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WVDEP checking impoundments near explosion site

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- West Virginia regulators are conducting special inspections of four coal-slurry impoundments in the vicinity of the Massey Energy Upper Big Branch Mine where an explosion this week killed 25 workers, injured two others and left four miners missing.

Department of Environmental Protection inspectors visited one of the four impoundments on Wednesday and examined three others Thursday, officials said. Those inspections turned up no problems, officials said.

So far, DEP inspectors are focused on whether the forces from the massive underground explosion Monday afternoon caused any safety or stability problems with the coal-slurry impoundments, DEP officials said.

But as investigations begin into the worst U.S. coal mining disaster in a quarter century, officials are also expected to look into whether blasting from surface mining operations nearby could have played any role at all in the underground blast.

Tom Clarke, director of the DEP Division of Mining and Reclamation, said he has no reason to think any surface mining blasting had anything to do with the disaster -- or that any of the four impoundments suffered any damage from the underground blast.

"I wouldn't anticipate there would be a problem," Clarke said. "I think it would be idle speculation."

But Clarke said his agency would be consulting with mine safety officials and investigators.

"As the investigation proceeds, I'm sure we'll cooperate fully," Clarke said.

The four impoundments include one called Browns Branch, another called Little Big Branch, the Brushy Fork impoundment, and the Shumate Impoundment, a huge slurry dam just upstream from Marsh Fork Elementary School, where media covering the mine disaster have been camped out this week.

The impoundment and a related coal processing plant, located adjacent to the Marsh Fork school, have been the focus of mountaintop removal protests for several years.

Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kward@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.


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