Corruption muddies the waters.
The people who live in Phelps, Kentucky are concerned about a chemical spill that occurred last weekend. Many feel they have been left in the dark since the Kentucky Department of Environmental Protection and the property owners have yet to name or provide information about the toxic industrial substance that caused a mile-long fish kill in Peters Creek – upstream from their water intake.
It happened Saturday afternoon (June 13) at the site of BMM, Inc. – a vacant site owned by former Kentucky State Representative W. Keith Hall. An unknown substance leaked from unlabeled and deteriorating containers on the property. State officials say there are 27 300-gallon totes remaining outside the building and 55 gallon drums and poly-tanks were inside.
Established in 2003, BMM, Inc. is listed as a company that handles chemicals and allied products – some sources call it a “mining company”.
This isn’t the first such spill at the site. On April 4 2014, then-State Representative Hall was found to have leaked an unknown amount of a chemical in to his constituents’ water supply. In that instance, Hall claimed the substance was likely “Dust Away”” – a dust suppressant. He claimed 55 gallons of the product spilled inside the building and subsequently leaked outside and into the creek. No sample was taken by the Kentucky Division of Water. Photos of the incident show a white, foamy liquid pouring into Peters Creek, which flows into the Tug Fork of the Big Sandy River and upriver from a drinking-water intake. Five days later what was described as a gel-like substance was still seeping from the building.
In 2000, Hall was elected to the Kentucky House of Representatives – where he engaged in a lengthy and complex pattern of corruption. In 2011, he was reprimanded by the Ethics Commission and fined $2,000 for appropriating coal severance taxes to a Pike County sewer project in which one of his companies received $171,000 in no-bid contracts. Playing “fast and loose with the rules” Hall used his influence as to push through permits for Pike County coal mines despite their records of safety and environmental violations. In 2014, he was finally unseated from his post in the statehouse when Pike County Magistrate Chris Harris narrowly defeated Hall in the democratic primary election for the 93rd House District.
In March 2016, US District Judge Karen Caldwell sentenced the 56 year old former state rep to seven years in prison for bribing a state inspector and using his influence to have that inspector assigned to Pike County coal mines. Hall was also fined $25,000. Specifically, Hall paid $46,000 for Kelly Shortridge, an inspector with the Kentucky Division of Mine Reclamation and Enforcement, to look the other way on mining violations in his county. In doing so, he sought to expand his biggest mine of 183 acres to a massive 674 acres. Inspector Shortridge pled guilty to accepting bribery and was sentenced to two years in prison.
These factors have undermined the credibility of DEP – the government entity charged with regulation. The townspeople of Phelps are left to wonder if their water is safe for human consumption – and what they can do to find out exactly what is in there.
Our friends and neighbors in Phelps, Kentucky have reached out to RCNN for help. If you have information, photos, or comments about this investigation, please contact Callie Lyons at firstname.lastname@example.org.