Under Mined: When a Flood of Toxic Mining Sludge Wreaked Havoc in Appalachia, How Did the White House Respond? by Letting the Coal Company off the Hook and Firing the Whistleblower

By Bingham, Clara | The Washington Monthly, January-February 2005 | Go to article overview
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Under Mined: When a Flood of Toxic Mining Sludge Wreaked Havoc in Appalachia, How Did the White House Respond? by Letting the Coal Company off the Hook and Firing the Whistleblower


Bingham, Clara, The Washington Monthly


On Oct. 11, 2000, in Inez, Ky., a town of 500 in the heart of the state's coal fields, a coal-waste reservoir the size of 306 Olympic-size swimming pools sprang a leak. Within six hours, 300 million gallons of thick sludge had flooded out of the Big Branch Refuse Impoundment, a hilltop facility owned by Martin County Coal, and into two tributaries of the Big Sandy River, which courses along the Kentucky-West Virginia border before emptying into the Ohio River.

The gooey mixture of black water and coal tailings traveled downstream through Coldwater and Wolf creeks, and later through the river's main stem, Tug Fork. Ten days later, an inky plume appeared in the Ohio River. On its 75-mile path of destruction, the sludge obliterated wildlife, killed 1.6 million fish, ransacked property, washed away roads and bridges, and contaminated the water systems of 27,623 people. Incredibly, no lives were lost. Even so, the EPA declared the spill the largest environmental catastrophe in the history of the southeastern United States. In fact, the Inez disaster was almost 30 times larger than the infamous Exxon Valdez tanker spill, which dumped 11 million gallons of oil into Alaska's Prince William Sound.

The company that owned the waste impoundment, a subsidiary of Massey Energy, the fourth largest coal producer in America, claimed that the flood was caused by an "act of God." Jack Spadaro, superintendent of the National Mine Health and Safety Academy, a training facility for the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) based in Beckley, W. Va., was part of the team assembled by MSHA to investigate. Working with eight colleagues from MSHA, an arm of the Department of Labor that regulates the coal industry, Spadaro began interviewing engineers, miners, and mine company officials to determine what had caused the impoundment to break. The investigation, which began on the eve of the 2000 presidential election, had within a month begun to collect evidence that Spadaro's team believed could prove negligence on the part of Martin County Coal.

But on Jan. 18, 2001, two days before President Bush's inauguration, Spadaro and his team were abruptly assigned a new boss to lead the investigation: Tim Thompson. A career MSHA official, Thompson had not participated in any of the investigation's interviews. However, he was known to be a political insider, according to two of the probe's staffers. "Tim was a good soldier," said one long-time MSHA employee. "He would take orders. He was cooperative with headquarters to a fault." (MSHA officials declined to be interviewed for this story, citing agency policy not to discuss personnel issues with members of the press). Immediately after taking charge, Thompson told Spadaro's team that they had one week to conclude the investigation. The announcement came as a shock. Spadaro and his colleagues still had more than 30 witnesses to interview, and they had counted on having four or five more months to complete their work.

Even after the investigation was shut down by Thompson, Spadaro continued to fight the administration for three years--a bullheaded crusade that made him an Appalachian folk hero, but eventually got him thrown off the case, reassigned, and may have ultimately helped get him fired. As Spadaro later told The Washington Monthly, from the initial months of the investigation, he had felt that his superiors at MSHA were covering up "the fact that Massey had known for the past six years that there was a potential for the breakthrough in the impoundment." The slurry spill and the controversy surrounding Spadaro's aborted investigation has sparked several media probes, most prominently by Salon and "60 Minutes." But a further investigation by The Washington Monthly sheds new light on several aspects of the case, revealing Massey Energy's financial ties to the Bush administration, the efforts of MSHA officials to quash a media inquiry into the case, and the extent of the retaliation against Spadaro.

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Under Mined: When a Flood of Toxic Mining Sludge Wreaked Havoc in Appalachia, How Did the White House Respond? by Letting the Coal Company off the Hook and Firing the Whistleblower
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