DUNCAN FORK/RIFFE BRANCH
(GOOD NEWS JULY 28, 2001 -- SEE END!)
The tanks tell the new story of Riffe Branch and Duncan Fork. Round cylinders, about 10 feet in diameter, they sit like squat sentinels in nearly every yard in Duncan Fork and the beginning of Riffe Branch, just off Corridor G. A few people have tried to hide them under tarpaulins or sheds. But mostly the tanks are in plain site, large plastic containers with water--which appears aqua-blue--inside.
"It's the biggest water loss I've ever heard of," said John Preece, a retired school principal who lives about half a mile up Riffe Branch in an attractive house on the hillside. His mother and brother live in nearby houses. At least 150 families lost their water in 2000 and 2001 after Massey Energy's Delbarton Mining longwalled under Riffe Branch, nearby Duncan Fork, Academy Bottom and Hillman Drive.
Nearly every day, a small water tanker truck arrives to fill the tanks. But sometimes, like a day in early July, the water truck was late, and the tank supplying Preece's home and those of his relatives was dry.
The water in the tanks is just for washing and cleaning. The residents are also given cases of spring water for drinking. These they have to lug inside, not easy for the numerous elderly residents.
No one realized the mine was coming, and no one was notified that they might lose their water. The entire crisis came as complete surprise. Massey, under directions from DEP, has been supplying water with the tanks. But the source of a permanent water supply is still in debate.
The law requires an underground mine that destroys water to replace it with a supply of equal quality and quantity. Nonetheless, there has been much confusion about how much Massey will pay for water replacement. Many people would like Massey to provide public water for the lifetime of the homeowner or 30 years. This could cost $30,000 for each person. Public water is expected to be extended to the Riffe Branch area within a year or two.
Some people say Massey has offered to settle with them for $2,000. Preece is afraid that elderly people, who may be confused, will settle for that and then be left with water bills of more than $50 a month. Preece has heard that Massey is telling people that they can't take a large onetime payment for water because they will lose their Social Security.
"We don't know what to do," Preece said.
He and a small group of residents have met with Massey officials and DEP inspectors. "I told them (Massey) they should just settle with the people so there won't be a lawsuit. If you get the case in front of a jury in Mingo County, the residents are going to win. People hate the coal companies."
"I don't want to relocate," Preece said. "This is where I came from. I've been here 62 years; I was two when I moved here. They talk about compensation for something like that. You can't."
The Massey deep mine isn't the only mining looming over Riffe Branch. There had been a mountaintop removal mine further up the hollow, and it caused blasting damage to some homes. Now Massey is operating a mountaintop mine a little further away--and a new mine run by Consol is coming. He expects people at the head of Riffe Branch will have to move. The community will be forever changed. "I didn't realize it, when a coal company goes through an area, it ruins the societal structure."
More than 150 local residents met with DEP and county officials the evening of Thursday, July 12. Residents asked state and county officials how far they would go to help them. "I'm here to stand by you people and will stand by you until we all fall," said Mingo County Commission president Jim Hatfield. "We won't quit until you get water."
"I believe A.T. Massey owes teh people a lot,: said Del. Steve Kominar (D-Mingo). "They owe you water. We need to get Massey to the table. We are the taxpayers and we're not going to pay for this."
"This is not an act of God," said Judy Taylor, referring to the reason coal companies frequently give for major disasters, such as the Buffalo Creek flood and the sludge spill from an impoundment in Martin County, Ky., in October 2000. "It is an act of A.T. Massey."
FROM THE CHARLESTON GAZETTE:
Coal company to pay water bills
A Mingo County coal company was ordered Friday to provide water to more than 90 homes after underground mining caused residents' wells to start drying up last year.
"These residents have been without a reasonable water supply for too long," said Matthew Crum, director of the Department of Environmental Protection's mining office.
Delbarton Mining, a subsidiary of Massey Energy Co., was cited for causing the water loss to residents living in Duncan Fork and Riffe Branch through its mining operation near Naugatuck.
Although Delbarton has supplied water tanks and bottled drinking water to residents, the DEP gave the company 60 days to provide a replacement water source. The state also is requiring the company to pay all operation and maintenance costs for 30 years, Crum said.
The company can appeal the order to the state Surface Mine Board.
Company officials referred calls to Massey spokesman Bill Marcum, who was not immediately available for comment.
Ronnie Blankenship, who lives on Riffe Branch, said he first noticed a problem with his well in May when water pressure suddenly dropped.
"When we took the pump out to fix it, there wasn't but six inches to a foot of water in the well," Blankenship said.
John Preece, another Riffe Branch resident whose well went dry, said he wants a guarantee that the company will continue to pay water bills for 30 years.
"What the people are afraid of is that the company will close in six months or a year. If bond is posted, that would make a major difference," Preece said. "We don't want to be cheated. We just want to be treated fairly."
State and federal law requires coal companies to replace residential water damaged by underground mining.
Coal operators also must minimize and fix damage to streams and groundwater supplies and prevent damage beyond areas where mining is authorized.
"If you remove the coal underneath the water-bearing rock layers there is the potential for the water level to drop because of the void. That is what happened here," said Jeff McCormick, assistant chief for enforcement in the DEP's mining office.
The company has agreed to pay the costs to connect the residents to the Mingo Public Service District in Chattaroy, McCormick said.
"We told the coal company that they were obligated to pay excess water delivery costs, which basically means they will pay the water bill for 30 years. If the resident would rather have a one-time lump-sum payment, and the company agrees, they could receive the equivalent up front." The amount of the lump-sum payments have not been determined.
The DEP has the authority to require the company to post a bond.
A bond was not part of Friday's order, but the agency would consider it as details are worked out, McCormick said.