It's hard to say which problem has caused the most concern among the residents of Laurel Creek, like Johnnie Bailey and Esau Canterbury. Was it the rocks--some more than three-feet high--that sailed off the mine site, the dozens of dead fish in the stream, the silt runoff that filled in one end of Laurel Lake, the half-mile wide coal sludge lake looming over the valley, the well water that turned orange, the loss of access to the mountain land, or the mere sight of their mountains being chopped off?
Marrowbone Development/Triad Mining Company has been mining the mountains along the west side of Laurel Creek for nearly a decade. Much of the mountaintop portion of those mines finished a couple of years ago. But deep mining continues.
However, mountaintop mining is far from gone in Laurel Creek. Marrowbone is starting another mine about three miles north of Laurel Lake. And Consol Coal has applied for a permit to mine the mountains on the east side. Laurel Creek residents protested and halted another mine's plans for those mountains a few years ago. Some have vowed to stop the new Consol mine. A hearing is expected in February or March.
Residents of Tom's Branch (left) have been among the most impacted by the Marrowbone mine. On the evening of July 14, 1993, they discovered muddy water in the creek. All the fish appeared to be dead. The DEP inspector sampled the water. He cautioned them not to drink the water since it might contain hazardous chemicals from the flocculent used to settle mud to the bottom of the sedimentation pond beyond their houses. Marrowbone officials told the Williamson Daily News that it appeared a chemical called ENACT 7883 was pumped into the creek from the mine and pond above it.
Earlier in 1993, the federal Office of Surface Mining had been called to inspect possible damage to 12 houses along Tom's Branch and nearby. Most of the property owners had not understood their rights under the law. Therefore, they had not participated in collection of pre-blasting surveys on their homes. Nonetheless, OSM found flyrock damage in the state park area at Laurel Lake and at one residence. They also found windows broken from blasting at three residences. .
Since the federal Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act was enacted in 1977, OSM officials have usually maintained that damage cannot occur if the house nearest the mine does not vibrate more than 1 inch per second. Citizens have maintained that this arbitrary limit does not take into account differing geological conditions that can magnify vibrations.
In the Laurel Creek investigation, OSM officials found that the arbitrary limit may not be workable in this area. "Recent blast monitoring has revealed that vibration frequency in the valley bottom is unusually low (4 hertz) and particle velocities could be amplified within the structures. Frequencies may be occurring in the ranges where empirically based peak particle velocity limits similar to those defined in 30 CFR 816.67(d)(4) are not appropriate."
OSM also recommended that DEP review its policies and ensure that citizens understand the importance and purpose of pre-blast surveys and are encouraged to participate. Methods of notifying citizens of these rights should be reviewed, OSM said. This was written nearly five years ago. Notification about pre-blast surveys doesn't seem to have improved greatly for citizens in other communities where mines have started up more recently.
Tall pine trees border Laurel Lake as it gently curves along the road up Laurel Creek. It's easy to see why it's a popular recreation area in the summer. Johnnie Bailey recalls when he used to be able to boat from the south end to the north. No more. Starting at the picnic area near the north end all the way to the end, the lake is full of silt. In places it reaches the surface, like a sand bar in the ocean. Residents blame the mine for the runoff. DEP issued numerous violations for failure to control runoff. Bailey and Esau Canterbury believe the mine was supposed to have the lake dredged. So far, the silt remains.