Feds questioning construction of state slurry dams
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. -- A draft report kept under wraps since 2011 shows federal engineers are concerned about construction techniques, quality-control procedures and possible compaction problems at seven West Virginia coal slurry dams subjected to surprise inspections.
The citizens' group Sludge Safety Project obtained a one-page summary of the report that the federal Office of Surface Mining and Reclamation has refused to release under the Freedom of Information Act. Some residents of the coalfields have long worried that massive impoundments were improperly built and could fail, unleashing a destructive and potentially fatal flood of sludge and black water.
"To date,'' however, "OSM has not found any indication that any coal slurry impoundment is in imminent danger of failure,'' spokesman Chris Holmes said. "Had it done so, OSM would have taken action immediately.''
Holmes said the report is a draft that's far from completion, and more testing and data analysis are needed.
"The bottom line is this: Good science and engineering takes time and effort to complete,'' he said, "and that is what OSM is committed to doing.''
A report the agency issued in January on the potential for bottom failures of slurry impoundments took 10 years to complete. This 20-page report was not finalized because Charleston Field Office director Roger Calhoun had concerns about incomplete and unverified data, Holmes said.
This is the first time a federal agency has studied whether the material inside coal slurry ponds is properly drying and compacting, even though some West Virginia impoundments are 30-40 years old.
Rob Goodwin, who monitors impoundments for the Sludge Safety Project and Coal River Mountain Watch, said the review is long overdue. He said the report summary shows that state and federal regulators must stop accepting self-reported data from coal companies and conduct their own independent, comprehensive examinations.
The West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection didn't immediately comment.
Regulators should also impose a moratorium on the expansion of existing impoundments, Goodwin said, especially the Brushy Fork dam built by the former Massey Energy Co. near Whitesville.
Federal regulators recently approved plans by the current owner, Virginia-based Alpha Natural Resources, to expand what is already one of the nation's biggest coal slurry impoundments to a height taller than the Hoover Dam. The plan would increase the volume of waste to 8.5 billion gallons.
"Citizens have worried about construction methods and impoundment stability for more than a decade,'' Goodwin said, "yet state and federal agencies have insisted they're safe and meet legal requirements.''
The problem, he said, is those determinations rely on the companies to provide "honest and accurate data.''
Neighbors worry about Brushy Fork because the engineer long responsible for the impoundment was also involved in illegal ventilation plans at Massey's Upper Big Branch mine, where an April 2010 explosion killed 29 men.
The Mine Safety and Health Administration later discovered Massey maintained two sets of safety records, one sanitized to mislead inspectors.
The engineering firm Massey used on Brushy Fork was also linked to the 2000 failure of a Massey impoundment in Martin County, Ky. Slurry burst through the bottom of a 68-acre holding pond, sending black goo through an underground mine and into 100 miles of waterways.
That spill polluted the water supply of more than a dozen communities and killed aquatic life before reaching the Ohio River.
Slurry is the soupy waste created when coal is washed to help it burn more cleanly.
In central Appalachia, companies use impoundments to dispose of "coarse refuse,'' or larger pieces of rock separated from coal, and "fine refuse,'' or clay, silt and sand-size particles. Fine refuse is pumped into the reservoir behind the coarse refuse. Over time, the "fines'' are supposed to settle to the bottom, compressing and solidifying.
But the report summary says inspections at the West Virginia impoundments raise questions about whether theory is reality: It says coarse refuse is "primarily low-plasticity silt with rock fragments and some clay,'' materials that are typically harder to dry out and compress.
That material often arrives at the disposal site wet and in cold weather that makes it impossible to control moisture content, the report says. Bulldozers are then used to compact the material, even though they're designed to work with soil and loose earth.
"Results of the testing tend to indicate that the coarse refuse is not consistently being compacted in accordance with approved specifications,'' the summary says.
All seven impoundments failed field density tests, the report said. Of 73 total tests, only 16 produced passing results.
In all, there are nearly 600 coal slurry impoundments in 21 states.
West Virginia has the most with 114, 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 and left 4,000 homeless.
The Brushy Fork impoundment was built in the 1990s by Marfork Coal Co., a Massey subsidiary. Since 2009, Brushy Fork has held 6.5 billion gallons of waste that new owner Alpha says is mostly solid.
But emergency plans show that if the impoundment failed, a 100-foot wave would reach Sherman High School in 17 minutes.