WHITE OAK

    It was a sight I thought I would never see again.

    Four years ago, just as night was closing in, I came around the corner on Route 1 just past the Clear Fork School, and found a small log church with Red Cross units, portable toilets and boxes of bottled water. The road up White Oak Creek was closed that night. There had been a huge flood a day earlier, June 1. The water rose out of the creek and over the road, five feet in half an hour. A young woman and a teenage boy who were returning from church, stepped out the car and were swept away. Their bodies were found miles away.

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   White Oak Church after flood of June 1, 1997.          White Oak Church after flood of July 26, 2001

    The first man I spoke with that evening was Lynn Maynor, a retired miner. He asked me if I wanted to see the valley fill above the community. Two days later, he and a young friend piled me and a photographer on the backs of two four-wheelers. There had been a new road up the head of the hollow to the mine, but the rushing waters had cut a deep ravine. We dismounted the four-wheelers and piled rocks in the ditch so we could cross. We climbed the hill and found the valley fill, a deep jumble of rocks, about 500 feet high. The waters had washed out the spillway, and it appeared that the large pond didn’t contain the rushing waters since water seemed to have washed off the side. The new road served as a smooth slide, conveying and funneling the mad water. But the pond was still there, looking even tranquil three days after the flood. We took Lynn’s photo next to the pond, a lovely portrait that was seen by millions of readers of U.S. News & World Report.    

    DEP officials said it had been a 100-year flood. Such a large amount of rain would have caused flooding even if there hadn’t been a valley fill at the head of White Oak. Neither DEP nor OSM investigated the connection between mining and the flood. No one expected another flood and washout.

    On Tuesday, July 31, I rounded the corner by the school and saw the church at White Oak. Portable toilets were lined up; a stack of boxes of drinking water stood near the doorway. A backhoe and dump truck crawled out of the hollow. But the road was open this evening because the flood had been five days earlier, on Thursday, July 26. I had already called Lynn, and he had agreed to take us to the valley fill again. This time, filmmaker and photographer Bob Gates was with me.

    I started up White Oak. In the lowland at the first bend, mud and rocks had settled around the houses. A jeep was covered in mud up to the top of its wheels. Bob stopped to take a picture. I did, too. But I felt that the photos I had from four years ago would have been nearly identical.

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Washed out area at start of hollow, 1997.            Same place (same building on left) 2001.

    We reached Lynn’s house. The road was open to the valley fill this time, so we could ride in comparable comfort in his blue Chevrolet pickup truck. In the back were four green metal fence posts; his beef cattle liked to wander up onto the mine land, and fencing required constant vigilance.

    The only difference this time was that the culvert by Lynn’s house hadn’t washed out. Perhaps, the one installed four years ago had been larger and could handle the high water. The houses on the right hand on the first straight stretch seemed to have more debris than four years ago. The ones lower down on the left side had gotten their share of silt. A man was sweeping dusty dirt off his front porch.

    Bob asked us to stop for a powerful photo. I shrugged; I had photographed it four years ago. Yes, the sight of a valley fill directly behind a small group of houses was impressive. We took photos. The houses closest to the road were surrounded by a foot of sand and rocks. A woman rushed out of one with a fistful of photos. She wanted us to see and to tell us about the flood. It was actually the third time her lawn had been covered and her fence washed away this year. She hadn’t joined the class action lawsuit. Lynn urged her to sign up. "They ought to pay," he said. She told us that a mine official had told several people that the mine would be suing them for having bridges and fences that diverted the water and caused the flooding.

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Valley fill behind houses, 1997.                                 Same houses, 2001.

    We climbed back into the truck. Soon the road curved left and an older blue house was on the right. "That boy has cancer," Lynn said. "He put up railroad ties along the creek to protect his lawn. The mine says the ties caused the flood." Several railroad ties were piled up on the other side of the road, probably where they had landed after the waters subsided. We drove a little further, and huge piles of black mud, trees and rocks appeared on both sides of the road. "And they say that boy caused this," Lynn commented.

