VARNEY, West Virginia — Pigeon Creek flows through a narrow mountain hollow along a string of coal mining communities, its water trickling under the reds and yellows of the changing fall foliage.
The tranquil scene belies the devastation the creek delivered one night a decade ago as heavy rain fell on soggy soil and thousands of acres of nearby strip mines. Witnesses spoke of awakening in the dark of May 9, 2009, to the sound of rushing water like they had never heard before, entering their homes from underneath their doors.
“It was coming down out of the mountains bringing rock, trees, water and mud,” recalled Mildred Elkins, who became the lead plaintiff in a successful lawsuit with dozens of her flooded neighbors against several defendants, including Alpha Natural Resources, a coal mining company which has since gone through bankruptcy and merged with Contura Energy.
At one point, as she went to the basement to rescue some valuables, a back door gave way to pressure from the floodwater. “I heard a big old boom. That door had busted down, and water was coming through in full force,” she said. With water nearly up to her neck, she said she grabbed the steps, and pulled herself up. “I could feel my feet floating out behind me. It was scary.”
With the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers forecasting more rain and significantly increased stream flows due to climate change in a region that includes the coalfields of eastern Kentucky and West Virginia, this kind of life-and-death drama on landscapes heavily strip-mined for coal could happen more frequently in the coming years. Heavier rainfall could also mean more polluted water washing from coal mines, environmental experts say, damaging streams and aquatic life already marred by mining.