Mason Adams Published

Wyoming County Residents Warn of Contaminated Creek

A man with blue, latex gloves on, holds up a jar of water. The water inside is murky and brown. The man wears glasses, a ball cap, and a blue jacket.
James Christian holds up a jug of another Wyoming County community member's discolored well water. The water has already been filtered multiple times.
Erin Beck

This conversation originally aired in the June 2, 2024 episode of Inside Appalachia.

Residents of Wyoming County, West Virginia, say there’s something wrong with a local creek. 

One resident, Dakota Day, says fish are dying, and even pets. He recently spoke with Mountain State Spotlight reporter Erin Beck.

“You see all these chicken pens?” Day said to Beck. “Every one of these was full of roosters last year.”

Day gave his roosters creek water. But he noticed “white stuff coming down the creek, all oily.” Then, “all my roosters got sick and died.”

People are being given bottles of water. The picture shows a man holding a child. There are two other men and a woman. They are all standing outside.
Dakota Day (left) and his sister Christina (wearing the brown coat) receive a bottled water donation from Richard Altizer (middle) and James Christian (right).

Photo Credit: Erin Beck

People whose water comes from that creek say they’re getting sick, too. So what’s making the water toxic? State regulators point to a nearby abandoned mine. Erin Beck’s story is headlined, “As coal companies point fingers, Wyoming County residents say they’re being poisoned by a contaminated creek.” 

Inside Appalachia Host Mason Adams reached out to Beck to learn more.

The transcript below has been lightly edited for clarity.

Adams: Your story in Mountain State Spotlight is about a community along Indian Creek in Wyoming County, West Virginia. What happened there?

Beck: More than a year ago, a Wyoming County resident, James Christian, found his backyard was flooded. It turned out to be an eruption of mine water from underground. It was about two feet high. It was rising so rapidly that his friend Richard Altizer had to run over and help him dig a ditch to nearby Indian Creek to keep it from seeping into their house. They have black mold in their house because of it.

I found out about it because during the end of the recent [West Virginia] legislative session, Del. Adam Vance, who represents Wyoming County, pleaded with his other lawmakers in a floor speech for help. He said he had tried every avenue, different state agencies, and it had been going on for a year. He hadn’t been able to see a resolution. So as soon as I heard about it, I went straight to the Capitol to ask him about it. He told me who I should talk to in the community. I traveled there as soon as I could. I saw and heard some things that were very alarming to me.

One family told me that their water comes out of the spigot black in the mornings. Lots of people told me that since the mine water had started seeping into the nearby Indian Creek that it had gotten into their well water, and they were very sick because of it. A lot of people described nausea and chronic fatigue. They can’t let their kids fish both because of safety concerns, and because the fish are dying.

At the Christians’ house, there’s still an overwhelming smell of sulfur. It makes James’s wife so sick that she’s mostly bedridden. One couple that does have an expensive water filtration system showed me that, even after the water had been filtered numerous times, it was still brownish yellow, and they’re expected to drink it. Bottled water is donated, sometimes, but not enough to use every day, [and] not enough for showers and laundry. Richard told me that independent testing showed there was arsenic in the water. I myself could see that the creek was not a normal creek. There was slime floating on the water. There was foam on the water. James and Richard showed me a picture of a dead deer that they had gotten along the river bank; they actually saw that its veins were bright yellow.

An aerial photo showing four people along a creek.
West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection workers collect water samples from Indian Creek, which dirty mine water flows into in Wyoming County.

Photo Credit: Erin Beck

Adams: All that sounds like a terrible mess. The agency in West Virginia that’s responsible for environmental compliance is the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP). How has it responded to this issue?

Beck: Shortly after this event happened, the DEP filed a lawsuit against the owner of the Pinnacle Mining Complex. The Pinnacle Mining Complex is an inactive mine. They found that flooding within it was causing so much pressure that it burst upward through a former household well in James’ backyard. They filed a lawsuit against Pinn MC Wind Down Co., which owns the Pinnacle Mining Complex. But then the DEP allowed the coal company to dig another ditch rather than the ditch that Richard and James had dug. That still resulted in the mine water reaching Indian Creek. The DEP is also conducting water sampling. I saw that they were conducting water sampling while I was there. But in the meantime, people are still sick and getting sicker.

