Last Thursday, Glen and Mat from Coal River Mountain Watch and the Prenter Water Fund came to Wesleyan to give a lecture on the effects of coal mining. What are the effects? In short: People are dying.

Their presentation focused on the town of Prenter, West Virginia. Prenter once had some of the cleanest water in the world, but in the last 10 years it has become so polluted that the residents of Prenter require clean water to be brought in by truck. This has happened because of because of a process called Underground Coal Slurry Injection. Before coal mining corporations (Massey Energy in the area around Prenter) can sell coal to power companies, they must wash the coal to remove some of the most dangerous elements restricted by the Clean Air Act. They do this by using huge amounts of water (coal companies in West Virginia have used an amount of water 4.3 times the volume of Lake Ontario) and more than 50 chemicals (many of them known carcinogens), to rinse the coal until it is clean enough to be burned. The leftover sludge is known as slurry, and is a hazardous waste. Not only does it contain lead, mercury, manganese, and arsenic from the coal, but it also contains the chemicals used to clean it, many of which are secret because they are patented by Dow Chemical.

What is done with this poisonous sludge? One of two things. It is either put into sludge lakes, such as the one that collapsed in Tennessee last December, or it is injected into abandoned mine shafts. The shafts are supposed to be lined with limestone and concrete, but this rule is poorly enforced and is often ignored by coal companies. Incredibly poisonous coal sludge is being injected into mine shafts, which are almost always uphill and upstream from communities. There are more than 692 known, suspected, or proposed injection sites in West Virginia alone. Bad idea.

As you would expect, the sludge does not always stay in the mine shafts, especially because of the 3 million tons of explosives that are used every day to destroy the mountains of West Virginia. In 2001, when heavy explosives began to be used to perform mountaintop removal on a mountain in Prenter, the water in Prenter began to become poisonous. When coal is not disturbed, it functions as an enormous carbon filter, making the well water in areas around coal seams some of the cleanest in the world. However, the blasting has released some of the coal sludge stored in mine shafts. The water is Prenter is now poisonous, and often runs black, red, or brown.

Map of Prenter, WV

The Prenter water contains mercury, lead, arsenic, manganese (all at levels 10-250 times the legal limits), and, significantly, hydrogen sulfide gas. Hydrogen sulfide gas in the well water of one Prenter household was measured at 30 parts per million. To put this number in context: water that smells like rotten eggs has a rate of less than 1 ppm and in industrial facilities 15 ppm is the evacuation level. The drinking water in Prenter is twice the industrial evacuation limit. Hydrogen sulfide gas is extremely corrosive and can break a washing machine in about three months. Think of what it does to your stomach.

People in Prenter have developed many diseases and conditions, which are clearly related to the poison in their water. They seem to improve greatly and quickly when people stop drinking the water. Residents have developed a slew of various gastrointestinal conditions, urinary tract infections, and rare cancers such as esophagus cancer. On one street in Prenter, 98% of residents have had their gallbladders removed (the statewide rate is 3%). One man reported that three months after he stopped drinking the Prenter water, his intestinal polyps receded 40%. Other people who have stopped using the water for bathing stopped getting urinary tract infections.

Sadly it is almost impossible to prove in court that the water is causing these health effects (though I have not heard of any other communities with gallbladder removal rates of 98%). The state has promise to provide municipal water to 60% of Prenter sometime in the next two years, and the Prenter Water Fund has been working tirelessly to bring in clean water to the community, but the root of the problem still must be dealt with. Mountaintop removal must be stopped, and slurry injections and impoundments must be banned. Until then we will only have more Martin Countys and more Prenters.

  • Anonymous

    “The state has promiseD to provide…”

    small typo in the last paragraph.

    This was very interesting and informative. Something I never heard of nor read about. Thanks for the good read.

    Also,what steps are being made to raise awareness/take action in Prenter? From what you have written, there seems to be a more than coincidental rate of high illness.

  • Elisa Young

    I want to thank you for getting the word out on this life and health-threatrening issue on behalf of the precious people in Prenter Hollow.

    Coal is not clean…coal kills.

    It should not be forced on the communities being targeted by the coal industry who have no resources to scientifically and legally prove the route that the poisons being injected into the earth around them is what’s oozing into their drinking water supply and out their water faucets!

    It should be illegal to inject them there in the first place.

    The article above is not an exaggeration. I went with community organizers to help gather heavy metal hair sample analysis in support of getting a human health study. It left me speechless when a mother in one of the homes, which smelled strongly of chemicals, shared with us that if they capped off their water well for 24 hours it would burn.

    You heard me right, the water will ignite.

    Why should this matter to us? Because their lives matter!! People in the coalfields are not expendable coal-collateral damage.

