By Jamie Vinson/Managing editor
An Eastern student-faculty research team has had its hands full this semester comparing coal waste survey results from two Kentucky counties. Members say their efforts have paid off and hope the information they gathered could help prevent an environmental disaster in the future.
The team held a town meeting at the Jenny Wiley State Park Conference Center Nov. 9-10 to discuss its findings with Martin County residents. Stephanie McSpirit, an assistant professor in the department of anthropology, sociology and social work and leader of the research team, said the team is composed of 10 students and two Eastern faculty members.
McSpirit said the town meeting was beneficial for those involved with the project.
“We learned as much from residents that were there as they learned from our survey report,” she said. “The town meeting reinforced that the focus of this project is on reporting survey results that reflect the views of Martin County residents.”
The team also presented its findings to several Appalachian Regional Commissioners at a conference in Washington, D.C., who heard presentations from other universities with Appalachian Studies Centers as well.
The Martin County Project was launched last fall to obtain community reaction to the coal slurry spill in Oct. of 2000. The spill sent over 250 gallons of coal waste into two major creek arteries that feed into the Tug Fork of the Big Sandy River.
McSpirit said the team began to focus on Perry County this year to contrast and compare Martin County results.
“Perry County served as a good control,” McSpirit said. “We selected Perry County because it also classified as an ‘impoundment community’ insofar as there were two large impoundments that anchored the district area that we decided to survey in Perry County.”
McSpirit said Perry County matched Martin County in other ways. It is a core-coal producing county and classifies as an economically distressed county.
“We reasoned that any abrupt differences in our survey comparison between Martin and Perry County responses might largely be due to the impact of the disaster on Martin County residents,” McSpirit said. “Hence, by doing survey work in our control community, we were trying to make a good, scientifically clean effort at measuring the impact of the coal sludge spill on Martin County residents in our community impact study.”
The team distributed surveys to 464 homes in Martin County, of which 290 were returned. Out of the 458 homes surveyed in Perry County, 249 surveys were returned. The team asked residents to evaluate things such as the quality of life in the community, the quality of the natural
environment, drinking water, etc.
For instance, 80 percent of Martin County residents said the drinking water was a serious problem, while 24 percent of Perry County said the water was a major concern. The team also asked residents questions about
whether or not they felt a coal waste impoundment could rupture in the future, whether residents should be compensated for the spill, etc.
Cathy Reeser is a senior social work major and has been working with the project since its beginning. She said she had been following the events of the spill in Martin County before she enrolled in the class and was excited to be able to do hands-on research.
“Being out in the community, touring the spill, talking with people, walking door to door surveying and presenting results to the public are experiences you cannot receive in an in-house classroom,” Reeser said.
Aleshia Wilson, a sociology and psychology major, said she first joined the team because she thought it would look good on her resume, but a lot has changed since then, adding the past few months have been the experience
of a lifetime.
“Having the chance to speak personally through interviews with those who experience the tragedy firsthand has been wonderful,” Wilson said. “Though it hurts to think of putting such a meaningful part of college life in my past, I will never forget it. Now, it simply means everything.”
The next step
McSpirit said the team is in the process of building a final report that will be presented to the Kentucky Appalachian Regional Commission. She said the last portion of the project has been funded by K-ARC FLEX-E-Grant Distressed Counties initiative.
“The K-ARC has allowed us to finish our survey sweep in Perry County and has allowed us to establish a Citizen Advisory Committee,” McSpirit said, adding the committee is composed of six members who will guide the direction and focus of the final report.
“I am going to start consulting with them more directly in the weeks ahead in formulating and prioritizing the recommendations that will be reported in the final report,” she said. McSpirit said recommendations will consist of the team’s suggestions for helping to prevent another coal sludge disaster from happening again.