Rocks cover Lesters' garden.
PIGEON CREEK

Rocks behind Smiths' house

Now when it rains hard, Lois and Mallard Lester leave their home between Route 52 and Pigeon Creek, just below Musick Bottom. That's what she told the Associated Press in June 2004--and me as I sat in her living room the evening of June 30.

Theirs is the tidy cottage with the lighthouses in the front yard. Used to be lovely garden out back, at the base of the mountain. But the deluge late Friday afternoon and evening on June 4 sent a river of rocks out of a tiny mountain              creek and spread rocks four feet deep over an acre of yards along the creek. A couple of houses and trailers were knocked off their foundations, and water swept through many houses, including the Lesters.

Late in the afternoon, I set out to find whether there was mining or logging on the mountain that had disgorged the rocks. My guide was Ronnie Smith, who lives
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across the street. (see Pigeon Creek II) Ronnie works for Norfolk Southern Railroad as a signal inspector. His two sons are in the military. He had just bought his home on the hillside four months before the flood. Now you can't miss his house as you drive down Route 52. It's the one with the rocks piled up against the back and alongside the drive.

Ronnie had already walked up his hillside, with a video camera, and found a recent logging

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and a network of logging roads. He called the logging company and told them he wouldn't sue if they came and cleaned up the rocks. The owner said he'd been over, but two weeks went by and no one came to clean up the rocks.

   As we started up the mountain, Ronnie looked at my running shoes and suggested I buy sturdy leather boots. Then he told me Walmart sold aluminum walking sticks. Quickly, I learned the wisdom of his advice. I had made dozens of journeys up to valley fills and to logging sites over the past seven years. But mostly I had ridden on the back of a four-wheeler or, occasionally, even driven to the site. This was different. Four-wheelers couldn't even get a grip on this steep hill. Besides Ronnie preferred walking to riding. Fortunately, we had one of the few cool, non-humid--even bugless--evenings of southern West Virginia summers. For company, we had Tess, the three-year-old miniature pincher belonging to Ronnie and his wife. She loves traipsing after him as he climbs the hills.

    The tiny stream down the mountain had turned into a ravine four-feet deep and at least as wide. Few footholds were available, so we moved over to the hill itself. About a quarter of the way up, we began to see several slides, about 50 feet wide and long. Some of them had deep holes that once held tree roots. Usually the tree was about a hundred feet down the hill.

 

 

Two of the slides lower on the mountain.

 

 

 

About halfway up the mountain, we saw a pile of cut trees and brush. We couldn't tell whether they had been ripped out by the landslides--or they had been cut. The sliced ends, and slices left behind, told the story. This was one of a couple places logged within the past two years. This one was about three acres. It sloped and drained directly into the ravine nearby.

Soon we came upon more logs and stumps. A couple places, there was a jumble of logs in the center of the ravine. This appeared to be a violation of the Best Management Practices of timbering--minimal disturbance within 100 feet of a stream.

 

Logs can be seen in the ravine in the back. Chunks of coal are in the foreground.
Now we were two-thirds of the way up the mountain, and neither of us were ready to turn back. Looking up the ravine, we saw water pouring down like a waterfall. Underneath, the dirt had been washed away to smooth rock. Even higher up, I saw another, smaller, waterfall. We were determined to find the source of the rock. It wasn't easy. I found a sturdy, forked branch to serve as a walking stick. With a few assists from Ronnie, I managed not to fall. We criss crossed the hill, looking for the easiest path. "The mountains don't give up their secrets easily," Ronnie commented.

Finally, we arrived at the top of the ravine. Here was a jumble of rocks, like a tiny valley fill. And above them, water still flowed. Clearly, we were at the edge of the old White Flame Energy mine, which had started in the late 1980s. But this wasn't a valley fill. All there was was a wetland area, overgrown with cattails. It didn't even seem to have much water, certainly not enough to fuel that steady stream down the mountain.

Weeds flattened by heavy runoff.

 

As we walked along the edge of the mine, we noticed the weeds had been flattened what must have been a torrent. The ground was nearly flat. But the path of the flattened vegetation led around a curve and right to the pond and waterfall down the mountain. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I kept walking just a bit further. Ronnie had been expecting to find construction for the four-lane King Coal Highway that is being done on the old mine. All we saw were autumn olive trees, typical of older mine reclamation. I just happened to glance to the southeast. There it was, a hill created by the old mine. And it had a band of bare earth, like a Band-Aid had been peeled away. The strip was about 150 feet long and 50 feet tall.

The bare patch on the old mine.
We didn't go any further. But certainly the topography of the old mine appeared to have channeled a great deal of water to the ravine--and eventually to the Lesters' garden. DEP has already bond-released the mine. So no one, except perhaps the landowner, may be responsible for any land changes that contributed to the flooding.

 

    We decided to go down the other side of the ravine, the one closer to Musick Bottom. We searched in vain for logging roads, four-wheeler trails--or any easy way--but found none. So going down proved harder than going up. It was educational, though.

    Not too far from the top, we did find a new logging road for about 500 feet. Ronnie pointed to a crack in the center of the road. He warned that a few more hard storms and the water would weaken the road so much that the side would collapse and cause another landslide down the hill.

    Further down the mountain, we crossed half a dozen logging roads, probably about 20 years old. Near the bottom, we saw a large slide and wondered if it could have been started from seepage in an old road above. We also found a very old deep mine. There was a large wet area, almost like quicksand, in front of it--but no obvious washout.

    As we walked, Ronnie told me about a show he had seen on logging in Germany. Challenged by even steeper mountains, loggers string cables. Then workers on the ground attach clasps to the felled logs, and they are pulled out on the cable. No roads scar the hillsides. And perhaps there is not as much flooding.

    My journey up and down the mountain this day showed once again how many land disturbances exist on the hills. Charting and controlling such myriad sources of runoff would be a great challenge. Even finding what logging company or coal company is responsible might prove impossible. But what can be done to erase the fear of rain now so pervasive along Pigeon Creek?

An old deep mine under the hill
Setting sun grazes trees around large slide