Martha Reclamation Program: Dump and Run

Toxic Soup: Ashland's Radioactive Sludge Pits

Toxic Soup: Radiation at Blaine Elementary School

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Yatesville Lake: Dead Sea II?...almost

Yatesville Lake was finished in 1991 when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers dammed Blaine Creek in Lawrence County, Kentucky.  The headwaters of Blaine Creek lie in the Martha Oil Field.  We have an interesting view into the politics of Yatesville Lake from the memoirs of Brig. Gen. Richard S. Kern who was commanding general of the Ohio River Division of the US Army Corps of Engineers at the time Yatesville was built.

Gen. Kern, from page 301…

When I arrived, I found myself faced with a lot of pressure from Congressman Perkins to get started on building 18-mile long Yatesville Lake.  At the same time, there were questions on the environment.  Huntington District came in one day and said, “We have a major problem.  We’ve tested the waters of the river, and it has an extremely high brine content because the Martha Oil Field is located just above it.”
Ashland Oil was operating this oil field, and they had a low-level extraction procedure going on.  Long ago the wells were basically finished, and now they were pumping brine into the wells to force out oil.  They were reaping very little, like a barrel a week, from some of them.
They were running that brine straight down the hillside into the streams, heading towards the creek that became the river that was going to become the lake behind Yatesville Dam.  Huntington District said, “We’re going to have Dead Sea II here if we build this lake.  It will be too briny; it will not support fishing or anything else.”
When that had been passed to Congressman Perkins, he said, “It’s all false.  Best bass fishing in the world is right there where those two tributaries come together and where we were going to build that dam.  I catch bass there all the time.  Best bass fishing in the world.”
When you reviewed the brine content of samples measured by Huntington District, you knew that we had two views of the world here [laughter].

So Congressman Perkins was determined to get his Yatesville Lake, come hell or high water, so to speak.  And Huntington District of the US Army Corps of Engineers was afraid Yatesville Lake would become Dead Sea II because Ashland Oil was dumping so much brine water into the creeks that would feed Yatesville.  Now back to Gen. Kern on page 302…
I asked for further analysis to be done on where the flows were coming from.  Meanwhile, I’d gone down to the Martha Oil Field and walked it, and I was appalled – absolutely appalled – to see what Ashland Oil was dumping down those hillsides.  I mean, you’d go up there and you’d see this eroded ditch coming out of a wellhead, running down the hill toward a stream, and it would be brown-orange colored from the stuff that had come out of there over time.  It was just running raw down the hillside – an absolute disregard for the environment.  I was really appalled.

Gen, Kern, the really appalling thing is what you couldn’t see, the radioactivity that was brought up from the shale formation by the brine water.  How are you going to build a lake with Ashland’s pollution feeding it?  Back to Gen. Kern, page 302…
Meanwhile, as mentioned, we had Huntington District doing further studies as to how the stuff got to the Big Sandy River and to the potential lake and what would happen.  What we discovered was that there were two components, surface runoff and ground water.  We also found a fault area through there, so we traced that.
What we found was that the way the fault lay, the subsurface water, the ground water, would be cut off before it got to the lake area and would go elsewhere.  Where the aquifers came in, they met up against an impervious wall area, and they were diverted elsewhere.  An important find – the briny ground water was cut off from going into the lake project area.

Well, congratulations Gen. Kern!  A geologic fault line diverts the briny ground water contamination away from your project site to “elsewhere.”  Guess what, we live in “elsewhere.”  Now that your ground water contamination problem is settled, how are you going to deal with the surface runoff?  Once again, Gen. Kern on pages 302-303…
So, with this, we developed a scheme that said we would design the lake, and we would isolate the lake from the Martha Oil Field by closing down discharges and the brine source.  Huntington District had come back with a proposal that we buy out the Martha Oil Field from Ashland for $50 million.  I thought that was not a worthwhile expenditure of federal funds.  We really ought to get Ashland to do what the nation had mandated, and that was to clean up the environment.  We needed to get the Commonwealth of Kentucky to act.  Being good responsible citizens, they would obviously want to do the same thing.
So, Huntington District approached the governor’s office and found that there was not great interest at the moment in cleaning it up.  Consequently, we went into a briefing one day for Congressman Perkins, I was going to lay out for him how we were going to proceed because he was badgering Chairman Bevill to get money for the project in that year’s budget to get started…
…In our meetings with EPA, we felt that we could go into the environmental impact process and demonstrate that if Kentucky cleaned up their law so Ashland Oil would stop contaminating, we could move it through EPA and Fish and Wildlife and show we were doing a good thing for the environment…
…That process was what we took to Congressman Perkins…Basically, he threw us out of the office at that point.  He told General John Wall, the Director of Civil Works, who was with us, that he wanted some of those combat generals, not all these environmental generals to talk to him [laughter]…
…Anyway, he basically threw us out of the office because he didn’t want to hear about going to the state to force Ashland Oil into compliance. 

So the Army Corps of Engineers went to the governor’s office to get Ashland to clean up their mess in the Martha Oil Field so the Army could safely build Yatesville Lake.  The governor’s office basically wasn’t interested in upsetting Ashland.  And Congressman Perkins definitely did not want to open that can of worms, so he threw them out of his office.  The only help the Army got was from Mother Nature, providing that geologic fault line to block the flow of contaminated ground water to Yatesville Lake.
The Army assumed that the surface runoff problem was fixed, since by the time the lake was finished most of the wells in the Martha Oil Field had been abandoned.  However their attention was on the brine in the runoff, hence the lake’s nickname Dead Sea II.  What about the continuing runoff from our radioactive sludge pits and other hot spots?  Check out the above video Toxic Soup: Ashland's Radioactive Sludge Pits.
Ashland, clean up your mess!

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