‘Sludge’ documents major pollution spill little noticed outside Appalachia

While I have edited thousands of film, TV, video and Broadway reviews for CNS since I became media editor in 1992, I have not had to review a movie for publication since I was asked to review, of all things, “Animal House” for a quarterly film journal in my hometown of Detroit nearly 30 years ago.

But as a participant in a recent Appalachian study tour sponsored by the Catholic Press Association and the Catholic Committee on Appalachia, I attended a screening of a documentary called simply “Sludge.”

The film tells of a sludge spill in Martin County in eastern Kentucky in 2000 that emptied 306 million gallons onto people’s property lying below a lagoon that had held the sludge. Millions of fish were killed, water systems were damaged, and nearby streams and tributaries had the life choked out of them.

When you think about how much 306 million gallons is, keep in mind that the Exxon Valdez oil spill was a mere 11 million gallons — 1/27th the amount of the sludge spill. And it’s safe to say that the sludge spill didn’t get even 1/27th the media coverage the Exxon Valdez spill did.

Sludge (some will call it “coal slurry”) is the thick mixture of water and chemicals, some of them toxic, used to spray coal before it is shipped to customers, along with the coal waste and noncoal material — some of it toxic as well — washed off from the coal.

The documentary showed trees still marked by the sludge line four years later. Despite the coal company removing truckload after truckload of sludge and replanting grasses, some residents of Martin County are shown digging up the earth only to expose the sludge below.

A lot of “we’re sorry” apologies by the coal company right after the spill quickly degenerate into a battle between the company and Martin County’s citizens. During one meeting, a resident asks the coal firm’s president whether he’d let his son drink a glass full of the sludge. The reply: Yes. Of course, no glass filled with the sludge is produced, and neither is the boy.

The coal company handed off responsibility for the spill by calling it “an act of God.” A six-figure fine for the accident was later lowered to $5,600. A federal Mining Health and Safety Administration inquiry into the spill was, ironically, whitewashed, and the investigator who blew the whistle on the whitewashing had his office and computer searched after he was sent on an out-of-town assignment. He was later fired. After fighting for two years to get his job back, he gave up and took an early retirement.

There may be a few bad words in the movie, but they don’t compare to the obscenity of the sludge spill and the subsequent coverup.

Three years after its release, “Sludge” is still third on the best-seller list of all videos and CDs sold by the online “general store” run by Appalshop, the Kentucky nonprofit arts and education center that produced the documentary.

As a coda, Glenmary Father John Rausch, who led the study tour, told of how, a few weeks after “Sludge” had been released in 2005, he went with a friend to see the source of the spill. He said they were met on the county road by two armed guards from the mining company, who told them, “This road is closed.” Father Rausch objected, telling the guards the county road belonged to the people, but seeing the weapons convinced the priest to back down and head in the other direction.

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