Strip mining contributed to deadly Kentucky flooding, ex-regulators say

Two former state and federal mining regulators say state and federal authorities should investigate the role strip mining played in last month’s devastating and deadly flooding in Eastern Kentucky and the condition of the mines after the torrential rainfall.

The Kentucky counties, and areas of West Virginia and Virginia, flooded by torrential rains have for decades been heavily logged and strip-mined for coal — land-use practices dramatically that alter the landscape and contribute to flooding. The July 28 overnight flooding in Kentucky has killed at least 37 people.

With strip mining, trees are the first to go. Then, hundreds of feet of rock may be blasted away from the tops or sides of mountains to get at underground seams of coal.

“If you get an area that has been strip mined, and the soil has been stripped off, and the upper layers of the soil and rock have been dumped into a valley fill, you have a surface that is not fully vegetated and you get no water retention whatsoever, and that is what causes these flash floods,” said Jack Spadaro, a former top federal mine-safety engineer who works as a consultant for coalfield residents, workers and their lawyers.

Spadaro has been an expert witness in successful flooding lawsuits involving mining companies, and he said he’s seen floods in eastern Kentucky and West Virginia where hydrologists have calculated runoff more than 1,000 times greater after mining than there would have been without the mining.

He said the horrendous scope of the recent Appalachian flooding merits an independent scientific investigation to determine what role mining played in the flooding and what could be done with strip mines to reduce future flood risks.

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“It’s not just mining,” said Davie Randsell, a retired state mining regulator who is from Oneida, Kentucky, in Clay County, which was hit by the flooding. “It all gets mixed together — logging, gas wells, gas well roads, power lines,” resulting in more runoff and the potential for landslides during rain from the scars, she said.

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