Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition

Is a coal slurry impoundment disaster coming to a community near you? 

by Vivian Stockman, Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition  (Dec, 2002)

"These things never break." So said a coal company engineer on October 11, 2000. He was reassuring concerned residents of Perry County, Kentucky about Coastal Coal's plans to build a 560-acre coal-waste slurry impoundment near their homes.

Having lived in the land of King Coal a little too long, the residents weren't comforted by the engineer's comment. They peppered Coastal employees with more questions.

Well, yes, a Coastal engineer conceded, two impoundments in Virginia had partially collapsed into underground mines back in 1996, resulting in some major environmental problems. But not to worry, those impoundment failures prompted federal mine safety officials in 1997 to call for inspections of the (estimated) 653 coal slurry impoundments nationwide. Remedial actions had been recommended in cases where dams presented any danger to communities.

Near their mining operations, often at the heads of hollows, coal companies construct dams from mine refuse. Behind the dam, they create slurry lakes, which store the liquid waste leftover from washing and processing coal. Solids settle to the bottom of the pond, while water clears enough at the top to be reused or discharged. The companies say the slurry contains mostly water, rocks and mud. Activists worry that the slurry contains a witches brew of carcinogenic chemicals used in coal washing and processing. Slurry also probably contains and concentrates potential toxins -- metals such as arsenic, chromium, cadmium, boron, selenium, nickel, and others that are present in coal.

Citizens also worry that the impoundments could fail, releasing a tidal wave of sludge onto downstream communities. Often, these impoundments are associated with mountaintop removal operations, which produce more coal more rapidly than any other form of mining. This means more coal waste than at other operations. The intense blasting at mountaintop removal sites has people worried that the impoundments will suffer structural damage. In 1972, a coal waste dam, of much shoddier construction than present day impoundments, failed at Buffalo Creek, WV, killing 125 people. The disaster prompted the passage of the 1977 Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act (SMCRA).

What the folks at the Perry County meeting didn't know was at the very moment they spoke, a disaster -- the worst ever environmental disaster of its kind -- was unfolding over in Martin County.

Just after midnight on October 11, a Martin County Coal computer operator at Kentucky's largest mountaintop removal site noticed a glitch in a coal conveyor belt system. Workers sent to inspect the problem found a whirlpool of sludge swirling inside the site's 72-acre coal slurry impoundment. The "pond" had sprung a major leak.

A crack had opened up between the bottom of the 2.2 billion gallon impoundment and the underlying underground mine. Before workers could get control of the situation, about 250 million gallons of lava-like black sludge gushed into the mine. The sludge exploded out two mine portals and into two creeks. (The Exxon Valdez oil tanker spill was "only" eleven million gallons of oil.)

Residents along Coldwater Creek and Wolf Creek awoke to a nightmare. Thick black gunk oozed out of the creek banks -- at some points up to ten feet deep, in other spots up to seventy yards wide -- swallowing backyards, gardens and driveways and annihilating fish and other aquatic life. EPA officials said it was miraculous that no (human) life was lost.

Cleanup operations began, creating new disasters as equipment roared in the once quiet hollows, crushing septic tanks, breaking water lines and scraping sludge covered vegetation off stream banks. Residents have spotted backhoe operators "cleaning up" by turning layers of sludge-contaminated soil over into deeper, cleaner soil. At the peak of the cleanup, 500 workers and 300 pieces of equipment -- bulldozers, dredges and tanker trucks -- worked around the clock, costing Martin County Coal $10,000 per hour. Officials estimate the cleanup will cost over $46 million (activists expect it will cost much more) and will take at least six months, although they say a total cleanup is impossible. Some sludge will be stirred every time there is a heavy rain.

The ooze headed downstream, into the Tug Fork of the Big Sandy River, then on towards the Ohio, eventually affecting over 70 miles of waterway. Communities on the Kentucky and West Virginia sides of the river had to shut down their water supply intakes and truck in water to tens of thousands of people. Private water wells were ruined. Schools and some businesses, including an oil refinery and a power generating plant, shut down because of the lack of clean water.

Now, Martin County Coal officials are stating that the "cleanup" is nearly complete, although not a teaspoon of sludge has been exhumed from the Tug Fork and Big Sandy Rivers. Martin County Coal is paying for the cleanup crews, but county, state and federal officials have been called in to deal with fallout from the spill, with taxpayers footing a so-far uncalculated bill. Congress has approved a $2 million dollar study of coal slurry impoundments.

In court documents filed in defense of residents' lawsuits, Martin County Coal, owned by Massey Energy, said this disaster was an "act of God." Lawyers at work debunking the company's preposterous claims include Jan Schlichtmann, whose work on another environmental pollution case inspired the book and movie A Civil Action.

In 1994, this same impoundment leaked 8 million gallons of goo. After that spill, federal Mine Health and Safety Administration (MSHA) officials recommended the remedial action of sealing some of the underground mine portals below the pond. Now MSHA officials admit they aren't certain their recommendations were followed. Even so, the facility passed a state inspection on September 22, less than three weeks before the disaster.

For evaluating permits, MSHA and state environmental agencies rely on company-generated maps, including maps of any mine works that might lie under impoundments. This particular impoundment was supposed to have about 75 feet of rock between the bottom of the pond and the ceiling of the underlying room and pillar mine. (MSHA says impoundments within 100 feet of mines are supposed to be rated a "high" risk for failure. Nonetheless, even after the 1994 breakthrough, this impoundment was rated as having a "moderate" risk of failure.)

After the disaster, MSHA conducted drilling tests, which have proved the maps were wrong. In places there is less than ten feet of rock between the impoundment's floor and the ceiling of the old mine. On Feb. 14, 2001, MSHA ordered the pond permanently closed. The state of Kentucky required Martin County Coal to submit a plan for closing the impoundment within 30 days. The Kentucky Environmental Quality Commission, a board that has no legal teeth when it comes to requiring change, has recommended that coal slurry ponds be phased out of existence and replaced by technologies that dry coal waste.

Martin County Coal is appealing both MSHA's and the state's orders, contending that the maps are not wrong and promising to continue efforts to reopen the impoundment--for the sake of jobs, of course--which has not had any more slurry added since the disaster.

Across Appalachia, there are hundreds of similar impoundments, many much bigger and dozens of which have been rated a greater risk for potential failure than the one at Martin County Coal. MSHA estimates there are 213 impoundments built over old underground mines. Of course, that number could rise, given the new doubt cast on coal company maps.


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