Hueysville — Rick Handshoe has about given up.
He dreamed of a house beside the small creek on land his family has owned for 200 years; he hoped his daughter would one day live in that house when she married and had children; he just wanted a quiet life in Floyd County.
His dreams have been washed away by poisoned water.
He wants his daughter to move. Latessa Handshoe is considering marriage. Her dad doesn’t want her to have children where he believes the water is to blame for the highest rates of cancer and birth defects in America. When it rains, Handshoe sends “Tess” to sleep at her grandfather’s house because he’s afraid the mountain behind his house will come crashing down.
“You know how when you have a baby you sleep with one ear open?” Handshoe explains. “That’s what I do all the time now.”
The mountain has a reclaimed surface mine near its summit. In the past six months, what Handshoe describes as three seeps or blowouts appeared in the side of the mountain, spewing water — sometimes 20 gallons a minute. Steve Hohmann, commissioner of the state Department of Natural Resources, visited the site and acknowledges the seeps but said they do not show evidence of the violence associated with a blowout.
Conductivity tests on the water produce readings as high as 4,700, perhaps the highest ever taken in Kentucky. Aquatic life can’t survive when conductivity exceeds 500. At times the water tested 100 times more acidic than rain water.
Handshoe believes it’s coming from an abandoned underground mine, collapsing under pressure from surface mining above. The pressure forces water collected in the mine to spew out of the mountainside and cause landslides. Water sometimes flows from the mine opening — and it has killed all vegetation in its path. But state inspectors say they aren’t sure the problem was caused by mining.
“We want to get the right answer and not an answer right away,” Hohmann said.
The water runs into a little unnamed creek beside Handshoe’s house. Sometimes it foams like laundry detergent, a sign the pH level is so low something is destroying the organic materials in the water. Two landslides on the mountain have grown and moved recently.
Testing by the environmental group, Appalachian Voices, shows the water contains 100 times more aluminum than fresh water; 44 times as much iron; and manganese, which can cause developmental defects and Parkinson’s disease, at 129 times fresh water standards.
It’s only Handshoe’s most recent problem.
He is surrounded, under siege. On three sides of his house are mountaintop mining operations. He lives within a half mile of nine valley fills where the “overburden” — the trees, soil and rock which is blasted away to get at small seams of coal — has been shoved into adjacent valleys or hollers.
One covers the mouth of Raccoon Creek which runs through Handshoe’s property across Highway 7 from his house and collects water from the other small creek. It’s where as a child Handshoe trapped minnows. It’s where he hoped to build that dream home. No more. Nothing lives in the creek now.
Handshoe said his physician, Dr. Ira Potter, told him not to water his garden with creek water and not to eat any animal which may have drunk water on his property. Handshoe is awaiting results from blood tests the doctor ordered to see if metals have built up in his body.
At the head of Raccoon Creek is a one-acre settlement pond, maintained by James River Coal, the company which owns the mine site above it. A settlement pond is supposed to allow toxic minerals to sink to the bottom while the surface water seeps through a pipe at the top of the retaining bank at the other end.
The water coming off the mine site is a dark, rusty orange color. It looks a little better at the drainage end, but the pond leaks, and it sometimes overflows. When it does, Raccoon Creek runs orange, sometimes for days.
“We used to have the best water on the creek there,” Handshoe said. “People would come here and get our water it was so good.”
The state is supposed to test the water, inspect the pond, and cite the coal company for violations. But it often doesn’t.
No help from state
Handshoe has been asking the state Division of Water and Department of Mine Reclamation and Enforcement for help for years. The retired radio technician for the Kentucky State Police has a GED certificate, but he’s taught himself the skills of a water engineer. He has his own testing devices — he’s careful to buy the same equipment used by state inspectors so they won’t dispute results. He documents each incident with photographs of the stream and the test readings — with a camera which shows the date and time of every photograph.
He’s frequently on the phone to state inspectors. They sometimes come, they sometimes ignore him. He’s appealed to the governor, to the attorney general, to the federal Environmental Protection Agency. His elected representatives, state Democratic Speaker of the House Greg Stumbo and Republican U.S. Congressman Hal Rogers say federal environmental regulations represent a “war on coal.”
Last year Handshoe was among mountaintop removal opponents who occupied Gov. Steve Beshear’s office. When Beshear spoke to them, Handshoe invited him to come to Hueysville and see for himself.
In April 2011 Beshear and Len Peters, the secretary of the Energy and Environment Cabinet responsible for permitting mine operations and protecting water quality, came. Peters didn’t visit the pond, but Beshear did.
“I asked him if he would let his grandchildren play in Raccoon Creek,” Handshoe recalls. “He just put his head down and I said, ‘You just answered me, Governor. Yet my grandchildren are supposed to play in it.’”
Beshear refused to be interviewed for this story. His spokeswoman, Kerri Richardson, said Beshear would be out of town — even though the request was made the previous week and Beshear made at least one public appearance in the capitol after that. CNHI News offered to conduct the interview by phone or travel anywhere within an hour’s drive, but Richardson said Beshear couldn’t accommodate the request.
Beshear received more than $100,000 in campaign contributions for his two races for governor from coal and coal-related companies, according to the Kentucky Registry of Election Finance. James River coal employees contributed at least $7,400. His 2011 inaugural committee took in more than $150,000 from coal interests.
Beshear says Kentucky “can and does mine coal in an environmentally friendly way.” He once demanded that federal mining and environmental regulators “get off our backs” in a speech to the General Assembly.
Handshoe’s problems have multiplied since Beshear’s visit.
“I believe this is a life-threatening situation I’m in,” Handshoe said. “The mountain is moving. If the mountain blows, there is no time to get to safety. The problem is 500 feet above my house. There is nowhere else for the water to go.”
State inspectors continue to test water from the mountain. They’ve asked the federal Office of Surface Mining to determine if the poisoned water is “due to later surface mining operations.”
Meanwhile, Handshoe watches and worries and sends Tess to sleep elsewhere when it rains.
As a coal truck roars by, Handshoe is asked what he will do. He stares at the ground.
“You know, I’m scared. I can’t afford to leave until something happens, either I get washed out or the coal company has to put a (settlement) pond here,” he said. “I don’t want to leave. This is where I intended on dying.”
RONNIE ELLIS writes for CNHI News Service and is based in Frankfort. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow CNHI News Service stories on Twitter at www.twitter.com/cnhifrankfort