By Vicki Smith
Investigators began interviewing witnesses Tuesday and looking for the cause of an embankment collapse that dumped a bulldozer driver and two engineers into a massive Consol Energy coal slurry pond last week.
Four days after the accident near Shinnston in Harrison County, the company and the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration were slowly moving toward the recovery of the dozer from the soupy wastewater at Consol’s Robinson Run slurry impoundment. The dozer’s operator is missing and presumed drowned.
MSHA spokeswoman Amy Louviere said she was reluctant to put a time frame on the operation, “but it could take a while.”
MSHA used flatbed trucks to bring barges to the recovery site as crews dredged around the shoreline so the barges can be launched once they’re assembled.
Small boats will maneuver the barges into place, and a certified marine surveyor will confirm the loads they can hold. The barges are about 12 feet wide and 36 feet long, like those that move coal along rivers, and they’ll serve as the platform for the operation, Louviere said. Fifty-foot pipes will anchor the recovery platform.
Louviere said the plan is to sink sheet pilings into the pond around the dozer, walling it off.
The dozer is believed to be stuck 25-35 feet in the slurry, the refuse and solid material that sit beneath about 10-12 feet of dirty water. Slurry is the waste created when coal is washed to help it burn more cleanly.
Crews would pump the slurry out from around the dozer, Louviere said, and replace it with water so divers can enter and search for the missing operator. He has not been identified.
It’s unclear how the bulldozer will be removed, but Pennsylvania-based Consol has scheduled a technical briefing for the news media for this afternoon.
Though a 200-by-200-foot section of the pond’s embankment failed Friday, Louviere said there was no risk to the public because the structural problems were inside, not outside, the impoundment.
The pond encompasses about 78 acres and is estimated to hold between 1.6 billion and 1.9 billion gallons of wastewater, said state Department of Environmental Protection spokeswoman Kathy Cosco.
That’s the equivalent of about 2,500-2,900 Olympic-sized swimming pools, each of which holds about 600,000 gallons.
The impoundment is permitted to hold 3.4 billion gallons, Cosco said, but typically operates well below that volume.
The mine was idled over the weekend, and production has not yet resumed.
The engineers who went into the slurry suffered no life-threatening injuries.