(See aerial photos of mine and community at end of page)
The first visit we made to a flooded area was at Scrabble Creek, just above Gauley Bridge in Fayette County. It was July 12, four days after the flood. Bob Gates had worried that we might not be able to even get close the hollows with the most damage in this area. It took awhile, but we were able to drive right up to the sediment ponds for a large valley fill for the Vandalia/Appalachian mountaintop mine.
First though, we spent an hour waiting for large highway equipment to make its way along route 60, between washed out hillsides and the mud-clogged Kanawha River.
From just (before Smithers all the way to Gauley Bridge, the damage was severe. Washouts had covered the roads; the parking area at the National Guard Armory (a former school) was smothered in mud. The stately houses in picturesque Glen Ferris were surrounded by mud and rocks. The historic brick inn on the edge of the river had been spared, though.
Our way directly up Scrabble Creek was blocked by a guard; the highway department was working on the road. So we went around to another junction with Scrabble Creek and waited, along with some local residents. The owner of one of the contract companies working on the road stopped to chat. He lived up the Gauley River, near Belva. Road work after flooding seemed to his lifes work since he had helped clean up after the Buffalo Creek flood. This flood was bad, he agreed, but not like Buffalo Creek, where 125 people died when a the dam of a coal slurry impoundment broke in 1972.
In about half an hour, the road crews paused and let traffic up the road. We took our chance. As we drove, I saw a house on the right with furniture and belongings in the yard. The door was flung open and workers were pulling out carpets destroyed by the flood. Several other homes appeared to be total losses. As we progressed up the creek, we saw National Guard members delivering cartons of water bottles. Some homes were swathed in swirls of mud and rocks; others werent as badly damaged.
At an intersection about a mile up the road, we decided to take the left fork. Both forks have large valley fill complexes at the end, and Bob Gates photographed the one on the right fork from the air (see end of page). Soon we came upon the ponds for the fill on the left fork and were able to park along the road between the first and second pond. We got out and began to walk towards the fill, shooting photos as we went.
The first thing we noticed was that the road across the spillway between the first and second ponds had been washed away. It appeared that there was a route from the road alongside the ponds, across the narrow section between the two and up the mountain to the mine. The pond closest to the fill was filled with logs and rocks and debris. Some had caught by the dam, but the rest had been carried over to the second pond and eventually into the stream.
The fill itself was still a ways, and we couldnt walk to it. However, we could see the top clearly. It was a wide fill, at least a quarter mile. Grass was growing on the right side as we faced it. However, the left side was a bare jumble of rocks. It was clear that the grass had once stretched across the entire fill. The force of the rain had wiped off the vegetation, sending it down Scrabble Creek.
Erosion from the fill can be seen in the distance. Some washed into the first pond, while more runoff came from another part of the mining operation on the right.
As we were gazing at the fill, we heard a horn honking. We hurried back to the jeep, figuring we were blocking someone, either a mine or state official. It was the DEP inspector for the mine. I asked if he had given it a violation for the washout. No, he replied. In extraordinary circumstances, they give the mine a chance to clean up the damage. The mine was making a good effort, he said. We chatted for a while, and then he climbed in the jeep and set across the what-was-once a road across the spillway and chugged up the hill in the white jeep.
As we were driving down past the bottom of the second pond, we looked a little more closely at the timber job there. As we had stood closer to the fill and looked back, we had seen the logging in the hillside above where the spillway for the bottom pond joined Scrabble Creek. A dirt road had been cut up the hillside, and the forest was bereft of its larger trees. We noticed that there were many white rocks on both sides of the creek bank, and in the creek itself. It looked like a crossing for logging equipment, though the route into and out of the creek was quite steep. Later DEP issued a violation to the logging company for blocking the spillway with this makeshift road.
The washed out road taken by the DEP inspector is at the bottom of the left photo. The wash into the lower pond can be seen. At the top right is the road up the mountain to the timber job. The right photo shows the white rocks that had been placed across the spillway to the lower pond. They served as the crossing for the logging equipment.
As we neared the bottom of the hollow, close to the end of Scrabble Creek, we decided to stop and speak with the people cleaning out the house with the pile of furniture.
Mary Coleman immediately took us inside and pointed to the water mark about three feet up the living room wall. She had been asleep that Sunday morning when her neighbor knocked on the door at about 9 a.m. The water was nearing the door sill. Mary and her husband rushed out the back door and climbed up the hill. There they stayed until about 3 that afternoon.
She and her husband had spent most of their extra money on the house over the years. Finally, it was perfect, the house of her dreams. She had just paid $1,500 for the wall-to-wall carpeting. Everything on the ground floor was lost. On the day we visited, church members from another county were scraping mud and wet material from the floors of the living room and kitchen.
We asked Mary if she thought mining had anything to do with the flooding. "Yes," she said. "Mining definitely contributed. I've been here 35 years and there's nothing ever like this. Ever since they took the top off that mountain, the water had come harder."
From the air, the Appalachian mine and its two valley fills loom over the Scrabble Creek community. Photos taken by Bob Gates about a month after the flood show the erosion on the faces of the fills and the slippage to the hollows below.
An overview of the valley fill on the left fork of Scrabble Creek. The ponds shown in photos above can be seen at the top of the photo. Photo by Bob Gates
Slippage on one side of the valley fill complex at the end of the left fork of Scrabble Creek. Photo by Bob Gates
Slippage on the valley fill above the right fork of Scrabble Creek Photo by Bob Gates