It may not be what you think.
Even though he has told this story many times recently, Ed Wiley still struggles to hold back tears as he talks.
Wiley, forty-seven, describes his years working for a contractor for Massey Energy, which builds and maintains sludge impoundments—reservoirs that hold the gooey black waste from cleaning coal—here in West Virginia, the heart of coal country. Coal provides just about the only decent-paying jobs in Appalachia, and Wiley’s work helped him build his family’s beautiful cabin with big windows looking out on a creek meandering by outside.
“I was making $13.50 an hour, and I had a medical card,” says Wiley. “I’d never made that much before. That had me blinded. I never thought about the environment. I never thought about nothing.”
But then two and a half years ago, his granddaughter, Kayla, called him three days in a row to have him pick her up early from nearby Marsh Fork Elementary School in Sundial, West Virginia. She was complaining of coughing and severe headaches. On the third day, he started leafing through the register parents sign when they pick up sick kids. There seemed to be an unusually high number: 15 to 20 out of about 270 students were leaving sick each day.
Kayla had her own diagnosis: the coal processing plant and sludge impoundment operated by subsidiaries of Massey Energy that loom right above the school.
“I looked over at Possum”—his nickname for Kayla—“and she had a weird bluish-purplish look,” says Wiley, his face twisted with emotion. “When she looked back at me she had tears running down her face and she said, ‘Gramps, that coal mine is making us kids sick.’ Those tears are what woke me up. I realized I was setting things up that could possibly kill my granddaughter and hundreds of other kids.”
Just a few hundred yards from the school’s playground, directly adjacent to school property, sits a silo full of coal and the Goals Coal processing plant, where coal is washed and pulverized. Large conveyor beltlines snake through the surrounding hills bringing coal to the plant. Above the processing plant is a 385-foot-tall earthen dam with a steep, terraced face, holding back the sludge impoundment. Wiley worked on this, the Shumate dam, and similar structures all over West Virginia. The Shumate dam can hold up to 2.8 billion gallons of coal sludge, a mix of coal byproducts and more than sixty chemicals used to clean coal. Toxic heavy metals including arsenic, mercury, uranium, manganese, cadmium, and nickel, among other things, are found in coal sludge.
“I’ve worked on just about every Massey site,” said Wiley. “I’ve wallered in this slurry, laid in it, worked in it all day. They don’t teach you about all the chemicals in there.”
(Calls to Massey Energy for this story were not returned.)
If the impoundment above Marsh Fork Elementary were to fail, according to a report by Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) inspector Jim Elkins, the more than 200 elementary students and other local residents would be in grave danger.
“Fatalities would be expected to occur,” says an MSHA report by Elkins.
“We’re expendable,” says Maria Gunnoe, an outspoken area resident who says her well water supply was poisoned by nearby mining. “[The failure of the Shumate dam] is a catastrophic event that will happen, and no one will do anything to stop it from happening, and the people who are trying are being ridiculed and threatened.”
More than 150 of these sludge impoundments, also called slurry ponds, dot the mountains of West Virginia. From the air, they look like black or unnaturally green ponds nestled on blasted off mountaintops or filled-in valleys.
In October 2000, a Massey subsidiary’s impoundment failed in Martin County, Kentucky, and released more than 200 million gallons of coal slurry. Wiley worked on the cleanup. In an infamous 1972 disaster, a sludge deluge resulting from an impoundment failure in Buffalo Creek in Logan County, West Virginia, killed 125 people and destroyed thousands of homes.
The Shumate dam already has a troubled history. The processing plant and impoundment were built in the 1980s, long after the school, which was originally constructed in the 1930s. In the 1990s, Massey Energy, one of the country’s largest coal companies, purchased the facility from Peabody Energy, another industry giant. The Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act of 1977 prohibits coal facilities within 300 feet of a school, but since permits for the Sundial operation were pending before the act passed, it was grandfathered in.
In November 1998, the Mine Safety and Health Administration fined the company for piling coal refuse in layers up to ten feet thick, when they are supposed to be only a foot thick, as journalists Russell Mokhiber and Robert Weissman noted. Larger layers are harder to compact and thus present a greater risk of collapse down the line. A few months later, Elkins again cited the dam for refuse layers five to ten feet thick, noting that “it is reasonably likely an accident would occur” if changes weren’t made. Those citations resulted in fines of only $680.
The Mine Safety and Health Administration cited the impoundment at least seventeen other times in the past decade, for allowing erosion gullies to form and for using wood waste to build up the dam, noted Mokhiber and Weissman. Once the wood rots, it creates spaces that weaken the dam.
