As West Virginia regulators publicly tout the $72,000 in fines they’ll collect from Patriot Coal for a high-profile slurry spill four months ago, Department of Environmental Protection officials are also quietly finalizing new requirements for more comprehensive water quality testing at the state’s coal-processing plants.
The new water sampling mandate, still several weeks from being issued formally, is aimed at helping DEP to trace potential contamination of rivers and streams with chemicals — like the MCHM involved in the January Freedom Industries tank farm spill — used in the coal cleaning and preparation process.
“It’s going to be wholistic for any processing facility,” said Harold Ward, acting director of the DEP Division of Mining and Reclamation.
Details are still being finalized, but Ward said the DEP plans to order preparation plant operators to conduct periodic testing at various locations, including inside slurry impoundments and at discharge points from clean coal stockpiles. Sampling will be required for all materials used by those facilities, Ward said.
Ward and DEP spokeswoman Kelley Gillenwater revealed the agency’s plans in response to Charleston Gazette questions about water quality monitoring the state performed at coal-preparation facilities following the January spill at Freedom Industries, which contaminated the Elk River drinking water supply with the coal-cleaning chemical MCHM, and about the DEP’s response to the Feb. 11 slurry spill at Patriot’s Kanawha Eagle processing facility on Fields Creek in Kanawha County.
On Wednesday, DEP announced that it had reached a deal with Patriot to resolve enforcement actions related to that spill, with Patriot agreeing to pay $72,245 and complete a more than $100,000 project for additional safeguards against future such incidents. The company signed a formal consent order a week ago.
Among other things, the consent order states that Patriot violated the state’s Groundwater Protection Act — a statute rarely used in coal enforcement cases — by not accurately reporting to DEP that it had begun at some point using MCHM at the Kanawha Eagle plant, but then stopped using the chemical after the Freedom leak on Jan. 9, but before the slurry spill on Feb. 11.
The Kanawha Eagle spill, into Fields Creek and the Kanawha River, received far more media attention than most coal-slurry spills, likely because it occurred just weeks after the Freedom incident and witnesses who were at the Fields Creek site smelled the licorice odor Kanawha Valley residents had come to associate with MCHM.
In the hours after the Fields Creek spill, there was conflicting information from the DEP about whether the Kanawha Eagle had used MCHM. While coal slurry contains a variety of substances likely more toxic than MCHM, the Freedom leak led media coverage and public concerns to focus on the MCHM.
But the DEP’s response to the Patriot incident also revealed the agency wasn’t sure exactly what to test downstream water for to determine potential impacts from the slurry spill, Ward said. Currently, most water quality testing required of coal companies focuses on chemicals for which the state has water quality standards. Many coal-cleaning plant chemicals don’t fall into that category, officials said.
“It’s a hole that we have,” Ward said. “The worst thing you can do is not learn from these situations.”
The safety of coal-slurry dams has long been a major concern for many coalfield residents, and in recent years several major lawsuits have alleged significant water quality contamination caused by various types of slurry disposal, including impoundment leaks and underground injection.
The environmental groups Appalachian Voices and Coal River Mountain Watch had conducted its own water quality testing following the Fields Creek spill and in mid-March wrote to Ward to recommend a much more complete battery of regular sampling be required by coal preparation plant operators.
Erin Savage, a water quality specialist for Appalachian Voices, said Wednesday that she wants to see more details of DEP’s plans, but that the concept sounds like a significant step forward.
“This sounds great to me,” Savage said. “This is surprisingly positive.”
Reach Ken Ward Jr. at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-1702.