Drowning Deaths Last Summer From Flooding in Eastern Kentucky’s Coal Country Linked to Poor Strip-Mine Reclamation

A social justice group asks the Interior Department to review the adequacy of federal law as climate change supercharges storms and turns coal hollows into dangerous chutes of water.

A rescue team from the Jackson Fire Department assists people out of floodwaters downtown on July 28, 2022 in Jackson, Kentucky. Credit: Michael Swensen/Getty Images
A rescue team from the Jackson Fire Department assists people out of floodwaters downtown on July 28, 2022 in Jackson, Kentucky. Credit: Michael Swensen/Getty Images

Share this article

When public health nurse Beverly May plotted the locations of 36 drowning deaths from last summer’s torrential rains in eastern Kentucky, she felt a chill. Virtually all of them occurred downstream from large-scale strip mines at the head of mountain hollows. 

These devastated landscapes, sometimes abandoned without adequate reclamation and with sediment-choked retention ponds that cannot hold  runoff, produced what some victims have described as a “rapid tidal wave” of water that seemed to have trapped some and left others scrambling for higher ground.

“It was pretty chilling to see the location of the deaths, and to follow up a stream and see these large-scale mines at the head of the hollows,” May said after a news conference with reporters. “I hope anyone who looks at the map will have the same reaction.” 

She and other volunteers for Kentuckians for the Commonwealth (KFTC), a social justice nonprofit, hope Interior Secretary Deb Haaland reaches the same conclusion when she reviews the interactive map and studies a letter KFTC sent Monday to Haaland and other federal officials. The letter asks the federal government to determine whether the nation’s nearly 50-year-old law governing strip-mining needs to be reformed.

“Does this show causation?” May said of the map. “No, not in and of itself, but it does raise more questions that need to be answered and the need for a more formal investigation.” 


We deliver climate news to your inbox like nobody else. Every day or once a week, our original stories and digest of the web’s top headlines deliver the full story, for free.

People who live in the coal country of eastern Kentucky and elsewhere in Central Appalachia have long observed a link between what local residents call “strip jobs” and increased flooding that sometimes sweeps away homes and people during storms. Using satellite photos, scientists have documented the correlation, showing how the most heavily strip-mined region of the Ohio River Basin was also the area most threatened by extreme weather related to climate change, Inside Climate News reported in the fall of 2019.

For residents of eastern Kentucky last summer, the flooding was worse than ever, contributing to at least 44 deaths. Up to 16 inches of rain fell from July 26 to 29, sometimes as heavily as 4 inches per hour. The result was widespread devastation. The 36 deaths plotted on May’s map were those specifically attributed to drowning. 

Flooding Deaths in Coal Country

Given how climate change is supercharging storms, May said it only makes sense for the federal government to take a close look at whether the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act of 1977, which was adopted to protect the public and the environment from destructive  mining practices, is still working. 

“With mining, there’s nothing on the mountain to hold the water back,” said Steve Peake, a resident of Neon, Kentucky whose home and property was damaged by the flooding. “We have strip mining in front of us. We have strip mining behind us,” said Peake, who is also a KFTC volunteer. “We’ve had some floods before, but we never had anything like what came through July 28.”

Oversight ‘Urgently Needed’

In Monday’s letter, the group called for an “active, independent, well-resourced, and comprehensive federal investigation into the extent to which the cumulative impact of surface mining, past and ongoing, exacerbated the devastating toll of lives, homes, businesses and property lost during the flood.”

It requested that the Interior Department’s Office of Surface Mining, Reclamation and Enforcement examine what KFTC described as “the failures” of Kentucky’s Division of Mine Reclamation and Enforcement to make sure the mined lands are quickly and contemporaneously reclaimed. The process generally seeks to restore a mountain’s original contour, eliminate dangerous high-walls of exposed rock, reestablish vegetation and manage chemical-laden runoff.

The group also said that federal assistance and oversight are “urgently needed” because Kentucky regulators do not “seem capable of giving a full accounting of citizen complaints, much less responding to them meaningfully.”

KFTC also sent the letter to a high-ranking Department of Justice official and to several others within the Interior Department.

Last year, Inside Climate News reported that as the coal industry has collapsed, companies had been cited for a rising number of violations at surface mines, and that state regulators had failed to bring a record number of them into compliance, according to documents obtained from a Kentucky Open Records Law request. 

“This is completely out of control,” one top official said in an email to another.

The Interior Department’s press office declined to comment Monday.

John Mura, a spokesman for the Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet, said in a statement that the agency “is in touch with” the Office of Surface Mining, Reclamation and Enforcement “almost daily and has received frequent positive feedback on its oversight of Kentucky mining operations.” 

The cabinet, he said, would welcome from the Interior Department “any analysis of any surface mining contribution to the flooding in eastern Kentucky from the July rain event.” 

The flooding created deep scars in communities and emotional scars in people, May and other activists and public health specialists have said.

In addition to fatalities, the flood also resulted in a major loss of housing in the region. The American Red Cross has reported that 1,648 homes were destroyed or heavily damaged by the flood, KFTC said in its letter.  The group counted more than 1,700 homes as total losses and said nearly 4,000 homes were partial losses. 

“When it rains, my children are afraid it might flood,” Peake said.

Coal Mining Companies Deny Responsibility

Unrelated to the group’s call for an investigation, a lawsuit against two coal mining companies was moved from state to federal court and now has more than 90 plaintiffs, including the estates of dead victims of the flooding.

Attorney Ned Pillersdorf has sued Blackhawk Mining and Pine Branch Mining, claiming strip mining in Breathitt County made flooding worse.

“You got an amount of rain and then a 45-minute tidal wave,” Pillersdorf said on Monday. “That’s what killed these people.” 

“There was a failure to reclaim,” he said, explaining the problem like this: “If you pour a gallon of milk on a table, it will run off all at once. If you put towels down on a table, it will drip off. When you fail to reclaim, that takes away the towels.”

Professional engineer D. Scott Simonton, in a newly filed report on behalf of the plaintiffs in the Blackhawk case, provided examples of several previous floods and how runoff was dramatically increased by mining and offered the results of his preliminary investigation into the 2022 Breathitt County flooding.

“The change in land cover conditions resulting from surface mining operations and failure to properly reclaim mined areas resulted in an increase in peak stormwater runoff,” the Simonton report found. “The significant and sudden increase in intensity and velocity of runoff was the most likely causative factor in the resulting loss of life and clearly exacerbated the resulting property damage.”

The companies, in their court filings, have denied any responsibility for loss of life or property damage.

“Defendants admit only that the eastern part of Kentucky experienced an unprecedented amount of rainfall near the end of July 2022 and that there has been widespread media coverage of the resulting damage and destruction in the area,” their attorneys wrote in response to the lawsuit.  

Neither mining company, they wrote, “caused, contributed to, or are responsible for, in any way, the damages suffered by plaintiffs in connection with the unforeseeable and historic rainfall event.”