Woman fearing floods has belongings ready to go

Brian Bowling <brianbowling@dailymail.com>
Daily Mail staff

Thursday June 22, 2000; 01:45 PM

Ever since she saw logging debris floating past her house, Lavoris Harris has kept her car packed with family pictures and other mementoes she can't replace. She's also kept a suitcase of clothes handy.

"They told us the dams are doing their job, but they can't be," she said.

The dams belong to Catenary Coal and serve as impoundments for coal waste along Seng Creek near Whitesville in Boone County.

After receiving complaints from several residents about flooding, the U.S. Office of Surface Mining gave the state Division of Environmental Protection's mine regulation program 10 days to investigate the problem before it steps in with its own investigation.

Roger Calhoun, director of OSM's West Virginia office, said he'll decide in the next week or so whether to accept the state's conclusion that mining didn't cause the flooding.

Calhoun said the agency receives relatively few citizen complaints -- maybe one or two dozen in a year -- and it takes them seriously.

Ava King, chief of the DEP's Mines and Minerals Group, said state inspectors determined the flooding was caused by extensive logging in the area that was done without proper erosion controls. Consequently, debris and sediment from the logged areas washed down and clogged the culverts that normally would have handled the runoff, she said.

Duane Stowers, the state mine inspector who investigated the complaint, said the area has 2 inches of rain in a short period of time. While the rain caused some rock to come from Catenary Coal's valley fill, a settling pond beneath the fill caught the sediment as it was designed to do.

The sediment that actually reached the community was from the logged areas, he said.

"The streams were full of debris, tree tops, whatever," he said.

Harris, who has lived on Seng Creek since she was 2 years old, said the hard rain that preceded the flooding wasn't unusual.

"We've had rains worse than that, far worse" without any flooding, she said.

Another Seng Creek resident, however, said the rain was unusually hard.

"Any time we get hard rain, the creek will come up but this last time it was bad, I thought it was really bad," said Evelyn Skeens.

Skeens, Harris and Seng Creek resident Jack Holstein agreed that the flood was one of the worst they've seen.

Skeens and Holstein said they can recall only one comparable flood since they've lived on the creek. Holstein has lived there 31 years; Skeens has lived there 32 years.

"That's the highest and the swiftest I've seen the water since I've lived here," Skeens said.

The flood-borne debris included logs, railroad ties, appliances and car tires, she said. While the logs went by too fast for her to say exactly how large they were, they were at least as long as her car and larger than a sapling, she said.

Holstein said he's legally blind so he couldn't report how high the water came, but it washed out part of his bridge. The people living upstream from him said they had to wait for the flooding to go down before they could get their cars out, he added.

While Harris fears the impoundment ponds would wash out or break because of the flooding and the impact of the logs, Stowers said they are "100-percent safe" because the company dug out the areas for the ponds instead of just damming a runoff area.

"Dug-out ponds are not going to fail," he said.

Harris is unconvinced by the state's assurances.

"Those (logs) are big enough to knock my house down," she said.

Harris said she also saw the same kind of stone deposited by the runoff that the coal company is using on the valley fill.

Holstein and Skeens said they're haven't worried about the impoundments.

Holstein said some of his neighbors are worried about the dams breaking.

"Some of them say they were about ready to bust," he said.

Friends of his who have looked at the dams, however, have assured him they are sound, Holstein said.

Arch Coal Inc. spokesman Deck Slone said the company is also sure that the impoundments will hold.

"They're carefully engineered. They're inspected regularly . . .," he said. "There's absolutely no chance of that occurring."

Stowers said the logging was unrelated to Catenary Coal's operation and wasn't being used to prepare a site for a mine. Consequently, it didn't fall into the Mines and Mineral Group's jurisdiction.

King said that either the DEP's Office of Water Quality or the Agriculture Department's Division of Forestry would have jurisdiction. She acknowledged her office hadn't notified either of these agencies of the problem, but she said it would now that it had been mentioned.

Terry Thompson, a special projects forester in the Forestry Division's Milton office, said the division already investigated a Seng Creek complaint on June 8. According to the division's records, there hasn't been an active logging job in Seng Creek since December.

"We could see no signs of the material from the log job having washed downhill," he said.

While some of the debris showed evidence of cutting, the division thinks it was due to maintenance of a power line right of way that runs through the area, he said.

"We couldn't connect any of (the debris) to the log job," Thompson said.

Jeri Matheney, spokeswoman for American Electric Power, said the company's right-of-way maintenance program usually trims rather than cuts down trees and probably wouldn't have generated the kind of debris reported by Harris and Stowers.

She was still checking with the company's maintenance people at press time.

Meanwhile, Harris is keeping her bags packed and her eyes on the weather forecasts.

"I'm praying that I can get in the car quick enough to get out," she said.

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