Two former state and federal mining regulators say state and federal officials should investigate the role surface mining played in last week’s devastating and deadly floods in eastern Kentucky and the United States. state of the mines after the torrential rains.
The counties of Kentucky and areas of West Virginia and Virginia, inundated by torrential rains, have for decades been heavily mined and strip mined for coal – land use practices that significantly alter the landscape and contribute to flooding. The recent floods have killed at least 37 people.
With surface mining, the trees are the first to disappear. Then hundreds of feet of rock can be blown from the tops or sides of the mountains to reach underground coal seams.
“If you get an area that’s been strip mined, the ground has been ripped out, and the top layers of soil and rock have been dumped into a valley fill, you have an area that’s not entirely vegetated and you don’t get water retention whatsoever, and that’s what’s causing these flash floods,” said Jack Spadaro, a former federal mine safety engineer who works as a consultant for residents of coalfields, workers and their lawyers.
Spadaro has been an expert witness in flood lawsuits involving mining companies, and he said he saw flooding in eastern Kentucky and West Virginia where hydrologists calculated runoff more than 1,000 times greater. important after mining than there would have been without mining.
He said the appalling scale of the recent Appalachian flooding merits an independent scientific investigation to determine the role mining played in the flooding and what could be done with surface mining to reduce the risk of flooding. future flood.
“It’s not just mining,” said Davie Randsell, a retired state mining regulator who hails from the flood-hit town of Oneida in Clay County. “Everything gets mixed up – logging, gas wells, gas well roads, power lines,” leading to more runoff and the potential for landslides during rain because of the scarring, she said.
Randsell said that at a minimum, officials from the Kentucky Cabinet of Energy and Environment and officials from the Federal Bureau of Surface Mines Reclamation and Enforcement need to verify the condition of mines, which which could pose ongoing safety risks to people who live downstream from them. , landslides or other flooding caused by damaged water retention basins.
Beyond that, she said, a broader study could help regulators determine whether current mining practices and regulations are up to the challenge of climate change, which scientists say is bringing storms of heavier and more intense rain.
In fact, the US Army Corps of Engineers, in a 2017 study of the Ohio River Basin, predicted that climate change would bring more rain and dramatically increase stream flow in a region that includes the eastern Kentucky and West Virginia coal basins.
That year, its lead author, Kathleen D. White, Told The Courier Journal that it was already out of date and that climate change was accelerating faster than expected.
And in 2019, an analysis of Corps streamflow data and satellite imagery of open-pit land for Inside Climate News found that the Big Sandy watershed straddling Kentucky and West Virginia had the most large swath of about 1400 square miles in their study area modified by strip mining – and was most at risk from increased rainfall due to climate change.
That Kentucky has authorized financially unstable or bankrupt mining companies falling far behind on reclamation requirements makes matters even worse, Spadaro said. Reclamation aims to stabilize these heavily disturbed mined areas through backfilling, regrading, removal of so-called “high” walls left by blasting, management and treatment of runoff water, which can be toxic.
Without reclamation, he said, “that means they haven’t even planted grass.”
Kentucky State Geologist William C. Haneberg said research results were mixed on whether valley fills created by some forms of surface mining themselves increased the risk of flood.
But he said those studies generally assumed normal rainstorms. “When you have an event like the one we just had, all bets are off,” said Haneberg, who also oversees the Kentucky Geological Survey.
Haneberg agreed that a post-storm study made sense, but was unsure how it could be funded.
“It would definitely be something we’d like to look at, but we’ve been declining over the last few years as the university cut our budget,” he said.
Research conducted at the University of West Virginia in 2020 found that even fully reclaimed surface mines in Kentucky were highly susceptible to landslides. That deserves further evaluation, Haneberg said, adding that the reasons could range from differences in geology, construction methods or enforcement of mining regulations.
This peer-reviewed study was by graduate student Miles Reed and co-authored by WVU Geology Professor Emeritus Steve Kite. The findings suggest that Kentucky mine sites may be more vulnerable to landslides during rains like those that just flooded eastern Kentucky, Kite said. Most of the problems Reed discovered, he said, were with drainage around valley embankments, such as settling ponds or ditches, which, if they break, can more easily transport rocks or trigger dangerous debris flows.
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Spadaro said the federal Bureau of Surface Mining should be the agency that leads any study of flood impacts from mining, working with the Kentucky Cabinet of Energy and Environment. But he said he doubted they would agree to a collaboration.
“No one, at the state or federal level, wants to admit that regulators have failed in their duty to protect the public,” he said.
Neither federal nor state mining agencies would comment immediately, citing time constraints.
“The (state energy) cabinet is currently fully engaged in providing relief to areas of eastern Kentucky devastated by recent flooding,” said John Mura, spokesman for the cabinet. energy.