Sixteen days after what the Environmental Protection Agency referred to as “one of the worst environmental disasters ever in the Southeast” (see related story), differing opinions abound on the potential environmental impact of the coal sludge spill from 11 October’s accident, local media reported.

About 250 mine employees, contractors and government employees, with more than 100 pieces of equipment, were continuing a round-the-clock cleanup operation, after 250 million gallons (1,140 million litres) of water, mixed with 155,000 cubic yards (119,000 cubic metres) of coal wastes leaked from Martin County Coal Corp.’s preparation plant directly into two streams. These, together with the nearby small Kentucky town of Inez, are the sites most affected by the accident, local media reported.

The Martin County Coal Corp. fear that as little as one inch of rain in 24 hours, which is quite common in the area, could cause flooding downstream, because both creeks’ headwaters were still smothered by a blanket of slurry at the time edie was published. One of the creeks runs through a populated area of Inez, and residents may be ordered to evacuate their homes; some other properties were covered by up to 8 feet of sludge. Large earthen ponds built to collect the sludge might aggravate flooding and create backwater.

The slurry, which has flowed from the local watersheds into the Tug Fork of the Big Sandy River, has turned about 75 miles of rivers and streams “an irridescent black”. However on 24 October, a crew from the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources surveyed fish in the Big Sandy and found no significant signs of harm to aquatic life, although officials admitted that it was “a little early to know if the slurry will cause long-term effects on the fish, and the people who eat them.”

Further upstream on the Tug Fork officials have seen live and dead fish, and said they couldn’t draw any conclusions about the waterway because the water was still so murky. On the two creeks near Inez, dead fish, crayfish and salamanders have been seen.

Experts say that the slurry has only killed the vegetation it directly covers and was not causing collateral damage by entering groundwater. The plume of the slurry was believed to be separating and appeared to be sinking into the lower Big Sandy and entering the Ohio River as a bottom current. In the Ohio, where it had been feared that there could have been environmental devastation, the Ohio River Valley Water Sanitation Commission found turbidity levels of only 30 to 40.

A large American Electric Power plant on the Big Sandy River remained closed and the Marathon Ashland Petroleum refinery was bringing water by barge in order to carry on operating.

State and federal investigators have not said yet what caused the leak in the slurry impoundment near the company’s coal preparation plant, but the coal company have blamed a roof fall in an adjacent abandoned underground mine. The company said that it intend to pay reparations for the damage caused, and at least one civil law suit has already been filed. Perhaps luckily for Martin County Coal Corp, the spill occurred in a sparsely-populated area, as Stephen Smith, executive director of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy said the accident “rivals the damage of the Alaska Valdez oil spill”.

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