Cleaning Up Coal's Legacy of Fires and Landslides
Many of Appalachia’s coal mines were dug before the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act of 1977 was passed. Thousands of problem mines throughout the region are not subject to that law’s protections. These so-called pre-law mines come with a bevy of issues—they fill up with water, cause landslides, and catch fire.
Jim Holliday is all too familiar with these dangers. He’s a veteran mine inspector whose job it is to clean up these decades-old mine problems.
Holliday has a handlebar mustache and wears a federal Office of Surface Mining uniform. He used to work on strip mines, but for decades he’s been inspecting old coal mines that now pose problems.
HOUSES ON THE BRINK OF COLLAPSE
Today he’s driving along Highway 80 in Perry County, the heart of Eastern Kentucky coal country. He turns off the road into a hollow.
“Coal seam level’s right up above that old hill,” he says. “But this is a community that’s built up in early years, railroad track came through the hollow. They mined everything they can get in these hollows.”
He gets out of the SUV and walks toward a house that hugs a steep hillside. The crushed stone driveway is brand new. Holliday’s partner for the day, Wally Barger, joins him.
Barger is a mine inspector with the Kentucky Department of Natural Resources, and he stands next to the house with grey siding.
They’re here to look at one of the most common issues posed by these old mines.
“Just the water, too much groundwater from the mining back in the 1940s and ‘50s," he says, pointing to the hillside above. "There's like three coal seams—the Hazard 5, Hazard 7, and Hazard 8, (and they) all had either underground mining or auger mining water build-up from voids in the mountain,” Barger explains.
That water caused the hillside where Barger and Holliday stand to move. That pushed the ground from underneath the house they’re standing next to. The house’s owner comes out to greet them.
“The house started falling--the basement just dropped out—it just kept getting’ worse and worse and worse,” says Ed Noble.
Noble grew up nearby—he remembers watching miners digging coal out of the hillside above. He’s owned this house 20 years. In late 2013, the house began breaking apart.
“Water was coming out under the floor. It was just slipping—the whole basement dropped down about 4 foot—went straight down,” he says.
The state came in and dug straight down to bedrock. It reinforced the foundation of the house, and it saved Ed Noble’s house.
Barger says there was a moment in the project when he thought Ed Noble’s house would have to be demolished.
“I thought we lost it—and we were able to get it cribbed back up and get it stabilized….We spent about a half a million dollars to save this house,” Barger says.
The state of Kentucky got that money from a special tax on coal that goes specifically to abandoned mines built before 1977. But that source of funding might not last forever. For starters, there is less coal being mined these days, so there’s less money in the fund. And in 2021, unless Congress renews it, the money is scheduled run out.
“We’ll never run out of reclamation but we will run out of money,” Barger says. "Their money's going to start dwindling—then it’s going to come to a halt. It’s not going to be there anymore.”
Holliday and Barger get back in the SUV, and make their way to the top of a hillside. It’s steep, and covered with waste coal. Basically, it looks like a huge pile of charcoal was dumped on the hillside.
Holliday walks to a part of the hill where blue smoke is wafting off the ground.
“When you see steam, smoke, that stuff can be burnin’ underneath—I wouldn’t venture around too much on it,” he says.
This is a coal refuse fire. Barger’s agency has to put out the fire. Basically, all the old coal on the ground is burning. The smell is awful--sulfurous, sticky, sweet. Barger says it can stay with you for days.
The mine here was built in the 1920s. The coal on the hillside was waste coal. It wasn’t pure enough to sell, so the miners just left it on the ground.
“You will find rocks and burning’ materials in there at 350–400 degrees. You have to isolate them…have to mix them with materials,” Barger says. “We use waters to cool it down so operators can operate safely.”
Many hillsides in Eastern Kentucky are covered by pieces of coal left by miners long gone. Fires will be igniting for years to come. Forest fires can cause them, and they can burn for years.
Holliday and Barger get back in the truck. They say they will keep doing this work—policing landslides and putting out fires—as long as the money keeps coming in to pay for it.
Photos by Reid R. Frazier. Top left: Ed Noble's home in Hiner, Kentucky almost had to be demolished because of shifting land from old coal mines. Bottom right: A coal refuse fire smolders in Carbon Glow, Letcher County, Eastern Kentucky.