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Critic questions way coal firms build slurry ponds
Friday - 12/7/2012, 9:12am EST
By VICKI SMITH
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. (AP) - With a driver and his bulldozer missing in a thick, dark lake of coal slurry, a mine safety expert and critic of the coal industry says regulators are ignoring stricter construction standards that could prevent more failures at hundreds of similar dam-like structures around the country.
For at least a decade, state and federal regulators have allowed coal companies to build or expand the massive ponds of gray liquid and silt atop loose and wet coal waste, said Jack Spadaro, an engineering consultant and former director of the National Mine Health and Safety Academy.
"They're building on top of the existing slurry, and therein lies the problem," Spadaro said. "It's wet and it has no stability. It's creating hazards for all of us downstream."
In all, there are 596 coal slurry impoundments in 21 states. West Virginia has 114, more than any other state, according to the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration. Kentucky has 104, while Illinois is third with 71.
Slurry is a byproduct of washing coal to help it burn more cleanly. Companies have disposed of the dirty water and solids in various ways over the years, injecting it into abandoned mines, damming it in huge ponds like the one at Robinson Run and, less commonly, disposing of it with a costly dry filter-press process.
Spadaro's criticisms follow the Nov. 30 failure of a section of embankment at Consol Energy's Robinson Run mine slurry pond near Lumberport in the north-central part of West Virginia. Two workers escaped after pickup trucks slid into the massive pond, but the dozer and driver are missing.
"Since we're still in recovery mode and have barely begun the investigation, it would be premature to comment at this time," MSHA spokesman Amy Louviere said.
The West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection also declined comment on Spadaro's charges, but Bill Raney, president of the West Virginia Coal Association, said impoundment failures are rare.
"These are the most scrutinized and most engineered earthen structures in the world, certainly in this country," he said. "They're monitored routinely. They have lots of eyes looking at them. ... Anytime there's a heavy rainfall, the agencies are out there looking at them."Pennsylvania-based Consol was working to raise the elevation of the impoundment when the accident happened, vice president for safety Tom Barletta said. Once the worker is found, the company will determine what happened "so we can learn from it and prevent similar incidents from occurring in the future," Barletta said.
The pond encompasses about 78 acres and is estimated to hold at least 1.6 billion gallons of wastewater, the equivalent of more than 2,500 Olympic-sized swimming pools.
Impoundments typically hold up over time. But they do fail, and in spectacular fashion.
In 1972, an earthen dam in Buffalo Creek in southern West Virginia collapsed after heavy rain, unleashing 130 million gallons of water, sludge and debris that killed 125 people, injured 1,100 and left 4,000 homeless.
Spadaro dedicated his life to preventing that sort of disaster from happening again and helped write the nearly 40-year-old regulations that are now on the books to guide slurry pond construction. The regulations give the government and coal companies detailed design, compaction strength and other criteria so the structures will withstand internal pressures and additional stress from big rain storms.
The regulations require the operator to do daily, quarterly and annual inspections, while the state must make monthly checks. MSHA relies partly on data provided by the companies to spot problems, which critics see as a weakness in the system.
Spadaro is not the only one to question the soundness of impoundments.
Retired miner-turned-activist Joe Stanley raised concerns over the Brushy Fork impoundment in southern West Virginia last year, but his complaints were dismissed by state regulators, and their decision was upheld by the federal Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement.
Stanley called Bushy Fork "the biggest and the baddest" of all impoundments and said MSHA inspectors routinely found violations during its construction. But fines weren't levied and construction wasn't stopped.
"They just let them keep going, and then they say, `Well, there's no way to fix this now, so let's just change the plan.' They're hodge-podging this stuff."
He heavily criticized state regulators and said if it weren't for MSHA, "I think all the damn things would fall down. Immediately."
Just two years ago, MSHA said it had improved oversight of impoundments, with better training and a new handbook on dam management.