It was nearly 8 oclock on the Sunday evening, May 17, when I stopped my car near the end of Little Huff Creek hollow. For nearly two miles, I had passed gutted mobile homes, lawns brown with silt, upended culverts, missing bridges and piles of trashed furniture and belongings. All symbols of flood devastation I had seen many times before in southern West Virginia.
While I surveyed the steep gravel road on the right and the mountain directly ahead, a couple opened the door of a modest home nearby, probably puzzled by a car with Virginia license plates way up their hollow. But like so many times after previous floods Tina England quickly told me why the flooding of May 9 had been the worst she had seen in her entire life right here in the hollow. The tops of the mountains draining to Little and Big Huff Creeks were covered with logging and gas well roads, all carved in the past few years. There's no recent surface mining near the Huff creeks.
She and James Walker, her companion of a decade, offered to take me to see the logging and gas wells. Four days later, I climbed into their Jeep and set off up the mountain---just as I had done so many times from 2001 to 2004.
Charleston filmmaker Bob Gates and I had spent four years tracking whether surface mines, logging and gas well roads had worsened flooding. He made the documentary, "Mucked." I wrote a long investigative article for Southern Exposure, which included Bobs photos. I posted reports, photos and a few videos, documenting every place we visited, on www.wvcoalfield.com, with sections on each of the four years of flooding.
Importantly, then Gov. Bob Wise had ordered the Department of Environmental Protection to study land disturbance relationships to flooding. That study (available at www.wvdep.org) found as much as 21 percent of the flooding in one watershed was caused by mining and logging . The legislature passed regulatory redesign of valley fills, which have, for the most part, stopped flooding there. However, proposed controls on logging failed.
After the 2001 floods, a wide-ranging study, funded with help from Sen. Robert Byrd, developed the West Virginia Statewide Flood Protection Plan Some of the most important recommendations can be seen in my Southern Exposure article, linked on the Charleston Gazette's Coal Tatoo blog from the week of May 10, 2009.
Among the recommendations: Encourage purchase of flood insurance. Stronger standards on bridges over streams. Minimize construction in flood plains and require elevation above flood level. All counties enact stormwater management ordinances.
A 2000 law also required all counties to develop hazard mitigation plans and update them every few years. Mingo County had just updated theirs. Read new recommendations here and status of original recommendations here. (these are both very long pages, copied directly from Hazard Mitigation Plan).
Fortunately, southern West Virginia hadnt been hit by any destructive floods since 2004. When news reports began of the terrible devastation in Mingo and Wyoming Counties on May 9, Bob and I hesitated before finally deciding that, as the only journalists to examine land disturbances up close in previous floods, we had an obligation to go again, though such journeys are now more difficult for both of us.
The only way to understand whether land disturbances contributed to flooding is to climb up hills above hollows and, if possible (as Bob did five times in 2001), fly over. Google maps for West Virginia are from 2007, so they wont show the flooding or recent land disturbances. Often local residents point us towards logging, mining or gas wells.
However, neither of us can do as much examination as in the past. Nonetheless, everywhere we went this timeas in the past, local residents told us that gas well roads, logging, and in one case, mining were to blame.
In addition, Senator John Pat Fanning (D-McDowell) told me he plans to join with Senators from Mingo and Wyoming Counties and ask for a study of the flooding when the legislature meets in special session the week of May 25. Finally, Jim Pierce, who headed the 2001 DEP flood study, pointed out that both gas well roads and logging need better controls on storm water runoff, which wouldnt be that expensive.
So I felt it important to write this report of what I found in two days of driving and climbing up to land disturbances above flooded areas and speaking with DEP officials.
Flooding experts in the state maintain the flooding would have happened with or without land disturbances from extractive industries because the ground was saturated by nearly a week of rain. However, we found places where damage came from the hills above, not from rising creeks. And in those places, logging and roads to gas wells were directly above. Just like other flooded areas we have visited, the mountains near the areas flooded this time are honeycombed with logging sites, gas well roads, old mining and a several mountaintop removal mines.
