Families from Hughes Creek have begun to return home after the eastern Kanawha County community was evacuated Friday night amid fears that a leaking mine could blow out and flood their homes with sulfur-smelling water, the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection said Saturday afternoon.
The flow of water coming from the old mine, part of the Hugheston Mining Complex, had substantially decreased, returning to the same rate as before Friday’s heavy rains, the DEP said.
“There is nothing to indicate an imminent threat,” said DEP spokeswoman Kelley Gillenwater.
The area smelled strongly of sulfur Saturday afternoon.
A total of 54 people from 16 families in the area of Hughes Creek Road were evacuated Friday night, Gillenwater said. Those people sheltered at Riverside High School, and then were taken to an area hotel early Saturday morning.
Alpha Natural Resources secured the 45 hotel rooms for the displaced residents, Gillenwater said.
Working with Alpha and Kanawha County emergency officials, the DEP began drilling a monitoring well to help keep tabs on the water inside the mine.
The 100-foot hole will be drilled in an existing, vertical bore hole that no longer is in use, the DEP said. It was expected to be finished early Saturday evening.
Chuck Grishaber, the floodplain manager for Kanawha County, said inspectors would use the hole to measure the depth of the water, the volume of the flow and, if need be, to pump water out.
Also Saturday, crews dyed all of the streams near the mine, to determine the source of the water discharging from the mine — a process Gillenwater said might take days.
Friday night, Hughes Creek residents who were gathered in Riverside High said sulfur-smelling water had been pouring from the hillside recently. On Friday, though, the openings in the abandoned mine were higher up on the hillside and more water was pouring out, they said.
“It’s never been as bad as this, as long as I’ve been here,” said Hughes Creek resident Melissa Campbell. “It was seeping out around the entire house. If it were to blow, it would do major, serious damage.”
Paul Burke, whose house sits below the leaks that prompted Friday’s evacuation, has lived on Hughes Creek Road for about 25 years. Burke, a retired Arch Coal miner, said he believes the mine in question was built in the early 1950s in a network about 18 miles long — translating into the potential for millions of gallons of water to flood Hughes Creek at once, if the mine were to blow out.
“The water started to pour out of the top of the hill, so it was coming from the top and the bottom,” he said Saturday. “When it started seeping from above and below, that’s when you knew it had a possibility of all blowing out at one time.”
A blowout occurs when water inside a mine forces open the mine’s seals or blows open the hillside.
State inspectors are evaluating what role an Alpha Natural Resources operation might be playing in the discharges that prompted the evacuation.
Water is discharging from an old “pre-law” portion of the Hugheston Mine Complex that was operated prior to passage of the 1977 federal strip-mining law. Buildup in the mine’s underground tunnels prompted the fear of a blowout.
Parts of the underground voids in the complex are being used by Alpha for disposal and treatment of water from its active operations on the complex.
Roger Calhoun, director of the U.S. Office of Surface Mining’s Charleston field office, said that because a “preliminary look” at mine maps showed the Alpha underground injection in the area, DEP would have to establish with tests whether the site was eligible for federal pre-law cleanup money.
Gillenwater said that DEP has used state general funds for some work at Hughes Creek, including the digging of the ditch by a contractor to divert and collect water from the nearby yards.
DEP Secretary Randy Huffman said the pre-law mine void that is discharging water might be hydrologically connected to a mine Alpha is pumping water into. Another theory, Huffman said, is that a creek is losing some of its water into the mine void.
“We’re still sorting that out,” Huffman said Saturday. “We really don’t know. We hope to be able to sort that out shortly.”
Gillenwater said that, at this point, the problem has not been designated as a project for the Abandoned Mine Land program, which cleans up pre-law mine sites.
“There’s nothing at this point to indicate any interaction in the mine works being used by Alpha to treat the water from its surface-mining site and the pre-law mine the water is discharging from,” she said. “We just don’t know the source at this point.”
Alpha spokesman Steve Hawkins said company officials do not believe the mine involved is an Alpha mine, but that “we are still a member of this community and want to be a good neighbor.”
“We continue to cooperate fully with the DEP to resolve the situation, providing personnel, equipment and expertise,” Hawkins said. “We remained on-site overnight to assist, and continue to do so today.”
Gillenwater said the water could be from creeks, fissures in the ground or rain. The dye tests, which the DEP announced before Friday’s evacuation, should help bring some clarity.
“The dye could come through today or, depending on how complex the pathways in the mine are, it could take weeks,” she said. “We really just don’t know how complex that system is or where the water is going underground. It seems to be a pretty massive mine complex.”
Staff writer David Gutman contributed to this report.