Environment

State regulators have told an Eastern Kentucky coal mine to immediately cease operations after a pond overflow released iron-laced water into a stream last week and killed hundreds of fish.

The spill at the mine — operated by Hardshell Tipples in Letcher County — sent reddish, acidic water into nearly a mile-and-a-half of Pine Creek, as well as a tributary. More than 700 fish were found dead in the vicinity, and Department for Natural Resources inspectors linked the fish kill with the iron-saturated and acidic water released from the pond in violations they issued to the company.

In addition to the Imminent Danger Cessation Order, the DNR issued three violations to the company earlier this week. Another violation from the Department for Environmental Protection is pending, and cabinet spokesman John Mura said regulators issued an additional Hydrologic Resources (HR) violation today.

“The HR violation directs the company to immediately stop the discharge, obtain a stream restoration plan from the Division of Water, and obtain a fish restocking plan from the Division of Fish and Wildlife or a letter from the Division of Fish and Wildlife stating natural restocking of the stream is sufficient,” Mura said in an email.

Department of Fish and Wildlife spokesman Mark Marraccini said Wednesday that 700 dead fish doesn’t rank as a particularly large fish kill. He said most of the dead fish were minnows, though photographs from an area resident show at least one dead turtle, too.

“Fish kills this time of year in that part of the state are not unusual,” Marraccini said, adding that springtime wet weather often causes mine ponds to overflow, sending acidic water into streams.

“It’s normal, but it shouldn’t be the norm,” said Tim Joice of Kentucky Waterways Alliance. “The myriad of potential mine contributions is clearly affecting water quality on an annual basis.”

According to state data, most of the watershed’s rivers and streams that have been assessed aren’t able to support aquatic life. Many of the causes of impairment can be linked to mining.

But Marraccini said while it’s known the pond at Hardshell Tipples’ coal mine overflowed into Pine Creek, it’s still too soon for sure for Fish and Wildlife to conclude that the spill caused the fish kill. He said the department does have the authority to issue violations for these incidents, but it would likely be several weeks before inspectors officially determine who’s at fault.

In the meantime, Mura said a holding pond has been dug at the mine site to collect overflow water and prevent it from discharging into Pine Creek.