McDOWELL - For years, coal waste blackened a mountainside in the tiny community of Spewing Camp, polluting nearby streams and causing an eyesore for local residents.
A $3.6 million cleanup over two years has erased all signs of what had been one of Kentucky's largest heaps of abandoned mining refuse - some 10 million tons deposited over a 20-year period.
The mountainside is now green. The nearby creek bed still has an orange hue from the iron and sulfur that drained from the refuse, but resident Steve Howell said it no longer runs black after heavy rains.
"It was one of the worst remaining sites we had in eastern Kentucky," said Steve Hohmann, director of the Kentucky Division of Abandoned Mine Lands. "It was just left there as raw refuse to erode. It was contributing large amounts of sediment and iron into Spewing Camp Branch. It was clogging the creek channel."
Kentucky officials used federal and state funding to turn 68 acres of barren moonscape back into a lush, green mountainside.
The site is only one of many abandoned mine lands that need to be reclaimed, said Tom FitzGerald, head of the environmental advocacy group Kentucky Resources Council.
"There are still numerous sites in this state that continue to pose a threat to the environment and in some cases a threat to public safety," FitzGerald said.
FitzGerald said it's critical that Congress continue appropriating funds to reclaim the abandoned sites.
"We are nowhere near completing the task of reclaiming abandoned mine sites in the Appalachian region as well as in other areas of the country," he said.
Hohmann said refuse - largely slate, chunks of coal and coal dust - was dumped on the Floyd County site by Island Creek Coal Co. beginning in 1952. Two companies had proposed cleaning up the site by reprocessing the refuse into fuel. Neither effort worked out.
The now-defunct Enerpro Inc. of Red Bank, N.J., had recovered some burnable coal from the refuse beginning in 1989 but shut down the operation after about two years. A Lexington company, EnviroPower, had looked into shipping the material to a proposed power plant in Knott County where it could be burned, but transporting the material proved unfeasible.
That left the cleanup as the only viable alternative. Construction crews left the refuse in place, reshaped the pile to prevent erosion, covered it with dirt, then planted an assortment of grasses that not only hold the dirt in place but also provide forage for animals.
"I'm pleased with it," Howell said. "I've seen deer grazing up there. It looks real nice."
Hohmann said Island Creek Coal couldn't be held responsible for the cost of the cleanup because the damage was done before 1977 when state laws were enacted to require companies to reclaim mined land.
The coal company dumped refuse from a coal-washing plant on the site until the early 1970s.