Improper surface mining and reclamation caused or worsened flooding that destroyed dozens of homes in Pike County last month, a lawsuit contends.
The flooding occurred July 17 on Harless Creek, downstream from where Cambrian Coal Corp. and AEP Kentucky Coal Inc. had mining operations, according to the lawsuit.
Violations by the companies played a substantial role in "massive amounts of water" running off the mine sites and turning Harless Creek into a "raging river" that washed away homes and vehicles in the narrow hollow, the lawsuit says.
"It looks like a nuclear bomb went off," said Ned Pillersdorf, a Prestonsburg attorney who filed the lawsuit for more than 100 residents of the community.
The lawsuit comes against the backdrop of an argument by some Eastern Kentucky residents that four decades of mining activity, including clearing areas of native forests and compacting the ground during reclamation, have worsened flash flooding.
Before they start mining, coal companies clear areas of trees. Since the late 1970s, companies have reclaimed most land by planting a mix of trees, shrubs and grasses, or turning it into open grassland.
Studies have long linked surface-mining activities to a higher incidence of flash flooding, said Tom FitzGerald, executive director of the Kentucky Resources Council.
Congress recognized the potential for higher peak runoff from mined areas and included in the 1977 surface-mining law such protections as controls on runoff and a requirement to begin replanting part of a site as mining continues nearby, FitzGerald said.
However, subsequent administrations have diluted those controls, and mining companies sometimes leave areas exposed longer than necessary, he said.
"The soil that would have allowed the runoff to soak in has been scalped," FitzGerald said.
The coal industry argues that most companies work to limit the effects off mine sites and to reclaim sites responsibly.
Bill Bissett, president of the Kentucky Coal Association, said he and industry engineers with whom he has checked were not aware of any scientific data that draw a clear connection between mining and flooding.
Bissett said companies have contributed money to help deal with the effects of the flooding in Pike County.
"Our hearts go out to the people affected by the recent hard rains and flooding," some of whom work in the coal industry, Bissett said.
But without scientific data that show a specific link between mining and flooding, the people involved in the lawsuit might be looking for solutions to a problem that could have been caused by other factors, Bissett said.
The lawsuit lists 126 people as plaintiffs. Pillersdorf said he filed the suit Tuesday in Pikeville.
The lawsuit was filed against Cambrian and AEP. Attempts to reach representatives of the companies Wednesday were not successful.
The damage along Harless Creek, which is east of Pike ville, was part of wider flooding in the county after heavy rain July 17.
Officials said the damage was among the worst the county had experienced in years. In addition to destroying homes, the high water destroyed or damaged roads and bridges, and washed out water service to thousands of people.
Two people died during the flooding; neither person lived along Harless Creek.
The flood destroyed or badly damaged 60 homes along Harless Creek, Pillersdorf estimated.
In one instance, a mobile home being carried on the surge of floodwater sliced through a house, residents said.
A month later, some people haven't found decent replacement housing, Pillersdorf said.
"I have people still living in cars," he said.
After the flood, regulators cited Cambrian for failing to properly maintain a sediment pond, which is designed to catch runoff from a surface mine; failing to control runoff; failing to reclaim a mined site as required; and mining an area without a permit, the lawsuit says.
The state cited AEP for failing to establish temporary sediment controls, the lawsuit says.
The lawsuit seeks unspecified damages for the loss of homes, vehicles, business income and water wells, and punitive damages.
It also seeks an injunction aimed at getting housing for people.
Pillersdorf filed a similar lawsuit for residents in Breathitt County last year, alleging that three mining companies allowed a pond to breach during storms in May 2009.
That lawsuit, which is pending, argues that widespread mining disturbances in the watershed of Quicksand Creek exacerbated flood damage to homes and businesses many miles downstream.