Rainfall amounts May 9 were significantly less than the July 8, 2001 storm, where the highest was 5.32 inches recorded in Mullens. This time the National Weather Service recorded the highest rainfall at 3.95 inches in Pineville. Though theres no measurement for Gilbert, it appears it was at the western edge of a horizontal storm that hit Little and Big Huff Creek in Wyoming County with about 2.75 inches. A half an inch of rain had fallen the previous day.
"You dont have run off until infiltration capacity is at the maximum," said Pierce of DEP, who had headed the flood study with its extensive computer-modeling of runoff amounts. "The biggest thing that happened is that we had five days of pretty much steady intermittent rain that saturated everything. If that amount had occurred today (dry and sunny), it would have been nothing."
In the narrow hollows and steep hills of the coalfields, dozens of tiny intermittent streams, often less than a yard wide, become angry gullies in heavy rains. These all feed into creeks lined with homes, Pierce explained.
Often bridges over the creeks connect the homes to the main road In this flood, far more than those from 2001 to 2004, trees and even cars washed into the creek, lodged against bridges, first forming a dam so water spread out into yards and homes. Then bridges collapsed and were swept downstream, often lodging against the next bridge, repeating the pooling cycle. County officials estimated as many as 500 bridges were destroyed.
BIG AND LITTLE HUFF CREEKS
Hard rain hit Little and Big Huff Creek before dawn. Tina England didnt think much of it since it didnt seem heavier than other storms. But within a few hours, water on the road up Big Huff Creek had risen to six or seven feet. Fortunately, it receded within a few hours, but the damage was done. A culvert wide enough for a child to stand was upended as water tore down Little Huff near the fork with Big Huff. Water flooded into low-lying homes. But this wasnt merely an act of God, humans had their hand in it, too, England believes.
Normally, you have to walk on foot to find logging sites high up mountains. Not on Big Huff Creek. Walker drove us up a solid gravel road recently built for a number of gas wells permitted to Geomet. At the top, the road circles the mountaintop. Right below are a half dozen recent logging sites, loggers taking advantage of easy access from the gas-well road.
This was not a pretty site, even with trees full of green spring leaves. Piles of logs cut to build the gas roads lie on the edges. On the steep hillsides, it seems the loggers left as many cut trees as they took.
Few of best management practices required by the Division of Forestry appeared to have been used. Most importantly, the roads were not reseeded, instead there was only bare dirt. Roads are not supposed to be steep, nor straight. Here there were numerous steep, straight roads that can funnel racing water down to the hollows. Water bars were non existent. These ditches are supposed to be cut in road to slow and drain runoff.
"Coming off a big mountain like this, theres nothing to hold it (the dirt from the roads) back," England said. "All these little hollows feed down to Huff Creek. It was like a dam let loose."
Indeed, at one of the houses closest to the logging, silt covered about an acre of lawn.
The DEP flooding study included recommendations that could slow runoff from logging operations: Limit logging in individual watersheds based on soil conditions, degree of slope, and any burnt area in order to minimize runoff. Prohibit logs near streams. Inspect and approve logging plans before work begins. Increase inspection staff.
None of these have been enacted, said Jim Pierce. Forestry, he added, doesnt have enough inspectors to check active logging sites, let alone check whether they have been reclaimed. In fact, there are about 90 inspectors covering about 3,000 logging operations each year. Unlike DEPs mining department, which gets funding from the federal government, forestry has scant funds for strong regulations. Currently, four forester jobs are being advertised with annual salaries ranging from $23,784 to $29,160.
Landowners can make a big difference in how well logging is done. Some landowners require proper reclamation, Pierce said. In National Forests, with more oversight, logging looks much better than in much of southern West Virginia. One of the least damaging methods is by helicopter, which was done in Roderfield in McDowell County.
MARCUM CEMETERY, PIGEON CREEK
Only a few headstones remain standing in the Marcum Cemetery, on the north side of Route 52. The rest are toppled and buried in dried mud and runoff that covers the entire graveyard. The river of dirt, rocks and logs that came off the hill above the cemetery had spilled over on the road during the storm, blocking it for hours.
