Families in Kentucky have relied on coal mining for generations. They are now accusing it of inundating their village.


On August 18, Tatyn Skidmore carries Brelyn Hays outside of their home in the Upper River Caney neighborhood of Lost Creek, Kentucky, on his shoulders.
August 22, 2022, 11:10 PM UTC, Michael Swensen for NBC News

KY. – LOST CREEK The floodwaters that poured into the small depression where families lived along Upper River Caney and Lower River Caney roads last month changed from a muddy brown to a charcoal gray color.

The water rose so high within minutes of the color change that it swept over houses, automobiles, sheds, boulders, trees, stairways, swing sets, and swimming pools. As the flood surged down through the neighborhood, the debris transformed into hazardous projectiles. As ashy water and sludge poured down the slopes around them, many locals took cover in the mountainside and waited out the storm.

One local resident is still missing, while another passed away. Breathitt County is expected to be without water facilities until December, according to officials.

Now, 59 residents of this tiny hollow aim to hold Blackhawk Mining and its affiliate Pine Branch Mining, who jointly run a coal mine nearby, responsible. The first significant lawsuit against a coal firm has been filed in Breathitt County Circuit Court as a result of the catastrophic flooding that struck east Kentucky late last month, killing at least 37 people.

The region is impoverished, has a long history of coal mining and economic linkages to it, and has been scarred by strip mining and mountaintop removal, which many feel can exacerbate flooding. The plaintiffs claim that the widespread devastation of their village and the poisoning of their drinking water were caused by the collapse of the company’s silt ponds, which was made worse by the land damage caused by mining operations.

Blackhawk did not answer a request for comment right away.

Residents of this area claimed that coal mining occupations had helped to raise, feed, and clothe them, but they also claimed that they thought the businesses running the mines had done carelessly and without consideration for individuals who had lived in the region for many generations. Many of the storm’s evacuees are residing with relatives or neighbors, in travel trailers, or in tents set up on the ground where their former homes once stood.

Clay Fugate, whose home is closest to the mine, stated as he stood on top of the closest silt pond, “It all comes back to the coal corporations.” Check out the destruction. It has never been in my yard or house in the 24 years that I have been here. not ever.

Fugate and his family ran from their home and spent more than six hours in the pouring rain standing on nearby high ground until dawn. They spent the night worrying that the entire town, including many of their family members, had been swept away as they watched water smash down the hollow. Fortunately, everyone survived.

The lawsuit claims that the mines’ silt retention ponds—artificial reservoirs that gather extra water, debris, sediment, and other materials from the mining activities of the company—are the root of the issue. They claim that Blackhawk and Pine Branch neglected the ponds, which led to their failure and sent waves of toxic water into their neighborhood.

Fugate and his wife shot images of the retaining wall of a pond that was roughly a half-mile up the creek from their home in the days following the flood. As a result of the drainage system failing, water overtopped its edge and pushed the rock that had supported it out of the way. It had lost a lot of its support. A 20-foot cascade resulted from that, and days after the brunt of the storm had passed, it was still pouring into the creek below. The following week, according to the locals, it was fixed.

According to the lawsuit, the silt ponds failed, causing debris and excessive water to flow onto the properties of the plaintiffs and resulting in damages. The lawsuit also claims that fish, sediment, debris, and other matter escaped from the silt ponds and entered the properties of many of the plaintiffs, in violation of Kentucky laws that forbid mining companies from allowing materials and debris to leave their property.

The firms’ partially restored or unreclaimed mining operations above populous areas, according to the complaint, worsened all of it. According to the complaint, Kentucky law mandates the reclamation of mining assets, which the defendants allegedly failed to do, aggravating the flooding damage. The complaint also claims that the company’s actions damaged, disrupted, or poisoned the water supply to numerous homeowners’ wells.

The complaint claims that without that repair, the ponds and the alleged carelessness were time bombs waiting to detonate in the event of any significant rainfall.

According to Ned Pillersdorf, the local attorney who filed the complaint on behalf of the family and who has previously taken on coal firms for negligent flooding, it is critical that these people are brought before the court as soon as possible in order to expedite the legal process. These people require a sense of hope. I’m very concerned about these people’s financial situation. It simply destroyed so many people’s economies.

None of the homeowners NBC News spoke to on Thursday and Friday about the flooding had been contacted by Blackhawk or Pine Branch. However, Pine Branch has said that it will restart blasting and do so until July of the following year.

The floodwater had swept away Gregory Chase Hay’s stoop, so a representative of the mine company was had to post its notice at the bottom of his door. A trailer’s frame had been distorted in such a way that the front of the house was tearing away from the rest of the building, according to an inspector, so Hays’ family of five now lives 80 miles away with his mother.

The night of the storm, Hays and his family had to fight their way through water and smash through a garden fence to get to safety. Less than 50 feet felt like miles to Hays and his son as they dragged his mother-in-law, who had one leg amputated, to safety as the mud climbed up their legs.

Hays’ 7-year-old daughter prepares for the rain by putting on her sneakers. As the floodwaters rose, she pleaded aloud for God to take her and save her family, Hays remembered.

In addition to calling Pillersdorf about the suit and informing him that his neighbors needed assistance, Hays, who had ascended the neighboring mountain to summon rescuers, also informed Pillersdorf about the costume. He acknowledged that he worries that others in the neighborhood would dislike him for it.

Everyone in this area is connected to coal, and Hays said, “I know it’s going to break some links.” I absolutely hate having to do it, but I know I must. We everyone here require assistance.

In this little village, where family plots and collective memories date back centuries, the water’s destructive path is still evident. Homes and family automobiles are now nothing more than twisted metal fragments. A tiny creek that has long babbled down a deep ditch that cuts across the depression is now home to the rushing river that purportedly began at the silt pond.

Watching drone footage taken by a local in the River Caney region was Jack Spadero, the former head of the National Mine Health and Safety Academy, who has recently testified as an expert witness in multiple coal mine disputes. He asserted that the damage was obviously caused by a deficiency in reclamation efforts and silt pond failures, and that this is not the only instance of it happening in east Kentucky.

According to him, the mining that was done at the mountaintop removal sites at the headwaters of the watershed is what caused the very significant devastation, where there was mud, debris, and rocks that devastated the homes in a tidal wave-like occurrence. Although there was a flood in the watersheds that weren’t mined, despite the fact that it was a significant downpour, it didn’t cause the same devastation as it had in the watersheds where mining had taken place.

As a result, many no longer feel the sense of protection and security they once did in the neighborhood, and many wonder if they should stay put.

Siblings Burley and Brittney White, together with their spouses and kids, reside in different homes next door to their parents. Burley, 28, lost everything in the house he and his wife had invested their whole life savings in. The water immediately surged, turning from brown to gray as they watched. Together with their children and parents, the siblings hastened up the mountainside. They slept in a modest, low-hanging gazebo at a family graveyard.

For hours, eight adults and seven children cuddled close together. When the Whites learned from others that the nearby pond had been fixed, they decided to leave the hollow and didn’t come back.

Burley White stated, “We just have to keep them accountable, and if they’re liable, they’ve got to pay.” After all this, people are having mental difficulties in this area. Although it doesn’t feel right, we must make sure that it doesn’t happen again.

Reporter Phil McCausland works for NBC News.