At least 39 people were killed during the heavy rains and subsequent flooding that hammered Eastern Kentucky at the end of July. In addition to the lives lost, the devastating inundation and accompanying debris destroyed cars, homes, and other infrastructure. It could be months before utilities like water and electric are fully restored to parts of the state, according to Kentucky Governor Andy Beshear.
Now, a group of the survivors are hoping to hold a mining company accountable for its possible role in the devastation. Fifty-nine residents of the unincorporated community of Lost Creek, Kentucky have signed onto a lawsuit against Blackhawk Mining and the company’s local subsidiary, Pine Branch Mining.
The plaintiffs, many of whom are now homeless, claim that the mining operations and Blackhawk’s negligence contributed to the severity of the flooding and the damages they’ve suffered as a result. Blackhawk did not immediately respond to Gizmodo’s phone and email requests for comment.
The suit was filed on Monday, according to Breathitt County Circuit Court records obtained by Gizmodo and initially reported on by NBC News.
Blackhawk conducts surface mining operations in Perry, Knott, and Leslie counties in Eastern Kentucky, which border Breathitt. The Pine Branch complex is a group of open pit mines that sit about 6.5 miles away from Lost Creek. The coal mine is uphill and upriver from the valley community along Caney Creek, which flows into the North Fork Kentucky River.
The specific allegations in the complaint include that Blackhawk failed to properly maintain its waste retention ponds from its mining operations at Pine Branch. The plaintiffs claim that those artificial containment systems, known as silt ponds, didn’t work or drain like they were supposed to amid the heavy rains. Overflow from the silt ponds reportedly exacerbated the flooding and added mine waste and contaminating sediments into the already dangerous mix.
From the lawsuit:
Plaintiffs state that, based on information they have received, Defendants operated a number of silt ponds which failed due to the fact that they were improperly maintained and improperly constructed. The failure of the silt ponds caused debris and excessive water to flow onto the Plaintiffs’ properties and caused damages.
Then there’s the broader issue of how surface mining can worsen erosion, flooding, and runoff. Removing all of the forest cover on a mountain ridge leaves the land unable to absorb rainfall like it used to, and bare land means there’s nothing to hold soil back from flowing downhill along with the water. In some cases, hydrologists have determined that mining can increase runoff more than 1,000 times, according to a report from Inside Climate News.
Kentucky law requires mining companies to try to remediate their environmental impacts by doing reclamation—things like filling in pits, grading the land, and re-planting trees. Yet the new complaint alleges that Blackhawk failed to comply with these state regulations on its mining properties.
From the lawsuit:
The Defendants have numerous mining operations in Eastern Kentucky and are well aware of the danger posed by having partially reclaimed or unreclaimed mining operations above populated areas. The Defendants knew that the mining and standard of care violations...are ticking time bombs, ready to explode with any type of heavy rainfall. Their knowing and deliberate indifference to the safety and property rights of the Plaintiffs as described elsewhere in this Complaint therefore subject them to punitive damages.
This week’s lawsuit is the first to emerge against a coal company following last months floods, according to NBC, but it isn’t the first of its kind. Cambrian Coal, another mining company, settled in a very similar 2010 lawsuit over another instance of flooding in Eastern Kentucky. That more-than-decade-old suit was led by the same attorney, Ned Pillersdorf, as the new one. Of the new action, Pillersdorf told NBC, “We need to give these people hope. I’m really worried about the economic state of these people. It just economically devastated so many.”
Finally, though the suit doesn’t specifically mention climate change, it’s hard to ignore the overarching link between fossil fuel extraction and increasing flooding in the region. Past research has shown that human-caused climate change is increasing the incidence of severe weather and flooding in the Southeast U.S. There’s no published scientific evidence as of yet that the July floods, specifically, can be attributed to climate change, but multiple experts agree it was a factor.
Presumably, all that coal mined from Pine Branch went on to be burned for fuel. Those subsequent emissions became part of the ongoing accumulation of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. And ultimately, that greenhouse gas buildup is what’s contributing to the shifts in rain and temperature patterns that are making extreme weather more frequent.
You can read the full text of the lawsuit here: