Marsh Fork air quality unknown
More than 200 students returned Friday for their first day of classes at Marsh Fork Elementary School in Raleigh County.
A day earlier, the Manchin administration had declared the school — adjacent to a Massey Energy coal processing facility and slurry impoundment — safe. But government records and interviews with state officials showed Friday that questions about the school remain.
Education officials, for example, never tested the air quality inside Marsh Fork for coal dust or any toxic chemicals.
“We don’t look for chemicals,” said Bill Elswick, executive director of school facilities for the West Virginia Education Department. “Which chemicals do you look for? There’s a bazillion of them.”
A week before school opened, the state’s top epidemiologist cautioned that a Bureau for Public Health review was not broad enough to really tell if students are being made sick by the school.
The health risks to students “remain unknown,” state epidemiologist Loretta Haddy wrote in an Aug. 19 letter to the school system.
In opening the school, Raleigh County officials relied on a Tuesday letter in which Elswick advised them “the scheduled opening of this facility should continue as planned.”
“Based upon the information collected to date from federal environmental regulators, as well as the results of the aforementioned investigation by Governor [Joe] Manchin’s administration, the West Virginia Department of Education is not currently aware of any compromise to the indoor environment at Marsh Fork Elementary School that may effect the health or safety of children,” Elswick wrote in the three-page letter.
In an interview Friday, Elswick said a report on his agency’s Thursday inspection of the Marsh Fork school would not be available until later this week.
An earlier inspection, conducted July 7, found no problems, Elswick said. But, the Education Department inspections did not include testing to determine the actual quality of the air inside or outside the school, Elswick said.
Instead, the department tests dust levels inside and outside in a manner that tells inspectors only if the building’s ventilation filters are working properly.
“We don’t analyze the particulate level,” Elswick said. “We don’t have the skills to do that.”
Department inspectors look for signs of mold and, in a visual inspection, did not find deposits of coal dust in the building, Elswick said.
“I didn’t see any coal dust,” Elswick said. “I didn’t see any anomalies at all.”
Education officials did not run any tests to determine if students are being exposed to any toxic chemicals, Elswick said.
“I’m not an expert in the health side of it,” he said. “We’re experts in the heating, ventilation, and mechanical systems.”
Since late June, the Massey subsidiary Goals Coal site near Sundial has been under increasing scrutiny from regulators and coalfield residents.
On June 30, state Environmental Protection Secretary Stephanie Timmermeyer renewed permits for the impoundment and approved construction of the second of two new coal silos at the site.
Last month, the DEP rescinded the silo permit, after learning that the structure was built outside the operation’s original permit boundary. Under state and federal law, no new mining operations are allowed within 300 feet of a school. Initially, the DEP said the Goals site was exempt from that rule because the area was part of a permit boundary before the 1977 federal strip mine law was passed.
Raleigh County residents have complained that coal dust and chemical emissions from the Goals Coal facility are endangering Marsh Fork students.
Massey officials have not returned repeated phone calls seeking comment.
In early July, Manchin ordered a thorough investigation of the site after Ed Wiley, whose granddaughter attends the school, launched a sit-in protest on the Capitol steps.
Over the past week, state agencies reported to Manchin general counsel Carte Goodwin to outline the findings of their parts of the Goals Coal investigation.
In her Aug. 19 report, Timmermeyer said the DEP and inspectors from the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration believed that Goals Coal’s Shumate Impoundment is safe.
“The extensive oversight by federal and state regulatory agencies indicates that the impoundment has been constructed and is maintained in accordance with federal and state laws,” Timmermeyer wrote.
On Aug. 23, state mine safety chief Doug Conaway reported that his agency does not believe exposure to chemicals used in the preparation plant is making Goals Coal workers sick. But in an Aug. 19 letter, Haddy, of the public health bureau, reported that the number of cancer causes in the Marsh Fork area “may be slightly above that which would be expected.”
Haddy said the increase was by less than one case per year, and said this “appears to be associated with the age structure of the population.” The median age is 41 years, compared to 38.9 years for West Virginia as a whole, Haddy wrote.
As part of its review, the public health bureau — part of the state Department of Health and Human Resources — did not collect its own data about local health concerns or conditions in the Marsh Fork area.
In her two-page letter, Haddy said her office reviewed a health survey provided by Bo Webb of the Whitesville-based group Coal River Mountain Watch. More than half of those who responded reported respiratory concerns such as asthma, bronchitis, allergies or other breathing problems. Others reported headaches, nausea or stomach problems.
“However, because of the way the survey was conducted and the wording of the questions, it is not possible to generalize from the survey to the school population as a whole,” Haddy wrote. “Thus, the rates of these health concerns among Marsh Fork children and whether those rates exceed those which would be expected in a similar group of children not exposed to the coal prep plant remain unknown.”
Haddy said her agency talked to one local doctor who reported “one or two children with symptoms of allergies but who responded to no specific allergens, four or five children between the ages of 3 and 6 years who were diagnosed with learning disabilities and two children with persistent rashes.
“However, [the doctor] stated that he believed the problems were being caused by mercury emissions from power plants and dioxins transmitted via the air from the Charleston area,” Haddy wrote.