A National Guard soldier told us that a nearby resident had said the slide was caused by a gas well road. So I hiked up the stream directly above the cemetery. For about 1,000 feet, large trees had slid into the stream, making the climb treacherous.
After about 500 feet, I could see a tiny, new valley fill ahead. Above was newly planted grass, about a month old. This was a new road for gas wells, cut around the edge of the hill. The fill of rocks was supporting the downslope side of the road. When I got back to the cemetery, Bob Gates handed me a small rock. "Thats road rock," he said.
DEPs Office of Oil and Gas granted a permit for a new well April 9, 2009 to Equitable Gathering EQ. Road maps in the permit file show a road going from an existing well across the top of the cemetery to a new well proposed about 1,000 feet east. In fact, six wells are proposed to be added to the two existing on the mountain between Bird Branch and Rover Branch.
The permit states that all roads "shall be maintained in accordance with WV DEP Oil and Gas BMP manual Sediment basins (traps) and appropriate erosion control barriers are to be constructed at all culvert and cross drain inlets and outlets as required Field conditions (rock outcrops and bedrock) may prohibit inlet traps being installed. When these conditions exist, additional erosion control measures shall be evaluated and utilized as needed."
The Office of Oil and Gas does have an extensive manual on erosion and sediment control. Sediment barriers are required across a slope or at the toe of a slope. These include straw bales, silt fences, brush piles and temporary earth or rock berms.
I couldnt get close enough to the bottom of the road fill above the cemetery to see any sediment barriers. But if existing, they were inadequate. Bob and I had seen an even worse scene of destruction on Ritter Hollow in McDowell County during the 2002 floods. Freddie Steeles mobile home had filled within two feet of the ceiling with rocks from the gas roads above. He said trees had been placed in the stream. The downpour pooled behind them, then burst out with such force that it gouged rocks out of the hillside and carried them down to his home.
Despite the guidelines for best management, Pierce said Oil and Gas does not have regulations to prevent storm water runoff. The roads themselves, if they slope too much, can become funnels for rushing water. And fills, such as that above the cemetery, can become mushy and collapse in heavy rains, he said.
OTHER DISTURBANCES ON PIGEON CREEK
In 2004, with nearby resident Ronnie Smith, I had climbed the mountain on the south side of Route 52, the other side of the road from the cemetery.
Going up, we had found several old logging sites and roads. At the top, we found a large stream of runoff from a reclaimed White Flame Energy mine. There was a pond full of cattails near the edge of the mountain. Runoff had come from a treeless hill on the old mine site, flattening weeds as it rushed to the pond, forcing pond discharge down the mountain.
On the way down, we came upon a new logging road. Towards the bottom, there was an old deep mine. Fortunately, it only had minimal seepage.
This afternoon hike with Ronnie had me realize the myriad sources of runoff dotting mountainsides all over the southern coalfields. Most are completed and not under regulation by any environmental agency. Limiting runoff from these extractions would seem impossible, short of master storm water control plans.
Of course, landowners where these extractive industries take place should be ultimately responsible for runoff damage. At least that was the argument in the lawsuits filed after the 2001 floods. With more than 3,500 plaintiffs, a judge divided the cases by five major watersheds. Only one has gone to trial, with most claims settled before the verdict against two large landowners. Damages from the settlements are estimated over $1 billion.
A few weeks before the flood, I had driven over the Beech Creek from Route 52. Beech Creek feeds to the head of Pigeon Creek. About a mile from that intersection, a two sides of the mountains, which form a bowl, had been clear cut. The work appears in preparation for the King Coal Highway. I wondered if this added more water to Pigeon Creek.
Upon my first view, dozens of felled trees lay on the slopes. But when Bob and I arrived, few trees remained. Erosion could be seen on the slopes, and there were large piles of silt down the creek, towards Pigeon. Four-foot wide culverts lay, awaiting installation. But little washout could be seen where the two creeks join. So Im not sure how much water rushed off the clear-cut site.
