Devastating floods have ravaged several eastern Kentucky communities in the last few years. Most start the same way: rain falls; creeks rise; and what residents have described as a ‘tsunami’ destroys everything in its path. Some citizens say coal mining is to blame, and they’re turning to lawsuits against coal companies to recoup damages. They say the companies didn’t reclaim surface mine sites, which directly contributed to the flooding.
This is what some say happened in Pike County on July 17, 2010.
On a busy Saturday in Janie Caudill’s beauty shop on Harless Creek, Caudill darts around, highlighting customers’ hair. The whole place is brand new, decorated in red and black. You can’t see the signs of the flood that destroyed Caudill’s old shop and decimated nearly every home along the creek last year—but you still hear about it.
“And since the flood, she doesn’t want to leave what she’s got,” Caudill tells her clients. She’s talking about her 81-year-old mother, who lives down the road. A year after the flood, her mother still sleeps in her clothes, just in case another rain comes and she has to evacuate in the middle of the night.
Now, Harless Creek is low, but that doesn’t stop residents from canceling their plans whenever it rains. A year and a half ago, about five inches fell and ran off the mountain. The water filled the creek and carried the town away.
“This is like a piece of baloney between two slices of bread,” Caudill says, pointing to the mountains above her shop. “You’ve got mountains on each side—it’s very narrow. There’s over 100-some families who live here on this mile stretch of road. There were 80-some cars took out of here that were just smashed. Piled up and smashed.”
According to Prestonsburg attorney Ned Pillersdorf, the flood shouldn’t have happened. When the civil case goes to trial in March, Pillersdorf and his team will argue that the flood was caused by Cambrian Coal, the company that’s surface mining the hills above the creek. He has reason to believe he can win the case—he secured a settlement for Breathitt County residents earlier this year in a nearly identical case.
By law, coal companies are required to reclaim the land once mining is over. The process varies by site, but involves replacing topsoil and replanting vegetation. Pillersdorf says Cambrian didn’t do this—and the lack of vegetation to soak up the rain meant the water all went downhill at once.
“Just imagine pouring a gallon of milk on just a bare table with nothing on it,” Pillersdorf said. “The milk would run off all at once. If you put a bunch of towels down, the milk would eventually drip off. The towels are what should have been the reclamation. When they failed to reclaim, it’s like pouring milk on a bare table.”
Jack Spadaro is a former federal mine regulator who now consults on safety and environmental issues.
“As far as I could see on Cambrian, there was no effort whatsoever to do any reclamation at all,” he said. “None.”
Spadaro evaluated the site for Pillersdorf, and says the Commonwealth of Kentucky should have noticed Cambrian’s lack of reclamation and done something about it.
“They’re supposed to inspect these mines on a regular basis and this mine had gotten completely out of compliance and had been for some time because there were very large areas where there simply had not been any re-vegetation done at all,” he said. “No grading, no re-vegetation, no seeding.”
Records from the Kentucky Department of Mine Reclamation and Enforcement show the state realized Cambrian wasn’t properly reclaiming the land. Two-and-a-half weeks after the flood, the department issued a notice of non-compliance to Cambrian for failing to reclaim some of its mine lands in the required time frame.
Paul Rothman is an environmental scientist in the department.
“It looks there was a significant rainfall event in that area and that was the underlying cause for a lot of that activity out there,” he said.
But Rothman says the department’s initial assessment doesn’t seem to suggest any connection between the lack of reclamation and the flooding that wiped out Harless Creek.
Janie Caudill reopened her beauty salon in April. She says it’s an improvement over the building she lost in the flood, but it reminds her of the disaster. She shakes her head and lights a cigarette.
“I’m sorry, but I never smoked till after the flood,” she said apologetically. “Even though I’ve got a nicer salon now and it’s bigger and it’s nice and everything, my old salon, if I could get it back and not have to go through what I went through the last year, I would take it back in a heartbeat.”
Despite the flood, Caudill says she’s not against mountaintop removal—she just wants mine operators to follow the law.
“If they are going to mine, they should mine where they have permits and follow the rules and regulations,” she said. “They should reclaim the earth so they’re not going to endanger people’s lives.”
But she’s worried. Hydrologists say there’s been a 400 percent increase in the likelihood of a 100-year flood event, and current Harless Creek residents can expect several in their lifetimes.
Cambrian Coal didn’t return a request for comment on this story.