Mine Water Is Spewing into this West Virginia Community While Companies Squabble Over Who Is Responsible

Since the Pinnacle Mining Complex discharged dirty mine water into area creeks, locals report polluted drinking water and widespread illness.

Ellie Heffernan

Richard Altizer leans against his ATV after pulling over to point out a site fouled by mine water up the road from his home in Wolf Pen, W.Va. Photo by Isabel Stellato

WOLF PEN, W.Va.—Trees line Tina Christian’s driveway, and the rolling mountains of southern West Virginia rise around her yard. Her grandchildren play in the peaceful creek that twists through the woods behind her trailer.

Or, at least, they did — until a geyser of dirty mine water shot out of an abandoned gas well behind the home in February 2023. It flooded the yard for weeks. Now, Tina and her husband, Jamie, are afraid to have their grandchildren visit at all.

I’d hate for them to come down here and visit and spend the night, and ten years down the road, they find out they’ve got cancer from playing at momaw and popaw’s house,” Tina Christian says.

The geyser in the Christians’ backyard was only the beginning of more than a year’s worth of environmental damage caused, according to the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), by improperly discharged mine water from the Pinnacle Mining Complex, which entered local waterways. 

Coal companies are required to clean up the environmental damage they cause, but they often dodge this responsibility by filing for bankruptcy — which results in various chunks of a mining complex being sold off to different companies.

Creeks, once healthy and full of fish, locals say, are now contaminated with wispy white gunk and coffee-colored foam. Community members who rely on wells for drinking water say it now comes out filled with little black flecks or rusty brown. The Christians say everyone in the area — them included — is getting sick with nausea, diarrhea, headaches and sores. 

Since the event, several people have died suddenly from cancer.

It’s clear that mine water was improperly discharged, and the DEP concluded the discharge presented an imminent danger to public health. 

What’s in dispute is who should be cleaning it up. As a result, no one is. 

The DEP determined responsibility lies with a company called Pinn MC Wind Down — a spinoff of the now bankrupt Pinnacle Mining Company — and ordered it to stop mining and take all necessary actions to prevent discharge. Then the finger-pointing began. 

Pinn MC Wind Down responded by arguing that, actually, the discharge was the responsibility of Bluestone Resources — a company owned by the family of West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice. Bluestone had purchased some of the Pinnacle Mining Complex from Mission Coal Company after it filed for bankruptcy in 2018. So Pinn MC Wind Down sued Bluestone, which then countersued Pinn MC Wind Down and also another mining company, Alpha Metallurgical Resources, which had also bought a portion of the Pinnacle Mining Complex after Mission Coal went under. 

This tangled web of ownership is actually common in modern American coal mining. Since 1977, coal companies have been required to clean up the environmental damage they cause, but they often dodge this responsibility by filing for bankruptcy — which results in various chunks of a mining complex being sold off to different companies, as happened with Pinnacle.

The system is broken,” says Autumn Crowe, interim executive director at West Virginia Rivers Coalition. We have communities that don’t have access to clean drinking water, and they don’t know where to turn for help. The DEP says, You need to contact the mining company.’ The mining company says, This isn’t from our mine. This isn’t our responsibility.’ So, everybody is pointing fingers on who is responsible.”

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None of the three companies responded to requests for comment. In an emailed response to questions, a DEP representative told In These Times that after the agency took enforcement measures, the discharge from the mine is in compliance with the applicable water quality standards,” according to monitoring reports submitted by Pinn MC Wind Down. 

Richard Altizer, for one, isn’t buying it. A good friend of the Christians, Altizer will give anyone who will listen a tour of the environmental damage wrought upon his community. Driving an ATV up hills and main roads, he points out places where he and Jamie have found discharge in local creeks. He points out the many homes of families who live on land leased from Bluestone Resources, which he says prevents many folks from speaking out publicly. He also points out the homes of neighbors who have suddenly fallen ill since the geyser first erupted — including the homes of his two late friends, a pair of brothers who died in the past year.

One of them, they didn’t even know what caused it,” Altizer says. He’d lost so much weight. His belly got big. They cut him open. They couldn’t find anything wrong with him. Sent him home. He died two days later. And they drunk that water out of that well every day.” 

Jamie Christian holds a jar of water from a neighbor's well. Residents say discharge from the Pinnacle Mining Complex has contaminated area creeks and drinking water. Photo by Ellie Heffernan

Over the past year, Altizer has been meticulously investigating environmental damage he says is responsible for his friends’ deaths. He’s taken dozens of photographs and videos, spoken with various government officials and agencies, printed out hundreds of pages of records — and paid for independent testing. 

One such test, conducted by researchers from Virginia Tech at one community member’s house, found more than three times the recommended amount of manganese, eight times the recommended amount of sodium and nine times the recommended amount of lead. Lead poisoning in particular is linked to some of the symptoms community members are experiencing, including fatigue, nausea and headaches. 

The DEP representative told In These Times by email that the agency has investigated every complaint it received about impacts to private wells and has not found any evidence of mining operations impacting private water wells” in the area. DEP, the representative said, is aware of statements about independent tests showing different results but has been unable to corroborate these results through its own rigorous testing.” 

Altizer says he couldn’t let his friends and neighbors drink that poison,” as he describes it, and he’s spent more than $8,000 on tests and bottled water so far. That number will keep rising until someone is held accountable for the damages. Because, for now, Altizer’s pocketbook and a GoFundMe are among the few providers of clean drinking water in the community of Wolf Pen.

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ELLIE HEFFERNAN is a freelance writer based in West Virginia.

Democratic Rep. Summer Lee, who at the time was a candidate for the state House, at a demonstration in Pittsburgh for Antwon Rose, who was killed by police, in 2018. Lee recently defeated her 2024 primary challenger.
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