By Vicki Smith
West Virginia regulators have made many changes to ensure massive coal slurry ponds don’t fail from the bottom and flood underground mines, but federal officials said Thursday they must do more to document and reduce risks from nearby mining activity.
Mining has the potential to destabilize loose or liquefied contents, and it’s not good enough to rely on mine maps that may be outdated and inaccurate, the Office of Surface Mining and Reclamation Enforcement said in its third report on West Virginia’s 132 slurry impoundments.
Field director Roger Calhoun said OSM issued a variety of recommendations that the state Department of Environmental Protection is voluntarily embracing, but “not because we found any dire conditions.”
“We don’t have any imminent threats to be taken care of,” he said.
West Virginia has already taken action where it knew mining was occurring, Calhoun said. “What we’ve said is, look again at minable seams” and rely on drilling, remote sensing technologies and other tools to ensure that mine activity is not happening.
“If there’s not mining,” he said in a conference call with reporters, “there’s no risk.”
The reviews began after the massive failure of a former Massey Energy impoundment in Martin County, Ky., in 2000.
Slurry burst through the bottom of a 68-acre holding pond, sending black goo through an underground mine and into 100 miles of waterways. The spill polluted the water supply of more than a dozen communities and killed aquatic life before reaching the Ohio River.
OSM says there have been three smaller failures, all in Virginia, since 1996.
West Virginia has more slurry impoundments than any other state, but it hasn’t had a major failure since 1972, when the earthen dam at Buffalo Creek collapsed after heavy rain. The ensuing flood killed 125 people, injured 1,100 others and left some 4,000 homeless.
Calhoun said his agency reviewed 15 sites for the latest report, and it’s planning similar reviews of impoundments in six other states — Kentucky, Maryland, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, and Virginia. Completing that will take about three years.
Critics of the coal industry have long complained that operators and regulators are ignoring stricter construction standards that could prevent future impoundment failures. For at least a decade, they say, 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 — an unstable base that creates hazards for people and the environment downstream.
The industry, however, argues impoundments are the best-engineered, most-scrutinized earthen structures in the world.
The West Virginia Coal Association said it has cooperated with regulators “to improve the technical analysis” of impoundments. But Vice President Jason Bostic said Thursday it’s disappointed with the current OSM review, “which has been conducted largely behind closed doors with little or no outreach or communication” with operators.
“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,” Bostic complained. “Sensationalism has never advanced meaningful dialogue and progress with respect to developing a path forward.”
In all, there are nearly 600 coal slurry impoundments in 21 states, including 104 in Kentucky.
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 and, less commonly, disposing of it with a costly dry filter-press process.
OSM laid out several continuing concerns about West Virginia’s regulatory system, including the practice of allowing smaller ponds or “slurry cells” to be built on top of larger ponds once they’re capped with solid material. The contents under the cap could still be loose or liquid, and the increasing pressure from the smaller cells could increase the likelihood of a breakthrough, it said.
Under current rules, the state takes no special precautions when new mining begins near a capped site.
The report also found that DEP inspectors often lack knowledge of the details for impoundment closure plans and that DEP files often lack records critical to determining whether an impoundment is compliant.
Jim Pierce, a senior engineer in DEP’s mining division, said the state has been revising its rules since 2003 and will adopt the federal recommendations.
“We’re going to embrace those and carry those out,” he said.
That includes requiring more detailed, engineer-certified evaluations from companies and applying the most conservative approach to the safety zones around both the impoundment basins and embankments.