Bonnie Mounts lives seven/tenths of a mile up the Right Fork of Gilbert Creek, about two miles from the Baisden Post Office. She blames her damage on the old gas well road up the hill, but said runoff also came down the opposite hill from Masseys Fork Creek mountaintop removal mine.
Bonnies daughter lives further south, on Pickering Creek, where Fork Creek is now working. She blames her damage on that new mining. Her husband concurs, since he has logged and mined the area, including a stint with Fork Creek.
Gilbert Creek, especially the section beginning at the railroad underpass, suffered some of the worst damage. A dozen videos on YouTube can be found by searching Gilbert Creek.
Dozens of bridges were ripped out, and flood water spread high across lawns and into homes. The surging waters continued into downtown Gilbert, rising at least two feet into most businesses lying along the creek, and even into those across the road on higher ground.
But Bonnies home, on a knoll above the Right Fork, didnt get damage from the creek, and shes tried to tell the insurance appraiser. Hers came from a slide behind the house. She was lucky. The slide damaged the mobile home next door beyond repair.
For the past four years, heavy rains have caused the hill to slip a bit. A neighbor who had ridden up the gas well road on an ATV said that drainage had been rerouted up there.
The gas well on the hill appears to be nearly 49 years old, according to Oil and Gas office permit records. The original drilling record was received in September 1960. However an update was filed in February 1979, but does not indicate whether another well was drilled.
An attorney has already approached Mounts. Right now, she is looking for someone, perhaps the landowner,,to clean up the slide and prevent more. "If that oak tree goes, I could lose my garage, maybe my house," she said.
Across the road from her home is a gully, about three-feet wide. During the storm, it turned into a roaring river, and continued to run for another two days. That comes from the Frasure Creek mine, she said. About half a mile north, at a horse farm at the top of the hollow, the owner also blamed the mine for severe runoff.
Behind the firehouse, an unfinished valley fill can be seen. During the previous storm, pat of the fill washed out of the hollow, and Massey cleaned it up, Mounts said. This storm, there was another washout, she said. This time, Massey spent nearly two weeks on Gilbert Creek cleaning up damage. It even recalled laid-off miners to help. Several residents posted homemade signs thanking the coal company.
Flooding is listed as the number one hazard in Mingo. In fact, the Hazard Mitigation Study notes that there had been 18 floods in 11 years, making May 9 the 19th.
Jimmy Gianato, director of the state Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Mangement, knows flooding too well: He was emergency director in Kimball in McDowell County when it was hit hard in both 2001 and 2002. When he went to Mingo this May, he found no hazard mitigation projects completed in the hardest-hit areas.
Unfortunately, few of the areas were in federally-mapped flood-plains, Gianato said. These maps had been more than two decades out of date in 2001, and many parts of the state have been updated. They are important because floodplain areas have stricter flood protections. This will make it difficult, he said, to require rebuilding bridges that are less susceptible to flood damage. However, state mitigation officials plan, he said, to work with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on computer models that could show ways to reduce future damage.
Mingo's Hazard Mitigation Plan specifies ongoing flood-protection projects. Interestingly, it targets Gilbert for buying out flood-prone properties. Other projects: Increase control of building in floodplains. Educate citizens about hazards. Elevate at-risk roadways. One original proposal that was not completed, but relisted, is to use DEP storm water management permit controls for any land disturbances over one acre.
STUDY OF FLOODING
Without more study, a number of improvements can be made based on the 2001 study, Pierce said. "We have enough evidence to know the consequences of land disturbances," he said. "There are certainly things that can be done on the ground to minimize effects." These include vegetating gas well roads so water doesn't pool and cut over the hill with large volumes of water. Drainage should be planned so it goes road discharge goes into natural hollows.
The network of roads could be designed to do least damage rather than using the shortest route. "The path of least resistance is the path used with no siting criteria," he said. "If you have to go above people's houses, why not choose different locations to site a road."
Already several lawyers have spoken with flood victims. Those lawsuits may be one way of determining how land disturbances affected the flooding.
"All kinds of lawsuits will result," Pierce said. "And hopefully the truth will come out and people will get compensation."