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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

West Virginia Flood

Air Date: Week of

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Recent floods in West Virginia have damaged many homes and businesses in southern West Virginia. Many residents are blaming logging and strip mining for the floods. But, as Jeff Young reports, scientists say the causes are not clear.


CURWOOD: Welcome to Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood. Recently, a U.S. District judge in West Virginia ruled that it’s illegal for mine operators to dump debris from mountaintop removal into valleys and streams. That ruling is being appealed by the Bush administration. But some believe this mining waste, as well as hillside logging, have contributed to the latest disastrous floods in West Virginia. In the past 10 months at least a dozen people have been killed by two major floods in the southern part of the state. Jeff Young of West Virginia Public Broadcasting reports from McDowell County, which was hardest hit by the recent high water.


YOUNG: The flash floods of May 2nd damaged or destroyed a third of the homes in the town of Coalwood. It’s the second major flood in 10 months. Coalwood residents wonder if their town’s two namesake industries are responsible.

TABOR: I was born and raised right here in this camp. I’ve never seen it like this. This is unreal.

YOUNG: Rollins Tabor’s home was surrounded by water after a landslide diverted a stream into his street. The slide is just below a steep, treeless logging site.

TABOR: They’ve logged it and logged it and logged it and logged it, and it’s literally destroyed it. I mean, that’s why all the water has come in here on us.

YOUNG: Logging in McDowell County is up by one third in recent years. Land logged in the last three years covers some six percent of the county.


YOUNG: In nearby Turnhole Branch, even some homes far uphill from the swollen Tug Fork River did not escape damage. Large, jagged rocks, some the size of bowling balls, came tumbling down with water from the top of the hill. Lorenzo Thomas stands among the rocky debris that now paves his neighborhood.

THOMAS: Yeah, it’s a whole lot buddy, it’s too much. It shouldn’t have happened. They did something wrong up there. All this wouldn’t have come down here with that water. It came from some strip job up on the mountain, back up at the end of the hollow.

YOUNG: The strip mine above Thomas’s house is one of hundreds of abandoned surface mines in the state, places where bankrupt coal companies walked away from the damage caused by years of bulldozing and blasting. At this site, waste rock from the cut hillsides was piled around the mine, but the heavy rains sent tons of that rock hurtling onto the homes in the hollow below. An analysis of state mining records by the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition shows old and active strip mines covering more than 18,000 acres of McDowell County.

Mountaintop removal mines also bury hundreds of miles of streams in the state’s southern counties as companies blast the tops from hills and dispose of the waste rock and dirt in massive valley fills. West Virginia University geology professor Steve Kite says mining is making unprecedented changes to the land.

KITE: This southern West Virginia landscape is being transformed by the coal mining. And the amount of earthy materials being moved around in southern West Virginia’s higher than any place in the lower 48 of the United States.

YOUNG: Residents suspect those changes in the landscape change the way water runs from the hills during rainstorms. They say trees that once absorbed and slowed run-off are gone and erosion fills streams with silt, making flooding more likely and more severe. But scientists like Steve Kite say the issue is complex.

KITE: A lot of the damage from the July 2001 floods were related to these old mine spoil piles failing, adding sediment to the load of the streams, and then this sediment was used by the streams in scouring and eroding and making the situation worse. But, in general, the well-done, well-completed mountaintop removal valley fill sites were not as big of a problem as the abandoned mines.

YOUNG: Industry representatives say there’s no evidence linking mining and logging to flooding frequency or magnitude. Bill Raney heads the West Virginia Coal Association.

RANEY: Oftentimes in the mining process you have benches. We have drainage structures. We’re required by law to capture every big of drainage that touches a mine site, so that mining actually impedes the run-off and slows the peak discharges. So we feel like it certainly has, in some cases, a beneficial effect.

YOUNG: But trial lawyer Stewart Calwell says the mines have a cumulative impact on the area. Calwell represents flooded residents who have joined a lawsuit charging mining and timbering companies contributed to the flood damage.

CALWELL: The fact of the matter is, when there is a critical disturbance that can happen to hillsides that so affects the rate of delivery of water to the natural drains that flash flooding occurs. There’s a right way to mine, there’s a right way to log, and obviously, in West Virginia, we’re doing it all wrong.

YOUNG: Calwell says 1,500 people have joined the suit so far, and he expects more clients as people assess damage from the recent floods.


YOUNG: Back in Coalwood, the damage is enough to make longtime residents like Frances Weaver want to leave for good.

WEAVER: I’ve been here 17 years and I’ve fought this water over and over and over. And this time it’s worse than it’s ever been and it really got me this time, and I just don’t have the heart to try to fight it anymore. You fight so much, you run out of fight.

YOUNG: It might not be much comfort to Weaver, but about a dozen federal and state agencies are studying the possible links between mining, timbering and the area’s flooding. Federal agencies are at work on a long-delayed comprehensive environmental assessment of mountaintop removal mining. Virginia and West Virginia plan to complete studies this summer that could provide some answers to the months of muddy misery. For Living on Earth, I’m Jeff Young in Coalwood, West Virginia.



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