PIKEVILLE — At least one surface mine site, a sediment holding pond above Powell's Creek in Pike County, contributed to flood damage during a July 17 deluge, according to state inspectors. Examinations of other ponds in the area found no problems, officials from the Division of Mine Reclamation and Enforcement said.
But that's not stopping residents from girding for a fight.
Prestonsburg attorney Ned Pillersdorf is looking to represent residents of Harless Creek, about 4 miles from Powell's Creek, and says government regulators don't do enough to protect the watersheds above their homes.
"We usually ignore them," said Jack Spadaro, a mining and watershed expert hired by Pillersdorf to investigate complaints from residents in Harless Creek.
Last year, Pillersdorf filed a lawsuit for residents in Breathitt County alleging that three mining companies allowed a pond to breach during storms in May 2009. Since then, he has amended the suit to claim that vast disturbances in the watershed of Quicksand Creek exacerbated flood damage to homes and businesses up to 15 miles downstream.
By law, coal companies and the state are supposed to design holding ponds that can handle runoff from a 24-hour, 10-year storm — in Pike County, that's about 3.6 inches of rain in one day. The July 17 storm dropped 6 to 8 inches in three hours — closer to a 300-year storm, according to the National Weather Service, though rain gauge data don't go back that far.
The pond the state cited above Powell's Creek, permitted by Cambrian Coal Corp., was designed to collect runoff from 9.5 acres of mined land. But the company had mined 16 acres of land above the pond, inspectors found.
So when the area received 6 inches or more of rain, causing flash floods that ripped up slabs of concrete from roads and bridges in the hollow, the pond above filled up. Its emergency spillway, designed to regulate the flow of water into the creek, allowed too much discharge.
The resulting flow scoured the hillside of debris, sending a slide down into Powell's Creek and piling 4 to 5 feet of loose dirt and rock against Mike Thacker's home.
Last month, Thacker said he thought the pond had breached, and he thought it would have been better designed above a natural runoff point downstream from his home. He and his wife don't have flood insurance — their house is on high enough ground that it wasn't damaged by any water besides the flow from the pond.
Thacker was not in the group represented by Pillersdorf and said he wasn't looking to sue if he doesn't have to.
The pond did not overtop or breach or fail in any way, state officials said, but the company was cited for non-compliance with its permit and must redesign the pond. At the time of the flood, reclamation of the permitted area had started, but the bond money set aside to guarantee reclamation had not been released.
The company and its operator, Apex Energy Inc., are still mining adjacent sites. The heads of creeks that were among the hardest hit by the floods are below wide swaths of surface coal mines stripped bare of absorbent vegetation and topsoil.
Apex declined comment.
Spadaro and Pillersdorf met with about 50 residents last week to discuss filing a claim.
Spadaro said that after walking through the area he thinks about 75 percent of the Harless Creek watershed is disturbed by mining. He said he saw seven or eight landslides and crumbling valley fills from the mountaintop removal and contour mines above the creek.
Most if not all of the mining has been done within the past six to eight years, residents said.
Harless Creek resident Earl Meadows said the evening of July 17 that the flood water came in waves and entirely filled the narrow hollow in about 45 minutes. It had been raining for about 2.5 hours before the flood started, residents said.
"The waters came in spurts," pushing up to 2 feet, then 4 feet, then over 5 feet, said Wilma Oney.
As she cowered inside, her home was torn in two by another mobile home that washed down the hollow and "exploded" as it hit obstacles, Oney said.
Government officials are not convinced the flood was caused by mining, however.
State Rep. W. Keith Hall, D-Phelps, said Harless Creek is partly a victim of "urban sprawl." About 150 houses line the three-mile hollow.
"Too much building," he said. "The stream was choked."
Small culverts, low bridges and plenty of rooftops creating runoff also contribute to flood damage, he noted.
The only true solution, Hall said, is for the federal government to buy out residents in these floodplains — an effort that is proceeding in other areas of Pike County.
Hall said mine fills and ponds are well-regulated, and other industries, such as road-building, should be regulated the same way. He blamed some flooding on U.S. 119, a newly completed four-lane highway that slices through mountains and soars over heavily flooded Winn's Branch and Raccoon Creek, about 15 miles north of Harless Creek.
Hall acknowledged that much of the damage to homes on Raccoon Creek happened upstream from the highway. The head of Raccoon Creek is untouched by mining, although there might be some timber harvesting in the area.
But residents below the highway, along the old U.S. 119 south of Meta along John's Creek, have been blasted by two federal disaster-strength floods in 14 months. Many were waiting appraisals on their homes for a federal flood easement buyout when July's storm hit.
Hall, who said he received $15,000 in federal money to buy his home and relocate to Phelps after the 1977 flood of the Big Sandy River, said relocation is the only answer because the creek flows seem to have been altered.
"It's going to take federal help to do that," Hall said.