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OSM says state didn't address coal dam risks

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CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- West Virginia regulators have not adequately examined the risks that coal-slurry impoundments across the state could break into adjacent underground mine workings and cause a disaster like the one more than a decade ago in Martin County, Ky., federal investigators said in a report released Thursday.

U.S. Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement engineers outlined weaknesses in safety reviews discovered in a four-year examination of practices at the state Department of Environmental Protection.

OSM said that state officials should review more closely 132 impoundments across the state's coalfields, and force mine operators to provide more concrete proof that the "breakthrough potential" at their impoundments has been controlled.

"What we've said is, 'Look again'," said Roger Calhoun, director of OSM's field office in Charleston.

Among the DEP lapses identified by the federal agency:

  • Mine operators with impoundments considered to have a "high potential for breakthrough" into underground mines were allowed to close them, and build smaller waste dams - called "slurry cells" - on top of the old facilities, without additional study of whether the conversion would be safe.
  • New underground mining was allowed to begin inside "safety zones" within 100 or 200 feet of capped slurry impoundments without the companies first demonstrating that the slurry previously dumped there had hardened so that it could no longer flow into the voids left by mining.
  • Current mine maps were inadequate to judge where mining had taken place near impoundments, yet DEP and coal operators did not take other steps to fully investigate the extent of that mining.
  • Officials from OSM and DEP both emphasized that the federal review found no evidence of an "imminent threat" of a breakthrough, but the study examined only 15 of the industry's existing 132 slurry impoundments. OSM said it plans similar studies in six other states: Kentucky, Maryland, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, and Virginia.

    DEP issued a statement confirming that it had agree to take actions to respond to the OSM review as part of the state's "continued effort to use the most conservative approach to ensure the safety [of] all dam control structures under our jurisdiction." DEP's actions are expected to take about three years to complete.

    When mine operators process coal for market, they generate huge amounts of waste rock and coal particles mixed with water, which they usually dispose of in giant impoundments. Larger chunks of refuse are used to build dams, and liquid "slurry" waste is pumped into the basins.

    While regulators and industry officials say these facilities are safe, coalfield residents have lived in fear of coal-slurry dams since February 1972, when the collapse of a series of dams on Buffalo Creek in Logan County killed 125 people.

    After Buffalo Creek, mining regulators focused mostly on making sure the dam structures themselves at coal-waste impoundments were safe.

    At Martin County, the floor fell out of Massey Energy's Big Branch Impoundment in October 2000. More than 300 million gallons of slurry - 28 times larger than the Exxon Valdez oil spill - poured into adjacent underground mines. From there, the slurry flowed out into two local streams, and into the Tug Fork of the Big Sandy River, along the West Virginia-Kentucky border. Workers and residents escaped injury. But lawns were buried up to 7 feet deep, and all of the fish in two streams were killed. Drinking water supplies were fouled along more than 60 miles of the Big Sandy.

    OSM released the 184-page impoundment breakthrough report during a Thursday afternoon press conference, an unusual move for an agency that issues dozens of reviews of state agency practices without generally seeking media coverage of them.

    DEP Secretary Randy Huffman said he questioned the need for a press conference. But Kathy Cosco, the state agency's communications director, and senior engineer Jim Pierce spoke at the OSM event, offering a much more reserved tone than West Virginia regulators have sounded in most of their dealings with the Obama administration over mining issues in the last four years.

    The West Virginia Coal Association, though, blasted OSM for the report and for the way it was made public.

    "The agency never requested any information from the industry that may have satisfied their concerns, nor did they contact the industry to make them aware of the pending release of these reports or today's media event," association vice president Jason Bostic said in a statement. "Sensationalism has never advanced meaningful dialogue and progress with respect to developing a path forward."

    Pierce said that state officials take the safety of coal-slurry dams very seriously, and have worked hard - with a major 2001 order and a new set of rules in 2003 -- since Martin County to address concerns about breakthroughs.

    "West Virginia hasn't been sitting idly by doing nothing," Pierce said.

    But some of the issues raised by the new OSM report were also brought up in previous federal reviews released in 2005 and 2008, and the latest OSM document in places paints a picture of inaction by DEP.

    For example, OSM highlighted one incident in which an impoundment operator continued to dump slurry at a site that DEP had ordered closed because of concerns about a breakthrough. "The operator's attempts to convert the facility were unsuccessful, but in the meantime 10 years have elapsed with 'occasional' use without clear follow-up on the state's order to close the facility," OSM said.

    Among other problems, OSM officials focused on what they called "an over-reliance on mine maps" that do not provide "sufficient evidence that mining has not occurred" on areas close to coal-slurry impoundment basins.

    In a statement, DEP said that it now plans to require mine operators to "provide additional written documentation evaluating and detailing" the extent of underground mining near impoundments."

    But during the OSM press conference, Pierce said that DEP may not always require mine operators to provide additional proof -- through underground drilling or other testing -- and may sometimes continue to rely on mine maps.

    "One size does not fit all," Pierce said. "It's going to be site-specific."Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kward@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.


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