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Marsh Fork Elementary School: Sundial, WV

Marsh Fork Elementary School

Thursday, August 10th, 2006

Reprinted from the Appalachian Voices website.

The Marsh Fork Elementary School in Sundial, West Virginia is located 400 yards downslope from a mountaintop removal mine. Sundial is a community in the coal river valley about 10 miles south of Whitesville. The mining site above the school, operated by Massey Energy, houses the Shumate sludge impoundment. With 2.8 billion gallons of coal sludge held back by a 385-foot-high earthen dam, it is one of West Virginia’s largest impoundments. These two photos are of Marsh Fork Elementary School (left), and the 2.8 billion gallon coal sludge impoundment directly uphill from the school.

Coal sludge is created when coal is washed – a process required to remove soil and rock from the coal prior to being shipped. According to the Sludge Safety Project,

“sludge contains carcinogenic chemicals used to process coal. It also contains toxic heavy metals that are present in coal, such as arsenic, mercury, chromium, cadmium, boron, selenium, and nickel.”

Earthen dams used to hold back sludge impoundments are notoriously unstable. A Massey Energy dam failed in 2000 in Martin County, KY dumping 300 million gallons of sludge in streams. A more tragic example is the 1972 Buffalo Creek disaster in which, according to the West Virginia Division of Culture & History:

“in a matter of minutes, 118 were dead and over 4,000 people were left homeless. Seven were never found.”

Should the earthen dam of the Shumate impoundment ever be breached, there would be less than three minutes to evacuate the Marsh Fork Elementary School before the water reached 6 feet. The maps below show the evacuation area below the impoundment and the approximate depth the to which the floodwaters would rise – 15 feet at the school.

Herb Elkins is one resident of the Coal River Valley that lives with his 8-year-old son attending Marsh Fork Elementary, directly below the impoundment. He finds little reassurance in the emergency response plan, which, in the event of a dam failure, calls for notification of people at risk by “bullhorn.”

On June 29th, Mr. Elkins refused to leave Massey Energy headquarters in Richmond, Virginia until Massey responded to his concerns for his son’s safety and was arrested for trespassing. Mr. Elkins stated,

“I promised my son that I would not send him back to that school. His health and peace of mind are too important. No child should have to attend class in a climate of fear.”

Read the story from the Appalachian Voice here (pdf).Perhaps most unfortunate for the communities around Sundial is that Massey energy intends to vastly expand the mountaintop removal operation up-slope from the town and school. Appalachian Voices has created a virtual flyover of the area around Sundial that employs a 3-D simulation of what the area will look like should the mining operation proceed. Click on the arrow below to view the virtual flyover.

YouTube Preview Image
The before and after images below also show how a simulation of what the area will look like after the proposed mountaintop removal operation.Of course, the are around Sundial is far from the only part of Appalachian suffering from the effects and threats of mountaintop removal – there are hundreds of active mines across Appalachia.The images below show the mountaintop removal and valley fill areas above Sundial mapped onto a satellite photograph (left), and that same view zoomed out to show the other permitted mine sites in the vicinity.

4 Responses to “Marsh Fork Elementary School”

  1. Amanda Says:

    I understand the fear, but why not work something else out instead of shuuting the mines down. Think of the hundreds of kids that won’t know if they even be able to have food on the table because of their dad’s losing their jobs.

  2. Bethany Says:

    An entire mountain top removal site can be run by 8-12 people. Therefore, the number of jobs that they create is very minimal. Also, because MTR is cheaper, faster, and requires a far less amount of workers than underground mining, it actually serves as competition for underground mining companies thus a huge loss of jobs for the people here.

  3. Stacey Says:

    Wow, really sad that the safety of these children is so little valued.

  4. CoalMiningAppalachia Says:

    This makes me sooooo mad. It is so hard to believe that things like this go on. It’s so hard to believe that this was ever allowed in the first place.

    I’m so glad that they are finally getting a new school, but it is so frustrating to me to think that Massey isn’t paying for it in full plus all medical expenses for all the locals. Actually, I could give a long list of things that Massey should be paying for, and they should not be in business at all.

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