JACKSON — A mining expert hired by an attorney said he thinks a sediment impoundment was breached and might have exacerbated damage from flooding in a May 8 storm that destroyed hundreds of homes in Breathitt County.
State inspectors are investigating ponds owned by Appalachian Fuels of Ashland, and "we do not have any evidence that a breach has occurred," said Steve Vance of the Kentucky Division of Mine Reclamation and Enforcement.
But Jack Spadaro, a retired mining expert who investigated major impoundment breaches in Martin County and in West Virginia, said water levels, sediment deposits downstream and recently reinforced pond walls are "pretty clear-cut evidence that that pond was breached."
The impoundment in question is in Breathitt County off Ky. 542 near the Magoffin County line.
Spadaro, former director of the National Mine Health and Safety Academy, was hired by Prestonsburg lawyer Ned Pillersdorf. Pillersdorf has met with about 20 families along Quicksand Creek in Breathitt County who are considering a lawsuit.
One resident, James Holbrook, has a newly planted hayfield that is covered with sand, bits of coal and, oddly, seashells. He says all this is evidence that the sediment pond 15 miles upstream added to the flood damage.
The sediment pond wouldn't normally contain coal fines, Vance said. He said the state had found erosion and evidence of discharge through a pipe that is a normal part of the pond design.
If a breach occurred, the mining company would be required by law to report to the state; that has not happened, Vance said.
Appalachian Fuels didn't return a phone call from the Herald-Leader late Wednesday afternoon.
Quicksand Creek resident Larry Spencer said he went to the impoundment two days after the storm and saw a "cutout" where the discharge pipe had been.
A week later, the breach was repaired, he said, with the pipe settled lower in the water.
"I'm appalled," Spadaro said as he and Pillersdorf met with about a dozen area residents at Big Caney Church near Rousseau on Wednesday.
James and Connie Hatton, who live downstream from Holbrook, lost their family store. It had been there 55 years. They showed pictures of coal bits that had washed up behind the store.
Jerry Fugate has been living in a borrowed tent near his flooded trailer. He said he saved what he could until water came through his door on May 9.
"I think the state needs to do more than they have to protect those people up there," Spadaro said.
If Spadaro finds evidence of a breach, Pillersdorf said, he will file suit in Breathitt Circuit Court.
The state's investigation should be complete next week, Vance said.
Spadaro said he plans to continue searching for evidence. He said he will fly over several ponds about which he has heard reports of leaks.