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Breathitt County residents sue coal companies, saying strip mining made floods worse

Flood damage in Perry County along  Kentucky Route 476 in Perry County.
Flood damage in Perry County along Kentucky Route 476 in Perry County.

Families living below a strip mining operation in Breathitt County, Kentucky are suing two coal companies, arguing that they contributed to flood damage on their homes and properties.

At least 59 people signed on to the lawsuit, saying the historic flooding in late July was made worse when the silt ponds associated with the strip mines failed, causing debris and contaminated water to damage their homes.

The residents of Lost Creek are suing Blackhawk Mining and Pine Branch Mining, alleging the coal companies breached their duties to safely operate the mines and are liable for the excessive flood damage caused by their operations.

Ned Pillersdorf is an attorney from Prestonsburg representing the plaintiffs.

“Everyone in that community basically says this strip mining activity exacerbated their flooding,” he said. “It’s a ticking time bomb and the people who live below this are sitting ducks.” 

Radar estimates from the National Weather Service suggest that six to 16 inches of rain fell in the five-day stretch over eastern Kentucky, contributing to the deaths of 39 people and causing unprecedented damage.

Pillersdorf said the historic levels of flooding would have caused damage on their own, but it was made worse by the strip mining operations. 

“The Defendants knew that the mining and standard of care violations described elsewhere in this Complaint are ticking time bombs ready to explode with any type of heavy rainfall,” the lawsuit stated.

Breathitt county is an economically-distressed area with a household income less than half that of the national median. Pillersdorf said many in the community have ties to coal mining, and are aware of the damage they can cause.

At least two people in the Lost Creek community died as a result of the flooding and most of the 59 plaintiffs are currently homeless as a result of the floods, according to the lawsuit.

Silt ponds are a kind of retention pond commonly used in mining operations to collect excess water and sediment. The lawsuit alleges that debris, sediment and even fish, escaped the silt ponds and ended up damaging the plaintiffs’ homes resulting in emotional distress, loss of personal property and polluted well-water.

Families from the area showed Pillersdorf photos of bizarre carp-like fish flopping around their properties, he said.

“Where did the fish come from? Well these carp-like fish live in these silt ponds,” Pillersdorf said.

Blackhawk Mining did not immediately return a request for comment.

Copyright 2022 WFPL News Louisville. To see more, visit WFPL News Louisville.

Ryan Van Velzer has told stories of people surviving floods in Thailand, record-breaking heat in Arizona and Hurricane Irma in South Florida. He has worked for The Arizona Republic, The Associated Press and The South Florida Sun Sentinel in addition to working as a travel reporter in Central America and Southeast Asia. Born and raised in Phoenix, Arizona, Ryan is happy to finally live in a city that has four seasons.
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