LOST CREEK, Ky. — Families along Upper River Caney and Lower River Caney roads recall how the floodwaters that rushed through their narrow hollow turned from a muddy brown to a charcoal gray late last month.
Within minutes of the color change, the water rose so high that it picked up homes, cars, sheds, boulders, trees, staircases, swingsets and swimming pools. The debris turned into dangerous projectiles as the water rushed down through the community. Many residents fled into the mountainside and waited out the storm as the ashy water and mud cascaded down the hills that surrounded them.
One person from the community is still missing, and another was killed. Officials expect Breathitt County to be without water utilities until December.
Now 59 people who live in this narrow hollow hope to hold Blackhawk Mining and its subsidiary Pine Branch Mining, which together operate a nearby coal mine, accountable. On Monday, they filed a case in Breathitt County Circuit Court: the first large-scale lawsuit against a coal company since the historic flooding late last month killed at least 37 people in east Kentucky.
The area is a poverty-stricken region with a long history of and economic ties to coal mining, and it bears the scars of strip mining and mountaintop removal that many believe can worsen flooding. The plaintiffs allege that the failure of the companies’ silt ponds, aggravated by the mining operation’s damage to the land, led to the widespread destruction of their community and the contamination of their drinking water.
Blackhawk did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Residents here said that they were raised, fed and clothed by the jobs created by coal mining but that they believed the companies operating the mines have acted irresponsibly and without regard for those who have called the area home for generations. Many of those displaced by the storm are living with family or neighbors, in travel trailers or in tents pitched on the cleared patches of dirt where their homes once stood.
“This all comes back to the coal companies,” Clay Fugate, whose house is closest to the mine, said as he stood on top of the nearest silt pond. “Look at this devastation. I’ve lived here for 24 years, and it’s never been in my yard, in my house. Never been.”
Fugate and his family fled their home and stood on nearby high ground until daybreak, spending more than six hours in the pouring rain. They watched as water crashed down the hollow, and spent the night fearing the entire community — including multiple family members — had been washed away. Luckily, they were all safe.
The crux of the problem, according to the lawsuit, is the mine’s silt retention ponds: artificial bodies that collect excess water, debris, sediment and more from the companies’ mining operations. They allege Blackhawk and Pine Branch did not maintain the ponds, causing them to fail and flushing waves of contaminated water into their community.
In the days after the flood, Fugate and his wife took pictures of the retaining wall of a pond about a half-mile up the creek from their house. It had lost much of its support, and when the drainage system failed to work, water overtopped its edge, pushing out the rock that had reinforced it. That caused a 20-foot waterfall to appear, which was still pouring into the creek below days after the worst of the flooding had subsided. It was fixed the next week, residents said.
The lawsuit says the “failure of the silt ponds caused debris and excessive water to flow onto the Plaintiffs’ properties and caused damages” and contends that “debris, sediment, and other matter, including fish, escaped from the silt ponds and came onto the property of many of the Plaintiffs,” which is a violation of Kentucky regulations that prohibit mining companies from allowing materials and debris to escape their land.
All of it, the complaint says, was worsened by the companies’ having “partially reclaimed or unreclaimed mining operations above populated areas.” Kentucky requires the “reclamation of mining properties, which the Defendants failed to comply with, thus exacerbating the flooding damage,” says the complaint, which also alleges that the many homes’ “well water supply was destroyed, interrupted, or polluted” by the companies’ actions.
Without that work, the complaint says, the ponds and the alleged negligence were “ticking time bombs ready to explode with any type of heavy rainfall.”
“I think it’s important to get these people in the court now and just to speed up the process,” said the local lawyer who filed the lawsuit on behalf of the families, Ned Pillersdorf, who has battled coal companies over negligent flooding in the past. “We need to give these people hope. I’m really worried about the economic state of these people. It just economically devastated so many.”
Blackhawk and Pine Branch have not contacted any of the homeowners NBC News spoke to on Thursday and Friday about the flooding. Pine Branch has, however, sent out a notice that it intends to begin blasting again and will continue through next July.
A representative from the mine company had to post its notice at the bottom of Gregory Chase Hays’ door because the floodwater had swept away his stoop. Hays’ family of five is living 80 miles away with his mother because an inspector told them that the trailer’s frame had been bent in such a way that the front of the home was pulling away from the rest of the structure.
Hays and his family had to fight their way through water and break through a neighbor’s garden fence to get to safety the night of the storm. The mud rose up their legs, and fewer than 50 feet, Hays said, felt like miles, as he and his son carried his mother-in-law, who has an amputated leg, to safety.
Whenever it rains now, Hays’ 7-year-old daughter puts her shoes on in preparation. She prayed out loud for God to take her and save her family as the floodwaters rose, Hays recalled.
Hays, who climbed the nearby mountain to call for rescuers, also called Pillersdorf about the suit and told him that his neighbors needed help. He admitted that he fears that others in the in the area may resent him for it.
“Everyone here has a connection to coal, and I know it’s going to break some ties,” Hays said outside his home. “I just really dread it so badly, but it has to happen. All of us here need help.”
The water’s destructive path is still clear in this small community, where family plots and collective memories go back generations. Twisted scraps of metal are all that remain of homes and family cars. The raging river that allegedly started at the silt pond has returned to the shallow creek that has long babbled down a deep ditch that slices through the hollow.
Jack Spadero, the former director of the National Mine Health and Safety Academy, who has testified as an expert witness in numerous coal mine lawsuits in recent years, watched drone video shot by a resident in the River Caney area. He said that it was clear that the damage was the result of a lack of reclamation work and silt pond failures and that it is not the only example of its occurring in east Kentucky.
“The really severe damage, where there was mud and debris and rocks that destroyed the homes in a tidal wave-like event, are related to the mining that was done at the headwaters of the watershed at the mountaintop removal sites,” he said. “We know it was a sizable rainfall, but in the watersheds that were not mined, there was a flood, water got up and then it went back down, but it didn’t do the damage that was done in the watersheds where mining took place.”
As a result, the sense of safety and security that many felt here has disappeared, and many question whether they can continue living in the area.
Burley and Brittney White, who are siblings, live next door to their parents in separate homes with their spouses and children. Burley, 28, lost his entire home, which he and his wife had poured their life savings into. They saw the water turn from brown to gray when it suddenly rose. The siblings dashed up the mountainside with their kids and parents. They spent the night in a family cemetery under a small, low-hanging pavilion.
Eight adults and seven kids huddled together for hours. The Whites left the hollow and did not return until they heard from others that the nearest pond had been repaired.
“We just got to hold them accountable, and if they’re liable, they need to pay,” Burley White said. “People are struggling mentally out here after all this. It just don’t feel right, but we got to make sure it don’t happen again.”