    Out loud, I recalled our trip four years earlier. Lynn remarked at my good memory. I saw where the road had washed out, and we had to struggle across the ravine like mountain climbers, clutching cameras. Only this time, there seemed to be much more mud, many more trees. We stopped so Bob could photograph a small waterfall, where the water had cut a new stream. Suddenly on the left, a small hill of mud and rocks appeared. This was new. Lynn explained that the mine had been dredging the sediment pond and piling here in a section the size of a hockey rink.

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    "This used to be a pretty place," Lynn said. "Not anymore."

    Finally, we arrived at the valley fill and sediment pond. Everywhere, there seemed to be hills of mud and rocks. We walked out along the dam for the pond and gazed down. Bob and I have seen dozens of valley fills and sediment ponds—but never one like this.

    What had been a pond with water was now a mass of rocks and more black silt. Many tons of rocks had washed down the valley fill that, four years later, was still a mass of rocks without a speck of vegetation. The only difference was that it seemed much closer to the pond, probably because it had nearly four years of filling. What had been the spillway was obliterated with rocks. Black water ran in a steady stream from beneath the rocks in the pond and out into the stream into White Oak. "Is there no cease and desist order to stop this," Bob asked.

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What had been a sediment pond, 2001.

    While filming valley fills after the flood, Bob had noticed that at some fills the big rocks don’t roll to the bottom. Mine officials maintain that fills are stable because gravity arranges the rocks according to size, with the large ones at the bottom. After we recovered out senses from the shock of the mud mess in front of us, I looked up at the fill. Sure enough, most of the large rocks were at the top, and the small ones were at the toe. Perhaps that is why the fill was washing out so much. Another rink-sized pile of dredged material was on the other side of the road from the sediment pond.

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The sediment pond in 1997. Considerable erosion, but still water in the pond.

    One feature of the area that I had forgotten was the discharge from old deep mines. On that mountainside opposite the fill, a waterfall ran from the mountain, a constant source of additional water in the watershed. A smaller waterfall ran out of a hill along the road, about a quarter mile below the fill. And further adding to the cumulative hydrological impact for the hollow was a second fill that had been started up the right branch. This fill had a pond but really hadn’t progressed much in the past four years. Still it provided another open avenue to channel water into the valley fill.

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Road from other fork that has a sediment pond, but no valley fill yet.

    Before we left the sediment pond, I asked Lynn to stand where he had for the photograph four years earlier. At first he declined, and certainly didn’t want to be part of the documentary. But he acquiesced when I agreed just to use fit or my personal collection. His brother-in-law works for the Princess Beverly mine about 15 miles away and doesn’t like it when Lynn opposes mountaintop removal. After his photograph in the magazine, someone wrote a letter to the editor of the local newspaper charging that he was trying to shut down mining. Lynn has never actively campaigned against mountaintop removal, and like most in the coal fields, certainly wants mining to continue. But I could understand his reluctance.

    As we drove down, Bob took a closer look at the pile of dredged material. He asked where was its drainage control. "Oh a bale of straw," he said, looking at the two bales of straw and a section of black plastic fence stuck by the runoff.

    The mine had changed hands since I first visited the fill four years earlier. Battle Ridge had sold out to CC Coal, a subsidiary of Addington, a Kentucky company that has acquired half a dozen large West Virginia mines. DEP had given the mine a violation this time.

    In February 2000, a group of coal field residents had held a press conference in a Congressional office. A woman had held a sign with photos of the two people who died in the flood four years ago. Eulla Williams is the mother of the woman who died. After the floods of July 8, she came to the meeting at Coal River Mountain Watch in Whitesville. She held up the same sign. White Oak hadn’t been badly damaged in that flood. Theirs came nearly three weeks later.

    Fortunately, no one died this time. But this time the connection with the valley fill was so obvious. State and federal officials dismissed any mining involvement four years ago. I wondered as we drove that evening at the end of July if things would have been different if they had looked.

    I wrote about the 1997 flood in the U.S. News & World Report article. An OSM official studying flooding for the environmental impact statement on mountaintop removal had even asked me the source of my statistics on flooding. I sent him a video tape of what we had seen at the sediment pond at White Oak. I had done as much as I knew to make public the apparent connections between valley fills and flooding and to air the concerns of local residents. But somehow as we rode back from the valley fill, I felt I had failed. What I had seen didn’t have to happen. It wasn’t an Act of God.

    (For more on White Oak, click)