which a federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) official in Atlanta estimated as among the 10 worst such cases in the southern states.

The disaster occurred on 11 October, when 250 million gallons (1,140 million litres) of water, mixed with 155,000 cubic yards (119,000 cubic metres) of coal wastes, poured into streams after a “a sudden and unexpected underground mine collapse” at Martin County Coal Corp.’s preparation plant near the small town of Inez in Eastern Kentucky, US media reported.

As of 20 October, and up to 75 miles (120 km) upstream, the coal company was using 15 vacuum trucks, three dredges, 12 excavators and numerous trucks and bulldozers to contain the spill, local daily Lexington Herald Leader, which described the disaster as looking like one of the nation’s worst, reported. However, Dan Kash, an environmental inspector from the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, said the cleanup will require far more heavy equipment than that.

“There’s no way they can even put a dent in it with what they’re using,” he said.

The main fear is that the slurry, which flowed from the local watersheds into the Tug Fork of the Big Sandy River, turning about 75 miles of rivers and streams “an irridescent black”, will reach the River Ohio and Ashland’s water plant. The Ohio is 25 times the volume of the Big Sandy, and officials said that it was not clear to what extent the entrance of the sludge would affect it. Ashland City Engineer Steve Corbitt said the Big Sandy’s current traditionally carries pollution such as oil spills across the larger waterway to the Ohio side of the river, but that after about 10 miles (16 km), the current crosses back, which would carry the sludge past the Ashland water plant’s intake, which produces nine million gallons (41 million litres) daily. Again, Corbitt said that it was unclear what to expect.

Fred Stroud, an EPA on-site co-ordinator said the cleanup would take four to five months and would cost $50 million to $60 million, just to clean up the polluted streams. Corbitt said that turbidity at the peak of the sludge was 6,000, almost nine times more than more than previously heavily-polluted water and Kentucky Governor Paul Patton, declared a state of emergency in 10 counties in the Big Sandy and Ohio River watersheds.

Although there are no reports of human injuries, area health officials estimate that around 30,000 people were without water. Local fish, frog and salamander populations are reported to have been devastated by the spill.

Martin County Coal Corporation is a subsidiary of Richmond, Virginia based A.T. Massey Coal Company, Inc, which in turn is a subsidiary of Fluor Corporation from California. Its slurry pond, where the accident occurred, was reportedly inspected by the EPA in 1984 and, although listed as a potential Superfund site, was never considered a priority for cleanup. State investigators have issued a non-compliance citation accusing Martin County Coal Corporation of engaging in an unsafe practice by allowing substandard water and slurry to flow from an impoundment into underground mine works.

A second citation charged the company with failure to protect ‘the hydrologic balance’ by allowing substandard waters into state streams. The company was specifically ordered to collect and legally dispose of all the spilled slurry, replace the aquatic species in the creeks and repair damage by the flooding to public and private property.

Action inspires action. Stay ahead of the curve with sustainability and energy newsletters from edie