Adams: And it sounds like this has potential to be a bit bigger issue. Indian Creek flows into the Guyandotte River and eventually down to the Ohio River. But it does sound like there’s not been an easy fix.

Beck: Mountain State Spotlight has reported in the past on some of the reasons why this sort of thing isn’t easy to fix. We’ve reported that courts have been allowing coal companies that are dealing with the inevitable decline of the coal industry by going bankrupt and then establishing spin-off companies [and] are allowing them to evade responsibility because of that bankruptcy.

We’ve also reported that public officials haven’t prepared for the decline of the coal industry by preserving enough money to pay for environmental restoration in places like Wyoming County. Coal companies in the area have also been blaming each other. Once DEP filed the lawsuit, the spin-off company accused Bluestone Resources, which is a company that’s owned by the governor’s family, of being responsible because it had purchased the flooding mine, Pinnacle Mining Complex.

Bluestone countered that they weren’t responsible because, when they purchased it, they didn’t assume responsibility for any and all violations. Then Bluestone sued another mining company that’s right there in the area, Alpha Metallurgical Resources. So that’s resulted in the case being delayed and delayed. It’s more than a year later, and the problem is just getting worse. And meanwhile, none of the coal companies that I contacted responded to me about what they plan to do.

Adams: What’s the current status of the court situation? 

Beck: The judge ordered all three companies that are playing a part in this to secure and seal the mine shafts to prevent the flooding. They haven’t done it because they’re still arguing about who’s responsible. There have been several hearings where the companies are supposed to update the judge on what kind of progress they’ve made, but they basically keep evading blame or saying they need more time. After my story came out last month, there was another status hearing, but they asked for more time once again.

A man with white hair, wearing a ball cap, points toward a creek.
James Christian, of Wyoming County, points out that foam is visible on Indian Creek, which he said has contributed to sickness in the community and animal deaths.

Photo Credit: Erin Beck

Adams: So has the problem been fixed? Are residents seeing any difference?

Beck: No. It’s actually getting worse since the story came out. I checked in with one woman who I had spoken to when I was in Wyoming County. She said previously her water didn’t come out black in the morning, like some other residents had experienced. But her water now is coming out black in the morning. Now she’s sick with extreme nausea and fatigue. She even told me that she recently went on a trip to another county, and she felt like her old self again. She said her energy was restored and she felt like a healthy person. As soon as she got back to Wyoming County and had to rely on the water there again, she was back to being sick.

I’ve also seen videos on Facebook. Richard, who I mentioned earlier, has taken the lead on attempting to organize the community around demanding that the coal companies and DDP take responsibility. He posts videos that show that the Indian Creek is looking worse since it was when I visited it. There are places where the creek water itself is black now. Meanwhile, there’s concern that it is flowing into the Guyandotte River. People were telling me that they were affected now and weren’t necessarily affected even a month ago. So the problem is obviously spreading.

I also just wanted to mention that I’ve been a West Virginia resident my entire life, and I always hear about environmental problems in the southern coalfields. I’ve read stories about people being concerned about health problems or the quality of their water. But it really took being there for me to understand the gravity of the issue. Just hearing the disillusionment and the desperation and anger in people’s voices, and seeing the water that they’re expected to drink was very alarming to me.

I really hope that because more news coverage is focusing on this issue, that attention will also be paid to other struggling communities in areas where there are abandoned mines and where coal companies have failed to restore the land, and that they can get some help, too. I hope that Wyoming County rapidly gets some help. I also hope people take away from this that West Virginia is a state where we haven’t adequately prepared for the decline of the coal industry. This sort of thing could happen to them, too. And I hope they don’t just brush aside stories as not something that can happen to them, because this is a widespread problem and will be an ongoing problem.