A coal-mining company owned by state Rep. W. Keith Hall, D-Phelps, spilled an undetermined quantity of a chemical into his constituents' drinking water supply in Pike County earlier this month, state and local officials said Thursday.
On April 4, the Phelps Fire Department responded to a report of a chemical spill at Hall's BMM Inc., according to the Kentucky Division of Water, which is now in charge of the investigation. Photos show a white, foamy liquid pouring from the front of a blue building on the property, crossing a parking lot and running into a stream that leads to Peter Creek, which flows into the Tug Fork of the Big Sandy River upriver from a local drinking-water intake.
"A gel-like substance" was still "seeping from the building" on April 9 when a state inspector toured the site, but it was not running into the stream five days later, said Dick Brown, a spokesman for the Division of Water. No sample was collected, Brown said.
"The DOW inspector was able to contact Mr. Hall and was told by Mr. Hall that the substance is a dust suppressant known as 'Dust Away,'" Brown said. "Mr. Hall said approximately 55 gallons of the product has spilled inside the building and resulted in the subsequent leakage outside the building."
"The Division of Waste Management will be working with Mr. Hall on compliance issues associated with the investigation. The inspectors have also requested a material safety data sheet for the suppressant," Brown said.
Christian Harris, the Pike County magistrate who represents that community, is challenging Hall in the Democratic primary for the House seat on May 20. Harris complained Thursday that local residents went two weeks without learning what was spilled into their drinking water or whether it was dangerous.
It wasn't until about lunchtime Wednesday that state officials called Pike County Emergency Management to say that the chemical is "nontoxic and biodegradable," Harris said.
"It still hasn't been tested, so I guess we're all just supposed to take Representative Hall's word for it on what it was and whether or not the stuff was toxic," Harris said. "I'm not sure that's an acceptable response. After what happened with the chemical spill over in the drinking water at Charleston, W.Va., I would have expected a more heightened response from our state regulators."
Hall did not return calls Thursday seeking comment.
Elected to the House in 2000, Hall is chairman of the Committee on Tourism Development and Energy and is vice chairman of the Committee on Natural Resources and the Environment. In 2011, Hall was reprimanded by the Legislative Ethics Commission and fined $2,000 for appropriating coal-severance taxes for a Pike County sewer project from which one of his companies got more than $171,000 in no-bid contracts.
Hall has held the permits for Pike County coal mines that state officials said had a repetitive pattern of safety and environmental violations. In recent years, inspectors cited Hall's Beech Creek Coal Co. and other companies mining coal on Hall's permits for dropping rocks on nearby homes; mining outside of permitted areas; water pollution; failing to obey regulations on blasting, reclamation and maintaining slurry ponds; and allowing rocks, dirt and trees to slide down slopes.
"Representative Hall plays fast and loose with the rules," Harris said Thursday. "I think that's pretty common knowledge."