But an August 19, 2005, report from the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection states that after inspections by several state and federal agencies, the Shumate impoundment was found to be constructed and maintained in compliance with federal and state laws.
A Massey subsidiary operates a 1,849-acre strip mine in the hills just above the impoundment. Wiley says that he can often feel his house shaking from blasting in the strip mine.
“If my house is shaking, what is it doing to that unstable dam?” he asks.
Meanwhile, the daily health problems mount. In May 2005, the local grassroots group Coal River Mountain Watch did a survey of sixty households with children attending the school and found that 91 percent of the children had respiratory problems such as asthma or chronic bronchitis and 81 percent reported feeling sick at school with headaches, nausea, or other ailments.
Knowing the coal operations won’t be moved or curtailed any time soon, some residents, including Wiley, have been begging the state to build them a new elementary school in the community. But a spokesperson for the state Department of Education said there are no current plans to close the elementary school or build another one.
After a series of protests and rallies outside the coal prep plant, members of Coal River Mountain Watch met with West Virginia Governor Joe Manchin on June 22, 2005, to voice their concerns about the school. They said he promised to look into the matter and get back to them within several days. But instead of hearing back from him, a week later they found out the state government had approved plans for a second coal silo next to the school. (Last summer, the state department of environmental protection denied the permit for the second silo since it would be within 300 feet of the school. The coal prep plant continues to operate.)
“It’s my feeling that the state government can’t acknowledge the dangers of having a prep plant so close to an elementary school because they would be acknowledging the bigger issue that coal extraction and processing are threatening communities’ health overall,” says Hillary Hosta, an organizer for Coal River Mountain Watch. “There is so much coal extraction and processing so closely entwined in the area, that by acknowledging problems at Marsh Fork Elementary they’d be opening a much bigger can of worms.”
On July 5, 2005, an angry Ed Wiley drove about an hour to the state capitol and camped out on the steps until Manchin met with him and promised a thorough investigation of residents’ concerns.
Two days later, state inspectors visited the school to do air quality tests. A July 11, 2005, report from the West Virginia Department of Education says that air quality and air filters in the school met government standards, and no serious problems were found.
“We went in and did the air quality tests we do in all the schools in the state, and we did not get any information that would tell us to close the school for health reasons,” says education department spokesperson Liza Cordeiro.
But according to Stephen Lester, science director of the Virginia-based Center for Health, Environment, and Justice, the air quality tests done at Marsh Fork were “extremely limited” and “provide meaningless information” since they did not test specifically for heavy metals like nickel, lead, arsenic, and mercury found in coal dust. Rather, they conducted standard state tests for mold, air flow, and air filter upkeep. Lester said the Department of Education’s tests “fail to address the primary concern raised by parents” about whether their children are endangered by coal dust and chemical emissions from the processing plant.
A letter from the governor’s office on September 30, 2005, declared the multi-agency investigation into Marsh Fork completed. “The extensive investigation revealed no evidence of health risks or regulatory noncompliance,” the letter said.
But in response to pressure, the Raleigh County schools superintendent asked the EPA to conduct tests for coal dust. Cordeiro said they are still awaiting the results, though she said “initial reports do not indicate a problem.”
Wiley says, “They always say it meets federal standards, but so does Drano. That doesn’t mean you let your kids inhale it.”
Though the state still maintains it has no plans to build another elementary school, Wiley has founded an organization called Pennies of Promise to try to raise enough money for it, one penny at a time. The superintendent has said a new school would cost about $5 million. Last spring, the group collected about $460 worth of pennies from young students in the Bronx who heard about their struggle. In May, the group delivered these, in addition to pennies from Kayla’s piggy bank, to Governor Manchin in the lobby of the state capitol.
In September, Wiley walked nearly 500 miles from Charleston, West Virginia, to Washington, D.C. Along the way, he stuffed fliers in mailboxes and walked into barbershops and cafés to talk about the issue. When he arrived, Wiley and New Jersey Representative Frank Pallone held a press conference, along with Lois Gibbs (the hero of Love Canal) and other environmentalists. Wiley also met with West Virginia Senator Robert Byrd, who promised to help relocate Marsh Fork elementary students.
“If I have to, I’ll weld two wheelbarrows together like a piggy bank and wheel it around town asking for pennies and dimes to pay for the new school,” he says. “Those kids can’t stand up and tell the teacher, ‘I’m going home. I don’t like this.’ So we need to stand up for them.”
Kari Lydersen is a staff writer at the Washington Post Midwest bureau and a youth journalism instructor in Chicago. Her website is www.karilydersen.com.