    I also happen to live in a community in SE Ohio that is getting hit hard by the coal industry:

    Industry has promised to intensively mine our community for the next 40 years to supply concentration of existing and proposed power plants around us (9 within an approximate 10-mile radius total). When we expressed objections to their only being less than a foot from the top of the earthen dam of their proposed sludge impoundment (dirt is certainly prone to erosion) holding it back from our community, their chief engineer informed us that we “didn’t need to worry about that” because after the first 5 years they intend to inject the toxins into abandoned mines as they go!!

    Yes, into a mine that overlaps with the drinking water supply.

    Is that supposed to be a comfort that we won’t get sludged by a dam break, but we will most likely have our children and grandchildren DRINK it??

    American Electric Power bought and depopulated the majority of one of the villages closest to us where emissions blow across us on a regular basis as the result of “clean coal” gone bad. The people who have lived on the same land that has sustained their families in Appalachia for generations are simply in the way of the increasing demand for a diminishing, toxic, energy supply. This insanity has to stop.

    The only way I see that happening is by raising awareness that there actually is a problem going on and changing the way we generate our power.

    For people who are making that difference, please visit:

    Elisa Young
    Meigs Citizens Action Now!

  • Marty

    Well-written and incredibly informative! Thanks for putting this together, Jon.

    I like that you pointed out that some of the most pristine waters in Appalachia bubble through coal seams (which act as carbon filters), but once we disturb the carbon matrix and mix things up, it becomes poison.

    I think the water issue is the biggest argument against coal burning and extraction. We’re literally sacrificing the most basic resource (for generations to come) for seemingly cheap energy. We gotta make this stop.

    It would be good to have a followup on the work being done to stop these injections and sludge ponds. Perhaps highlight the efforts of grassroots groups working to raise awareness and apply pressure, including the Sludge Safety Project and OVEC.

    Thanks again Jon! Keep up the good work.

  • Ayn Rand

    Who is John Galt?

  • Social Democrat

    who the fuck cares?


  • Jennifer R.

    I agree that the harm to Prenter’s residents needs to stop, but the side effect of halting coal mining would be wide-spread unemployment, which is also not good for the town.

  • Jon Booth

    the amount of coal miners in west virginia has dropped from 150,000 to less than 15,000 in the last 20 years.

  • colleen

    thanks for spreading the word about prenter, jon!

    another grassroots group to check out is the Prenter Water Fund,

    jennifer – an undeniable trend in the transition from deep mining to strip mining to mountaintop removal has been the mechanization of the work, which leads to unemployment.
    massey energy and it’s CEO don blankenship are notorious for breaking up unions, and for employing one person in a family or neighborhood and using the need for that one job to keep everyone else silent. there have even been places that coal companies have written up depopulation plans for entire towns. they don’t care about the people or land, they just want the feeling of power and the cold hard cash.
    there are other things people could do, if the coal company wasn’t intentionally keeping out meaningful, truly sustainable work.

  • Michelle Cantley Jackson

    Boone County, I have fond memories.And then there were the blasts. I lost my first family home. The blasting little by little shaking the foundation , The entire structure. 10 years old burnt to the ground!!!!I still own this propery, pay taxes, cant use it. The mine is closed,full of water, seeps out of solid rock.
    The driest days its still wet. It runs out of my mountian.I PAY TAXES ON IT STILL.
    GLAD I DIDNT HAVE TO DRINK FROM A WELL.But my father lives in Prenter.
    SO I CARE!

  • Hmmm

    Well if the tree huggers would stay out the business of Southern West Virginians, we would be a whole lot better off. These people come into our area from places as farr of as California. They bring negative media attention to our communities and try to reak havoc on the coal companies. If these people only knew the truth to the matter is that the coal companies pay a lot of tax monies that help to fund schools, roads and other ammenities and coal companies keep many West Virginians employed and off of Welfare and other government handouts. So before you come into an area, you better make damn sure you are wanted by the majority of the people in the area, not just a few, redneck, liberal radicals that want to raise cain about anything and everything, such as the Coal River Mountain Watch who are based out of Whitesville, which by road is 15-20 miles away from Prenter and no one who is affiliated with this crap even lives there. So these people need to STFU and stay in CALI with the homosexuals.

  • Oddly coincidental

    Found the 98% of population gall bladder removal interesting…. I live in a neighborhood where so far 7 people in a small block area(about 25 homes) have had their gallbladders removed and 1 who had a ruptured appendix. Could these be the result of water contamination? Or just oddly coincidental? We do not live near any mining but do live on/near a granite quarry.

  • Sherry Young

    An article was sent to me from the Mpls Tribune. We moved here from Mn. I had to find out about the AWFUL water in Prenter from far away. It is hard to believe there is water out there like that. We had good water to drink in Mn. Shouldn’t everyone be entitled to that???

  • hi

    i hate hippies

  • Jessica

    These aren’t hippies. These are people who have lived there all of their lives, long before the greedy coal companies came along and started blowing up the mountains and poisoning innocent people. Ignorant.